By Vincent P. Ward
(Note: A slightly edited version of this essay was published in "The State" newspaper, Columbia, SC op/ed pages on Friday, February 15, 2013.)
The horror in Newtown has triggered loud debates and cries for change. Whatever the outcomes, preventive impact will be minimal. Improved gun control might reduce the damage a shooter can do, but is that enough? And the gun culture’s proposals, armed teachers and/or guards, are scary because they’re serious. Deliberately create a permanent siege mentality in our schools? Make gunfighters out of our teachers? Put our kids in a certain psychological, and potentially literal, crossfire? Really?
Revising the mental health system won’t help either. Adam Lanza already had a diagnosis, but it didn’t predict violence. And most mass shooters, according to a forensic psychiatrist who wrote a book about it, are not “diagnosably mentally ill.” My profession’s ability to detect the next killer is unlikely to improve much.
The truth is, the deep psychic issues leading to our American brand of individual violence simply do not often manifest in behavior that leads to detection, let alone diagnosis. To understand how we produce loners who slaughter the innocents for unfathomable reasons, we must examine our own national soul.
Pogo was right: “I have met the enemy, and he is us.” In America we delude ourselves that things, money and power will keep us happy and safe. This feeds the ego, but denies the soul its true needs: meaning and connection to others. Without that “soul food,” people live with diminished purpose, alienated and disconnected from almost everyone and everything. Unable to participate in life, they may rage against it, targeting the living – most tragically, in Adam Lanza’s case, children, who embody life’s joy and exuberance.
There is a “tipping point” of numbers of such lost souls at which the soul of the community and culture become lost as well. Individual acts of murder and mayhem become epidemic. A siege mentality develops as more and more people arm themselves for safety. Shootouts become more common and acceptable. I fear that in America, we may have already passed that tipping point.
Yet we are not helpless. There are two “forces” in us that can re-ensoul individual people and – eventually – community and culture. The first is wisdom. It develops naturally (though not inevitably) from the cumulative experience of struggle, defeat, and victory; of joy and pain, love and loss, over a lifetime. Together, the Old Ones’ job is to carry that experience for the entire culture, transform it into wisdom that offers meaning, and share it with the people. This becomes the glue that holds diverse generational, political, ethnic, and religious cohorts together in a common cultural and human story. In America, our fear of death has led us to segregate and sideline old people to avoid looking our own future in the eye. Elder wisdom is stillborn, and people become unglued.
The second force is grief. You and I must weep for the damage done by those whose souls are lost: the children of Sandy Hook, the moviegoers in Aurora, the deaths in our two Middle Eastern wars, the Jewish and Native American Holocausts, the women and children beaten and killed by American and Muslim husbands and fathers . . . and so on. Grief is an emotion hardwired into the human psyche for exactly this purpose: it is nature’s balance for violence and death. It’s a kind of love, so it can reconnect us – as it did, too briefly, after 9-11 and Sandy Hook.
Grief and wisdom can inspire the cultural re-ensoulment we need to prevent more Newtowns. Allowing them to re-enter our Selves requires time – and courage. That word comes from the French coeur, which means “heart.” So we must look beyond our current debates, and transform them into heartfelt soul-searching. Look to our own hearts, and contribute to the cultural U-turn that will take us back across the tipping point. Acknowledge our personal lostness. Recognize that our hunger for things, power, and control is ego-driven. Choose real soul food: Resolve to respect age and allow grief. Take heart; live a heartfelt life; weep, suffer, age and die; and love no matter what. Create a world with more meaning and connection than lostness and rage – for the sake of the children.
To refuse this responsibility is to sacrifice them, to say nothing of our own souls.