I’m writing this at 7:30 on the morning of Thursday, November 14, 2019. An hour ago, I got a call from one of my closest friends. He happens to live five or so blocks away on the same street as us. His aunt had called to alert him that there was an active shooter situation at the high school in our neighborhood. The schools won’t be opened today; people in his part of the neighborhood were being told to stay put until further notice.
When I looked it up on the news, the word “shooter” wasn’t used. Instead, it was being reported as an “active situation.” Was it being reported earlier as a shooter? Had his aunt changed the language? Did he? Did I, in an act of subconscious translation so subtle that I was sure it was the word “shooter” that I heard in his voice?
As we spoke, I checked the locks even though I knew they were all secured. I assured him we were all home, that the dog was inside. He and I both said, “I love you,” but that’s not unusual; in our friendship, we are prolific in proclaiming our shared love.
I noticed my thoughts, “This is the world we live in now,” and then I quickly remembered the fraction of the 700 pages of The Better Angels of Our Nature that I read earlier this year which was enough to convince me to believe Steven Pinker’s thesis: As a species, we are trending toward less violent, more compassionate, more connected. I didn’t want to read more examples of how brutal humanity once was to believe that even our uptick of hate crimes (the highest rates in 16 years, I read earlier in the week), even our spate of mass murders – of active shooters – is an improvement, historically speaking.
When Theresa asked me what I was thinking, I said, “With great growth comes great chaos, and we are experiencing chaos.” I feel that in my chest as I write it, a visceral memory of the way my gremlins get loud and ornery when I’m deep in a growth curve, the way they try to counter every gain in confidence with examples of my ugliest imperfections, both real and conflated.
This isn’t just true for individuals but also groups of individuals. As communities, as a society, we grow and we react. And some prey on that innate human reactivity to stir fear and generate greater reactivity. I believe, in the depths of my guts, that each and every one of us does the best we can in any given moment, and so it is with grief and distress that I see that for some people, the best they can do is grab for power in all its forms, regardless of the pain and chaos their grasping causes. For some people, the best they can do is turn their fear into violence.
And I remind myself: I don’t know that there is a shooter. I’ve been told there’s a “situation.” I don’t know that there were masses being targeted; I don’t know that it was students being targeted. I know that it was at the high school that this situation came to light.
I imagine an alternate scenario for the exercise of resisting my reactive assumptions. It’s a game I taught myself in traffic, only this time, instead of imagining a driver racing toward an ailing mother or a Hot Now donut sign, I imagine a woman fleeing an abusive partner and their conflict being discovered at the high school. Awful still but intimate, personal, not part of the broader pattern of this historical moment’s reactivity but part of the terrible norm of human history.
The cries of the toddler in the upstairs apartment strike us as particularly plaintive this morning and Theresa pauses to listen in that way that we do when something in us imagines that even our invisible presence can provide some modicum of safety and comfort. Maybe it can. But toddlers cry, sometimes with a sound of great distress. It’s only context that makes us worry.
I ask Theresa what she’s thinking and she says, “There’s so much pain and suffering in the world.” I can’t do anything but agree… and offer to meditate together. On what? She says, “Peace.” She lights the incense she’s drawn to and the candle I asked for. We sit on the couch and the pup lays her chin on the cushion in the way we know to be a request to join in, and so we all crowd in together. Theresa and I hold hands and we meditate on peace.
At five ‘til eight, I check the news again and I see that the school wasn’t involved; it was a convenient place for police staging. They’re searching for a man who is wanted for a murder in the next county over. They found his RV nearby. He’s military trained and on foot. Still, I don’t know his motives.
I think about the article about Mr. Rogers I read earlier in the week and I remind myself what he might have said: “He was a child once, too.” I remind myself that our worst behaviors come from pain and that I can’t know this man’s pain.
Now, it’s 9:30. We’ve eaten breakfast and breached our locked apartment to let the pup have her after-breakfast run and to get tissues out of the car. The sun is out. It feels like any other morning.
At 6pm, we sit at a community dinner, the RSVPs for a full house have shrunk to the point that some tables merge, leaving others empty. People have stayed home for fear and exhaustion from earlier fear. A woman at my table, there with two of her sons and two of her grandchildren, said, “I just couldn’t get worked up about it.”
Friday morning at 7:30, I check the news once more. They’re still searching for Michael Alexander Brown, an AWOL Marine who is suspected for the second-degree murder of his mother’s boyfriend. Were they having a machismo-fueled conflict or was Brown protecting his mother? Or something else entirely?
While the Brown family and the family of the killed beau are in the midst of a great trauma, I’m at liberty to notice my shifting assumptions and reactions. Our assumptions can flow so easily from us and feel so obvious that we can overlook that we are making assumptions, jumping from scraps of information to solidified beliefs. That our leapt-to beliefs come from and reinforce our assumptions about the world is also invisible to us, unless we take time to notice.
And so I practice, using this terrible turn of events as a reminder to be curious about and critical of my own thoughts, and doing my best to channel Mr. Rogers because being human is imperfect and messy and sometimes ugly. My human drive – our human drive – to quickly assume people and actions into categories of good/bad, right/wrong, and I-know-better-than-you only add to the disconnection and ugliness, no matter how much relief it might bring in the moment.
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