At the Heart of This Tragedy

Last Saturday, a terrible thing happened.

I don't think I need to state what that was. You know. And it is hurting all of us-- so many of us--at once.

What happened on Saturday is saturated in confusion and anger, in so many ways. It might not be for months, maybe longer, before we find out something resembling the whole truth about Jared Lee Loughner. What he was wanting to prove. What he was thinking he'd fix. What pushed him over the edge. What we have right now, though, are angry voices everywhere. The extreme actions of someone with extreme beliefs are causing more polarization amongst those of us who remain frustrated, sucker-punched and hurting. And so the discussion turns to if we should blame icons of cross hairs on political maps or The Communist Manifesto*. Everyone is scrambling to shout "This guy was not one of US!", as if there are any blameless sides to be had.

And no one seems to be--ever-- reflecting on the collective culture of violence and death which stands to threaten us all.

We can talk about being a nation of peace, but we seem to relish war and offense on a regular basis. Our televisions and  movies are full of it; showcasing the most base and vulgar human beings in our country and making celebrities of people who act out angrily, yet continue to be popular for their fighting and outrageousness, glorifying it. Daily, children play video games which depict people doing horrible things to each other in realistic settings, and thus these acts are normalized for them. Intention is everything, and allowing our children to make the choice, even in play, to hurt, slap, fight, shoot and kill teaches them to become familiar with that feeling of intention. Even if they would never do anything physical to anyone else, they do come closer to the actual act than if they'd never done it to begin with. I'm old school: I'm still appalled that a person called a 'retailer' would make a conscious decision to sell this sort of product, knowing they're peddling the promise of violence for filthy profit. I'm appalled that an adult would want to spend their time this way, or feel that this is an allowable use of their time. I'm not talking battling mythical creatures or children pretending to fight dragons, I'm talking about human characters brutally killing one other.

Even the most innocuous talk radio, NPR, the most calm and reasoned in the mainstream, has whole days of litanies about who was wounded, maimed, killed, here, overseas, in your own backyard. The word 'dead' peppers the daily news often enough that I can't listen to this station when my son is present. How can he experience the world as a safe place when the news is an endless retelling of violence? They must report, and so we parents quickly turn down the volume, cheerfully blabbing away at our kids, hoping they haven't heard "Six people dead and more than a dozen injured...", and that they didn't see that moment of terror and sadness on our faces.

I don't understand this at all. I don't understand the rhetoric and noise of a culture that plays at normalizing violence and then acts horrified when it happens. I know there are many, many families who teach peace who are trying to explain this to their children, those which are old enough to understand that what happened was so incredibly wrong and frightening. These are the same conversations we will have with our children when police shoot a mentally ill person, or when one country practices flat-out genocide, or pictures of prisoners being tortured appear on the newsstand. We are doing our best to keep our kids heads afloat, teaching them to dog-paddle through this morass of rhetoric and finger-pointing to say "Keep striving to do what's right. Keep what is best about your humanity. When violence is used, no side ever wins. Ever. We can do better. We should be better than this."

I think of Mr. Rogers, and how he understood the necessity--for the fate of the world-- to teach our children to master their anger. To choose the higher path, whenever possible. To be "the master of the mad that you feel". Extremists are those who fall through the cracks... they might be educated, but what they missed out on was that one critical piece of social development: to think before one acts. To consider what's right before one does. This lack of skill doesn't know a political party or position: it adopts one as justification for its actions. Fuel for the fire, heat for the anger. The tendency for the anger to be in control is always there for some, and the helplessness underlying that anger must be enormous. People who feel competent and confident within themselves know how to enact satisfying change in their lives without hurting others to gain a sense of power. Extremism has nothing to do with a love for anything; there's nothing in these acts other than acute fear.

Fear, too, is on the march. Last year, Steven Colbert nicely jested us about it, to get us used to the idea, but the fact is that there is a lot of fear out there. The surveys on politics and religion from both the Pew Charitable Trust and the Public Religion Institute confirm this; people are becoming a little more wiggy about things we used to not sweat so much. Yet, as a parent, it's my job not to translate that fear to my child, to instead contain those feelings and to teach him that fear is nothing more than a feeling, even a terrifying one. How we react to those fears--in anger, or in search of more understanding, even as we hold our sorrow too--will teach our children to be braver, to make the higher choices and to put themselves in charge of their feelings, instead of the opposite. In the weeks and months ahead, as this case goes forward to trial and we try to reconcile ourselves to the idea that this was an isolated incident, let us forget the finger-pointing and instead move forward, mastering the mad that we feel and being willing to love and grieve with each other, despite our differences. It is all we can do.

As my husband said, as the first of this firestorm began: "With a position of responsibility comes the obligation to speak responsibly." We, as parents, must do this. Let's hope all of our leaders can follow this example.

*By no means a go-to book for liberals or lefties, at least not the ones I know, so I'm not sure how that got dragged into the conversation, other than the desire to blame and sensationalize and disassociate.


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