"People usually consider walking on water or in thin air a miracle. But I think the real miracle is not to walk either on water or in thin air, but to walk on earth."
— Thich Nhat Hanh
How DO we want to spend our lives walking on this earth? We have a lot of power in our voices and choices. How we live our lives matters. Our stories matter. We are constantly given choices. And these, in broad strokes, boil down to 2 main leanings: Love or Fear.
Which leads neatly on to guns. I have never been a part of a school massacre per se and yet I realise that it is time to speak up from my experience. This week, in light of recent events, I've been contemplating a great deal about guns, as many people have. I often think about guns. This is partly due to the fact that there are extremely few guns where I live at the moment in Southwest England. The Southwest happens to be not only an incredibly low crime area, but also in a country where gun control is taken very seriously and where the police, by and large, do not carry weapons. I find this incredibly civilized.
I have also been thinking about guns due to the fact that I grew up in an altogether opposite sort of place. I realise that this combination of contrasting experiences give me a unique and perhaps clearer perspective than most. So rather than fear that this is not important enough or let the old habit of shame that I have often felt when sharing about my childhood experiences stop me, I will choose love and share my thoughts.
In the USA people with guns currently shoot 100,000 every year and kill 30,000 of them. I am often asked, as an ex-pat, to explain this. I cannot. It does not strike me as civilized…but more like terrorism.
Guns have had a huge impact on shaping me personally. When people ask me where I grew up, especially here in Europe, I usually give them the shorthand version and say that I grew up in a "war zone" where I spent ten of my most formative years from 3 years old. If I am in the USA, I might say that I grew up in the place known as the “armpit” of America which most people know refers to this place. The average life expectancy for a man in Gary, Indiana is 20. When we moved from Gary at last, we were proud survivors of a place with the second highest murder and rape rate in the US for a city of its size at the time. There was not a family amongst my schoolmates that hadn't been touched by violence of some sort. And this in spite of the fact that WE were the privileged few who were lucky enough to go to a posh private Catholic school. Apparently bullets know no socio-economic level or religion.
Like many families in the Midwest, when deer hunting season came, my father and brothers went up north to hunt. If it was a good year, they brought back a deer strapped to the car and we feasted on venison for an entire year. I have never held a gun apart from an occasional shot from my brothers BB gun/airgun when I was little. I was more interested in painting and creating things and shooting at targets and tin cans. But I can appreciate that we benefited gastronomically from the common cull every year.
And this time of year ALWAYS makes me think of guns. I cannot help it. The holidays are always a bit funny for me. The day after Christmas, when I was 11 years old, my 13-year-old brother was shot by a man who was “protecting” his property. My brother was trespassing. He walked too close while taking a shortcut between the houses. This older man shot first and asked questions later. The only problem was that he meant to shoot OVER my brothers head, but somehow failed in his intention. Tommy was shot in the temple.
My brother died a few days later on New Year's Eve after an interminable week for my tender-hearted 11 year old self. I can still remember it so clearly. I never knew my body was capable of crying so many tears nor could produce so much snot. My red-nosed face must have been quite a site. My younger brother and I were taken under the wing of trusted friends of the family for that whole week so my parents could tend to my brother and what must have been unbearable decisions.
I remember much of those days in fine detail, as you do when you have a big life-altering shock. The warm comforting slippers that our hosts gifted me and my little brother with, the handkerchief I was offered so my nose would feel some relief from all the harsh tissues, the unfamiliar foods and over warm house, and the interminable waiting for news about my brother the “genius” who was going to invent the next big cure for cancer.
Regarding the shooter, I do not recall his name. I never met him nor saw him. I DO recall being afraid of him "coming to get me" as if this would really happen…and I dreamt of him doing so for years after. (To a young child, this is a common response when exposed to violence.) But most of all, I remember the impact of the way in which my parents dealt with what to do with this man who killed their son. I can recall not so much the words, but the process and the unbelievable access to compassion that they found for this man. This was a pivotal moment for all of us.
They said things like:
“He’s afraid. He's afraid like every other person who lives in this town. He was protecting his elder disabled wife.”
“He thought he was dealing with a full-grown adult. Tommy was 6 feet tall and had a remarkably full beard for a nearly 14-year-old. He never intended to kill anyone. He certainly never intended to kill a child.”
“The killer’s been devastated ever since the events occurred. The neighbors told me that he's been drowning his sorrows in drink and is completely and utterly filled with remorse and guilt.”
And this was what really sealed the deal for me:
“He's so guilt ridden that he is already in jail in himself! If we send him to prison, it will be as if he’s imprisoned twice over, and then his poor wife will lose her carer.”
My remarkable ordinary parents chose love. We were protected from the gore of legal, police and medical. We were, on the other hand, empowered and included in the loving act of creating a rite of passage for our brother, our family and our community. We were fully included in the conversations around how to deal with the shooter and the preparations for and execution of the funeral.
There were many gifts that came from this process, too many to name. But amongst the top contenders were:
• learning that at a very young age anyone can die. And each time since, I've used the death of friends and relatives as a wake-up call. Am I choosing to be a force of love or fear in my life?
• even in the midst of intense grief and “injustice” love can be accessed and used to keep hearts open. I am completely convinced that because of the way my parents handled this man with so much compassion, their marriage survived and our family was made closer. (Statistically speaking, parents who lose child have high incidence of divorce.)
• And lastly guns do not save lives.
In my very biased but educated opinion I would like to say that it's completely and utterly ridiculous to call for armed guards, armed teachers and increased weaponry. When I hear this call in order to protect the students on the off chance that another under-supported troubled young man will go on a shooting spree, I am tempted to despair. But that's not what I'm interested in. I know that guns do not stop violence. And here we are again with choices. And these choices, Like the choices made by my parents, really matter right now.
But here are some things that ARE useful from Brené Brown, Ph.D.
Politics is easier than grief.To skip over feeling and rush to policy-making dehumanizes the process and weakens policy.
Blame is simply the discharging of pain and discomfort.It has nothing to do with accountability. Accountability requires long, difficult, respectful conversations. Blame fizzles out with rage, where accountability is in for the long haul.
Self-righteousness is a sign of fear and uncertainty.It has nothing to do with activism or change. The loudest and most vitriolic among us are often the most afraid. As Harriet Lerner says, “Change requires listening with the same level of passion that we feel when we speak.”
You can't shame a nation into changing any more than you can shame a person into changing.Shame is much more likely to be the source of destructive, violent behaviors than it is to be the cure. We need courage, vulnerability, hard work, empathy, integrity (and a little grace wouldn't hurt). [i]
And I would add that this is about US not THEM. We are all one. If someone walking this earth amongst us is hurting badly, we really need to address this. We all benefit from this. We are all at choice. And I would love to really see us start addressing systemic causes like fear, mental health, education and lack of connection/community support.
We need to speak up from our deep presence and invite leaders and policies that will take into account the connectedness, and the non-dual and consider the causes of our malaise. I pray we make choices based on compassion and love and that will take into account deep listening and the long term. And our choice to choose love over fear is always available as we take one step after the other and walk here on earth together.
I would love to hear your stories.