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Processing the Unthinkable

Some of the charged responses to inexplicable tragedies like this are only understandable. And some are clearly standing in the way of both greater healing and more effective prevention of future violence.

In the wake of more mass shootings, the most recent involving so many precious children, we are again replaying our typical responses. Let’s refuse to condemn anyone for how they respond to the unthinkable. School shootings in particular are situations where parents everywhere play out in their minds the hypothetical scenario of this happening to their own children. I don’t envision I will ever have a rational or emotionally measured response to that exercise.

The responses we see on social media reflect this dimension of human nature. In the denial stage of our grief, we put forward policy solutions that are not remotely reflective of reality. We look for people or institutions to blame, and usually settle on the familiar ones: our political opponents, who are always the ones preventing our society from reaching its ideals. Or we make claims in ignorance, such as that we are uniquely evil as a country, and/or these things don’t happen in other places.

But again, the denial stage is where we should give each other a maximum amount of grace, understanding that we are participating together in that difficult stage. Most of us are to some degree in denial. In tragedy, we have been reminded that despite our fondest wishes for the world to be kind or just or fair or simply manageable, often it is none of those. There is profound evil in the world, and despite our best efforts, we cannot control it. This reality can be downright overwhelming, so our responses reflect the thought processes of people who are overwhelmed.

Yet, at some point, we need to move beyond the flailing and screaming that characterize the denial and anger stages of acute grief. For the sake of the victims, for the sake of potential future victims, and for the sake of our own sanity, we need to move into healthier ways of engaging with reality.

In a time when healing is desperately needed, we need to be clear about what healing is, and what its counterfeits are, reflected in the moral grandstanding we see so often on social media and in our political speeches. True healing is never grounded in delusion or dishonesty. And when certain voices are telling us that our problems can be solved with the political defeat of this or that group; that our problems have nothing to do with the soul or spirit; that our problems would be totally resolvable with one or two policy fixes; or even that trying to fix our problems is futile, then we are engaging in shared delusion that serves as a significant barrier to healing.

Every one of us can prevent acts of violence.

It’s true that some amount of evil can be restrained or contained by addressing bad policy. Some amount of evil can also be restrained or contained with a focus on the spiritual dimension of our existence. And some amount of evil can be restrained or contained through the development of healthy families and communities. Ideally, we would speak in terms of multi-pronged solutions that address different dimensions of reality, and we would pursue these possibilities simultaneously.

But instead, we have activists for gun control who refuse to acknowledge any spiritual dimension to our problems, and who think that family integrity is irrelevant, or even that the family should be destroyed in the name of social justice. At the other end, we have activists who hold a laser focus on mental health or family context, but who refuse to acknowledge the value of even modest measures at gun control or red flag laws. On a personal note, I love guns. I hope to be able to buy and sell them as I please. And I know that making this process less convenient for a law-abiding citizen like me would not prevent every school shooting from happening. But what if my inconvenience, shared with other law-abiding gun people, could prevent five mass shootings? Or just one school shooting? Why do we, all across the political spectrum, insist on a 100% success rate in order for a policy solution to have any validity?

Even so, gun-control activists must recognize their policy solutions will have little impact on our larger crisis of meaning. In Chicago, the equivalent of a mass shooting happens on a regular basis, sometimes on multiple nights in the same week. China has recently been plagued by deadly mass stabbings, sometimes in schools. The Boston marathon carnage was perpetrated without any use of guns whatsoever. The reality is that evil finds a way, and evil’s way becomes much easier when people have concluded that the value of life is just another social construct, relative, whatever anyone deems it to be. With addiction and suicide rates skyrocketing, and guns available through illegal channels, how do gun control activists envision their policies would thwart problems that are rooted in the nihilistic soul?

For those of us seeking to foster real hope, instead of numbing and catharsis, there are happily better foundations available.  The system of meaning, purpose, and human connection within faith communities all across the nation has no substitute.  There is no after-school program or federal initiative that can take the place of what transcendence and sacred communion can gift us.

The best advocates are ones that refuse to demonize while remaining clear-eyed about every dimension of the problem.

And the more personal truth is that every one of us can prevent acts of violence. Every day as we are out in the world, we are encountering people on the edge, and we are encountering people who are close to family members and friends who are on the edge. Our decisions to show kindness and maturity wherever we are, whether that be at the grocery store, the DMV, or on social media, ripple out into humanity to influence others and pull them back from the edge of downward spirals into madness.

So when we see recent events and ask “what in the world can I do to prevent this?” The honest answer is that you likely already have contributed to the prevention of deadly violence on multiple occasions, just by being a kind-hearted person in the world. And it is also true that there are policy solutions that could use our advocacy. Yet the best advocates are ones that refuse to demonize while remaining clear-eyed about every dimension of the problem, seeking real solutions regardless of the political consequences that come from crossing people who crave catharsis and delusion over results.

About the author

Dan Ellsworth

Dan Ellsworth is a consultant in Charlottesville, VA, and host of the YouTube channel Latter-day Presentations.
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