The gruesome attack in Arizona has sent so many of us into shock and perhaps into prayer, or reflection. Shades of 9/11 again, or of Oklahoma City, or of so many like events in our history; and we may wonder if there is any true civility, or if anyone’s rage can erupt at any moment and destroy the tender fabric of what generations have tried to weave together.
President Obama’s speech offers hope and reconciliation. Again he has taken the high road and is somehow able to speak to the heart of a nation. Finally, I have found a public official who I can be proud of, who encourages me to try to stay in this game somehow. A week or two go by, however, and I am still groping for a way to respond to this latest incident in a way that can allow me to go on with peace in my heart, with some sustaining sense of integrity and purpose.
We call the shooting a “national tragedy.” We wonder why and how such a thing can happen. We look for someone to blame: the gun lobby, insane people running around wild, right or left wing politicians, and so on. Republicans and Democrats, Liberals and Conservatives analyze and position themselves. We do our requisite mourning and then re-anesthetized, get back on the track, and “move on” with our busy lives.
What our collective psychic numbing does not allow us to consider, however, is that it is our very “busy lives” that allow this sort of thing to happen every day, just not in such a high profile way. Every day children are sold into slavery, every day people are shot by others who do not agree with them, and every day people in power vie to the death with one another. Violence is our way of life. It may not be overt, like gang violence or military oppression, but there are many types of violence. Look at how we reactively blame anything or anyone when we are frustrated: the government, the weather, former partners, etc. Even the way we look at nature–as if it is a thing or a mere backdrop for human society—is, in its own way, violent.
How do you respond to this every day? Do you get back on track, juice yourself up with legal stimulants, and try to be normally productive? Do you let out all your frustration on public figures who may or may not support immigration, and the like? Do you look for enemies overseas, in outer space, or in obscure corners of your neighborhood?
As with any symptom (and this is, indeed, a large one), empowering questions can help to engage the situation: What is this asking me to look at? What action is this moving me to take? When I play this through and think of an innocent person being shot in the head at close range, of children and hard working citizens senselessly losing their lives, where do I cringe, where do I check out, where do I switch off the screen?
Interestingly enough, I had seen parts of Bowling for Columbine the night before the shooting in Arizona, in which Michael Moore takes on the gun culture of America, seeing them as more or less the culprit in all of this. I see guns as a symptom, not a cause. If I had to point toward a cause, I might say “non-mindful reaction,” but reactive violence may just be another symptom: the symptom of a festering wound that has no place to heal. It may manifest as feeling deeply alienated and disenfranchised (the institutional way of saying “unloved.”) It can also be an overflow of the simmering frustration of millions who are caught in a cruel and reckless economy, in which you work harder and harder, more and more, and never catch up. There is such a manic mania, such a rush to survive and go forward, that we cannot turn around to see who is slipping through the cracks. When we don’t need guns, we won’t have them anymore, but for now: can I watch my own reactivity? When I feel cheated, exploited, ignored, disrespected, and helplessly small, can I breathe into that and just listen? Listen to how the depth of life is asking me to live with this pain, with this sense of aloneness; as opposed to what I am pushed to do from the pain itself. Is there anyway, is there anyone who can hear my call, who can listen? Can I listen? Do I dare listen to my better angels?
The prophet, Nathan, approached King David and told him of corruption and disingenuous manipulation of people in his own kingdom. “Who is doing this?” the King replied, “I will have him punished.” To this, the prophet looked straight at the king and said, “Thou art that man!”
Who among us does not pull the trigger every day? Who is truly free, clear, and generous? Who has the space around and within them to be open and generous? Are we to cast even more stones, or do we dare to look at our own violence, recklessness, and disrespect toward those who live, think, and believe differently than we do? In the face of both an overwhelmingly senseless and beautiful world, who has the courage to follow the threads of virtue to the heart of compassion and reconciliation?
What to do? Where to go? How not to go back to sleep? I have heard of people coming to see Nisargadatta Maharaj, the self-realized cigarette maker in Mumbai and asking him if they should go to the mountains to meditate and do penance. “No need,” he would say, “Your life will give you enough penance.” We are all on the earth walk, and anything can happen at any moment. This shooting makes me want to rip off my layers of psychic numbing and be present for everything and everyone. I ask for this remembrance in lieu of reactivity.