I was going to write about stress management this month, but one of the ultimate stressors, violent and terrorist-triggered death is front and center in the wake of yet another mass shooting.
As we search to find meaning and sense in the senseless, most of us look to the easy and obvious solutions. We must do something about gun control. We must provide mental health care. We must fix racism. We must write and pass laws.
Is it any wonder that nothing gets done when we’re wringing our hands and asking others to do something, yet we do nothing and take no responsibility for getting that something done?
It’s all a charade, and I think, deep down, we all know there’s more to a solution than passing a few laws. Sure, regulating guns at least as well as we regulate driving privileges is a good idea. It might even preserve a few lives. But gun control alone won’t solve the violence in our society, no matter how worthy the cause. And, absolutely, taking care of those who suffer from mental health illness is important and a worthy cause. We’re likely to prevent even more deaths, largely by preventing suicides, if we help ease the suffering of those who suffer quietly with depression, anxiety, and even psychosis.
Let’s not kid ourselves, though. Gun control and mental health care aren’t going to fix the problem. At best, they can resolve a few symptoms. The real problem is this:
We have created a culture in which we have glorified the neglect of one another. We have taken our national myth of the rugged individualist too far. It’s become an every man for himself (and every woman for herself) society.
We’ve done it to ourselves in hundreds of little ways. We compete too much and cooperate too little. We connect with our own tribe and demonize The Other. We deny the basics of food and shelter for the poor and most vulnerable in our country. We forget that we are social animals, which means we aren’t properly socializing our youth to maintain society. Most get by, but those who get left along the margins can and will behave in anti-social ways. Add guns and the glorify of making a splashy impact, and you have a perfect prescription for mass shootings.
We can talk about changing rules and regulations and, yes, those are necessary steps, but we must do more. Fortunately, the something that must be done is not overwhelming. It’s not something that only large and powerful groups like elected officials or the National Guard must do because it’s too big for any one individual. In fact, it’s the opposite. ONLY the cumulative effect of individual actions can change our culture in ways that diminish the glorification of the taking of human life or other violent terrorist acts. Only individual action can create a sense of community in which even those on the margins can feel a sense of importance and belonging.
Every major religion on the planet teaches the solution of individual action. A major piece of the solution is right there in front of us, pervasive even if we happen not to be religious. It is the solution of loving our neighbor, of treating others as we ourselves would like to be treated and as we deserve to be treated.
It sounds facile to many, I realize, but it is in fact one of the hardest things any human can ever undertake. Noticing, respecting, thinking about, and being kind to the people around us is hard work, especially when it’s people we think are weird, wrong, jerky, or otherwise offensive.
Plus, if simple kindness is hard, intervening when there is a problem or suspected problem is even harder. It takes an amazing amount of courage to take many of the actions that could truly make a difference. We risk exposing ourselves. We risk feeling like we’re butting in where we don’t belong, because our society tells us to mind our own business. The line around what is not our business is too large in a society that values extreme individualism.
A few years back, there was a trend toward what were called random acts of kindness. We need to revive that trend, only we need to have focused acts of kindness. It will require stepping outside ourselves to pay deep attention to the other people in our lives. If we pay attention, we each will be able to tell what needs to be done. Will we make mistakes and butt in where we should not? Of course. But, most of the time, we’ll be making a positive difference and modeling to others, especially our children, that caring matters, and that caring involves doing more than posting a sympathetic Facebook post.
Imagination can take us so many places, because there are endless ways to ease others’ suffering, even if just a small bit for the moment. Some steps may be huge. I personally would love to see someone form a non-profit that specializes in providing low-cost mental health care to teens and young adults, regardless of background. However, most things that can be done are so small as to be almost insignificant, especially to a jaded observer. But, they all matter, because together, each act adds up to toning down our excessive individualism toward a happier medium in which caring for others is expected and rewarded. It will change our culture. The truth is, our small acts won’t fix everything, they certainly can’t eradicate the presence of sociopaths bent on destruction who have always walked among us. However, our individual acts of reaching out to others are the best way to heal our terrorized, angry, and violent society.