In the wake of the horrible school shooting on Friday, I saw a number of people posting messages on Facebook that concerned me quite a bit. Now don’t run away – this is not about gun control. This is not a political blog, this is a spiritual growth blog. What I’m talking about is fear. Fear of “the other.” Fear of strangers. Fear of the mentally ill. Fear of horrifying incidents at every turn. Basic, primordial fear.
Now, I am not a parent, and I cannot pretend to know what it is like to be one, and so perhaps parents of kids that age who were feeling overwhelmed with empathy and protective feelings get a bit of a pass on this one. But even other non-parents, or parents whose children were long grown were posting such things as: “teachers should be armed” or “this is why I own a gun” or “EVERYONE should be armed” or “I am afraid to let kids go to school” or “I don’t like that the doors at my kids’/grandkids’/friends’ kids’ school aren’t locked all the time” or “everyone with kids should homeschool to keep their kids safe” …etc. Now again, this is not about owning a gun, or not owning a gun. This is about the mindset it takes to fear your fellow human beings so much that you carry a deadly weapon with you for no other purpose other than your belief that it is likely that you may have to shoot someone who wants to hurt you to defend yourself.
How terrified are we of each other? I had a friend from outside the US tell me (before this shooting, mind you) that she was afraid to come visit the US because she thought she might be attacked/mugged/murdered/shot. I have other friends who won’t go out after dark, or alone. How many people have conceal and carry permits, or even cans of mace inside their purse? I used to work the night shift at a hospital within walking distance of my apartment. I don’t own a car, so that meant I was walking to work at midnight, alone, just a couple of blocks away from the “notorious” street in my city. Now I wasn’t dumb about it – I would call the security guard to let him know I was on my way, and if he wasn’t busy, he’d meet me at the corner in front of the hospital. I stayed aware of my surroundings. I didn’t walk with my headphones on. But other people were more scared for me than I was for myself. I had one coworker buy me a can of mace when she found out I didn’t have one (I never carried it). And some of these were folks who had never lived in crummy neighborhoods or been the victim of crime themselves (I have experienced both). So why were they more nervous about my commute than I was?
I wasn’t always this way. I freely admit it’s a rather recent phenomenon. During and after said experiences of living in the crummy neighborhood and being a victim of crime, I was a nervous wreck. My high-alert level was so obvious it was commented upon by others. And that is exactly why I refuse to live that way now. Because I know that that is no life! I was miserable, and I didn’t trust people any further than I could throw them (and I’m not even 5’5″, so I probably couldn’t throw anyone very far). I walled myself up in my fortress of solitude, because my firmest belief was that people suck.
Now, I’m not going to get into quoting crime statistics here, but for a fabulous treatise on how humans have become less violent as a species, despite what the news and tragedies like this Friday’s would have you believe, I highly recommend the book The Better Angels Of Our Nature by Steven Pinker. My transformation did begin before I found that book, but it really reinforced what I was already telling myself: most people are good. Most people are just going about their lives, just like you. There are not nefarious types plotting rape and murder around every corner. Odds are, nothing is going to happen.
I am not delusional; I am not Candide, declaring that we live in The Best Of All Possible Worlds. But 99.999%* of people are basically good, normal people (*not a real statistical number – please don’t snipe. I doubt there is a study attempting to measure how many people are “good, normal people”). Sure, there are a handful of nutjobs with crippling paranoia and a gun stash, or who have raped or murdered someone. I am not saying we pretend they don’t exist. Don’t do your best impression of a slasher movie victim and walk into the dark, abandoned cabin alone yelling, “Hello?” while chainsaw noises reverberate in the basement. But don’t cower in fear from the poor homeless guy on the street who you think is “creepy” because he talks to himself, or refuse to live your life and do things you want to do because of the overarching belief that all the killers come out at night (I promise you, I was harrassed, chased, followed, stalked, and even had someone try and grab me off the street and shove me into his car as a teenager – all during the DAYTIME, as I walked to and from school. Pedophiles are not vampires. Nor are any other type of criminals). My point is, if you let a largely irrational fear stop you – then fear has won.
Remember after 9/11, when we were encouraged to keep going about our daily lives, because if we gave into fear then “the terrorists have won?” Why let this terror win? Is it any less pervasive? Which do you think is more likely: that you’ll die in a terrorist attack like 9/11, or that you’ll be a victim of a random crime? Which one do you change your daily behavior for? Sure, people avoided planes for a while, but most folks fly now without fear. Why do we still avoid the streets after dark? Car accidents are a common occurrence too, but do you avoid driving because there’s a chance you might get into an accident? Are you afraid of other drivers?
In a debate with a friend on Facebook, I asked: which would you rather do? A) Live for 50 years, suspicious and afraid of your fellow humans, until one day you shoot and kill another person who tried to hurt you, but hey, you “won,” right? Or B) Live for 5o years, loving and trusting your fellow humans, until one day you die in a random mall shooting. You maybe were afraid for the last moments of your life, but prior to that, you didn’t fear other people. I’d rather be B. Because at least that person got to live a life free from the limiting fear that too often we allow to dictate our lives.
I am in no way trying to say it’s not a tragedy when people die in a senseless act of violence, especially innocent kids like on Friday. What I am trying to say is: if we let these horror stories terrorize us, if we let them make us paranoid, if we let them dictate our behavior, if we let them limit us… then we’re victims long before anyone possibly murders us. We’re living in fear of something that is highly unlikely to ever happen. Obviously it does happen. But you’re more likely to die of heart disease or cancer than a random act of violence. Do you run screaming from trans fats and chemical food additives? Do you have an anxiety attack if you forget the sunblock? I’m guessing probably not.
So instead of focusing on “what if,” let’s focus on what we can do to make things better, in any way. Support the victims of tragedies like this. Support charities you care about. Support your fellow humans. Let’s make a world where we help each other. Let’s make life worth living. Peace.