The World Needs More Grown-Ups

Posted on July 26, 2012

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Yet again, we find ourselves horrified and confused by an unprovoked shooting in a public place. We look for explanations, and someone or something to blame. We’re sure there must be a reason for these events, a way to understand their causes, and a means to prevent them in the future.

I don’t think so.

What we’ve learned over and over is that a small group of people — and even an individual — can cause widespread injury, death, and destruction, and with very little effort. The massacre of thousands of human beings in a single day is almost unimaginable, but such a thing has happened hundreds of times, in all regions of the world and in every century of recorded history. In the most recent decades, terrorists have reminded us repeatedly that no one is totally safe.

The natural question is, Why? What compels a person to step so far over the line into madness, to ravage so many lives? What possible benefit could the deranged mind be expecting? And how could it be worth the universal revulsion that’s sure to follow? Like everyone else, I’ve struggled in vain to come up with answers that make sense. But that may be the problem. We’re searching for logic where there is none. Maybe we’re dealing with children in grown-up bodies.

When we’re born, and for many months afterward, we are completely self-centered. We have basic physical and emotional needs, and we’re helpless to meet them on our own. So we scream and kick our legs until we get what we want. Later, after we’ve learned to move around and grab objects, we also discover the ability to break things. Give a three-year-old boy a plastic car that runs on a track and he’ll watch, fascinated, for about thirty seconds. Then he’ll begin to tear the track apart and pull the doors off the car. Turning order into disorder gives him a feeling of power, and he likes it. I’d guess that we all did, at first. But at some point, society steps in and starts laying down the rules. Our rights as individuals are often incompatible with those of the larger group, and something has to give. What gives, almost always, is our natural tendencies. We don’t want to stop at the red light, but we do, because we can anticipate the result if we didn’t — and we trust the other drivers to do the same, and for the same reason. But still, the urge is there. At three o’clock in the morning, when we’re the only ones on the road, the temptation reappears, and we can hear the debate inside our heads.

“It’s a red light. I have to wait.”

“But there isn’t another car in sight for miles. What’s the harm?”

And there’s the key: our focus on the potential harm. A newborn doesn’t care about his sleep-deprived parents. He doesn’t care about anything but his own comfort. None of us did at that age. We didn’t comprehend that others suffered in ways similar to the ways in which we suffered. We had to learn that. Most of us eventually do, and that’s why the shooting of moviegoers, or shoppers, or students will always shock us. Because we would never do it. But there are always a few among us who didn’t learn to focus on the potential harm. It isn’t that they weren’t taught. It’s that the lesson didn’t take.

We can choose to condemn the parents, but I doubt that’s a valid approach. We can blame the media for glorifying violence, but stories of murder and other vicious crime have been around for as long as we have. For most of us, they’re just stories, and they don’t cause us to duplicate the heinous behavior. They may even help us release pent-up frustration, and allow some primitive, infantile part of our brains to run wild and imagine how much fun it would be to do such things. But the ability to reflect and follow our moral conscience maintains control. Again, most people have that ability. However, in any given population there are those whose emotional development stalled and froze. Their conscience doesn’t function in any useful way. And for the most part, they’re free to pursue their impulses. That is, until they do the unthinkable. Their power comes from the same place as our impotence: They know what they’re going to do, and where, and when. We don’t.

In most situations that involve opposing forces, one will usually win. For example, consider two very different people living in the same household — one likes noise, while the other craves quiet. The loud person will dominate, because you can drown out silence with noise, but not the other way around. More to the point, a single person banging on a pot can disturb a hundred neighbors trying to read.

Intentional and widespread violence is like that, and almost impossible to prevent. We can reduce its incidence, but no matter how often we succeed, we’ll always focus on the occasional failures. This is because we’re unaware of the disasters that were averted. We don’t have any idea how many car accidents we’ve avoided by simply leaving ten seconds earlier, or later. Or by stopping at that red light. We know only about the bad things that do happen. And then we’re back where we started: asking why.

I have no answer, really. Nothing that seems adequate or satisfying. But I worry when I hear people despair about the health of society.

“The world is going crazy,” they say.

No, it isn’t. There are more than seven billion of us. And most of us — the vast majority — don’t go around destroying things or hurting others. Relatively few are involved in violent crime. The number of murders in Colorado hovers around 200 every year. If the Aurora killings had been caused by a dozen separate shooters scattered throughout the state, they would have gone almost unnoticed. But because the act was committed by a single person in a specific place at a definite time, we call it a massacre. Yes, we’re horrified and confused. We should be. But while we may prefer twelve murderers, killing in isolation, and doing so in a way that allows us to remain unaware of them, the real harm is essentially the same. We can be certain that someone, somewhere, lost their life in a brutal manner on July 19th. And someone else on July 21st. We just didn’t hear about them.

The news media report the worst of our actions for a reason: they’re unusual, and they seize our attention. We’re stunned and saddened by them. We keep returning for more information, because we can’t believe what we’re seeing and hearing. If and when that reaction ever stops, then the world will have gone crazy. Then we’ll be back to being three-year-olds, but with unlimited mobility and access to implements of mayhem, free to tear up the tracks without fear.

For now, I grieve for the victims and their loved ones, while I try to remind myself that, fortunately, most of us have grown up. But just because we far outnumber the tiny few who would hurt so many, that doesn’t mean we have the advantage. They enjoy the element of surprise, an irrational need to cause pain, and a seeming inability to feel remorse.

The kind of terror that took place last week will no doubt be repeated. Placing blame may make some of us feel better, temporarily, but it isn’t the answer. Maybe there is no answer. All we can do is pay closer attention, and treat each other with kindness and compassion. And continue to act like grown-ups. The world can always use a little more of that.

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Posted in: Exasperating