I doubt I’ll make many friends or win any “atta’ boys” for this, but it’s what I’m thinking, so, as usual, I’ll write it out.
I’m thinking about this shooting in Hesston, that sleepy little Mennonite town in Harvey County. A man armed with an AK-47 and a .40 caliber handgun seemingly snapped after being served with a protection from abuse order. He shot 17 people, killing three and wounding 14. His name was Cedric Ford. We’re learning more about the victims, and the people who did incredible things to prevent additional injury and loss of life. We’ve covered it extensively at The Hutchinson News. There’s a story about the town rallying together in healing. There’s also a comprehensive story about the events of Feb. 25, when all this unfolded.
Our publisher wrote a powerful editorial about the shootings. And while I agree with much of what’s in this editorial, I still can’t help but feel that when things like this happen, we dance around the core issue.
To me, this is one instance in which politics ought to be set aside. This isn’t really about the debate over guns. It’s not about whether more guns on the streets makes us safer or in more danger. It’s not a political talking point, or it shouldn’t be. Because underneath all of that, there is a truth that every single one of us should be able to agree upon: We don’t want these to happen anymore, and we sure don’t want them to happen with the frequency with which they’ve been happening. So far this year, there have been 34 mass shootings in the U.S. Hesston was number 33; a day later there was another in Washington State.
If we can all agree that these shootings are tragic, that they leave families broken, and that we don’t want them anymore, then there ought to be a way to work toward something that looks like a solution. If not a solution, then at least something that looks like an effort toward a solution.
It seems too simple to say that it’s just a matter of guns, or the access to them. It’s also too simple to say that this was just a bad guy hell-bent on doing bad things. The fact that there are millions of guns in our midst that aren’t used in mass shootings confirms the former; the fact that not every bad guy shoots up his workplace or a shopping mall confirms the latter.
So let’s stop looking for the easy answer on this, and really do some examination to find out the underlying problem. Let’s figure out what is causing people, maybe bad people or maybe not bad people, to decide that their best option is to create pain and heartbreak for so many others.
I have a theory, but it’s just that. I don’t have the education or background to speak with much authority on the matter. But I know people, and I’ve seen enough pain and mental illness to craft a theory. And for the purposes of discussion and thought, I think it’s as worthwhile as any other.
I think there are a good number of people who feel absolutely, and painfully, alone in the world. And I think our culture – the way we live, work and entertain ourselves – promotes isolation and in many cases forces people to look at life with a sense of hopelessness. Generally speaking, it seems we lack empathy, and sometimes even sympathy, for those who could most use it. Our jobs tell us we’re only as good as our productivity, our social norms and our entertainment tell us we’re only as good as the things we own or our bank account. We are obsessed in this country with wealth and materialism. We actively promote the idea that if you don’t make (insert social/regionally median income here) you’re a failure at life.
What’s lacking is any focus on community, and the worth of the human spirit. That’s what church and religion are for, but I’ll be honest – that message of Christ’s love is not what I most often hear. No, what I hear is that we are all evil and will incur God’s wrath because of our sinful ways. Because we’ve accepted gay people or because we have legalized abortion. And if you don’t agree with that message, there’s little room in the church for you. I want to hear more about this loving and forgiving God, and less about this God who will only love this person I’m told he created if he meets all of his conditions.
That leaves people wandering around hopelessly. Their community tells them they don’t belong because they don’t have the right skills, education, income or possessions. Their faith tells them they don’t belong because they won’t follow the accepted teachings of the day. And everywhere they look, they can see people who are accepted, who are treated like they belong, who are loved and valued. But if they can’t see that in their world, I imagine it makes them feel all the worse.
Go back to a dark time in your life? A time when the world didn’t seem to offer much promise? A time when you felt unloved? A time when you felt ashamed of yourself, or when you felt that the entire world was judging you? If you can’t recall such a time, I’m very, very happy for you, and I mean that. I hope you never have to go through a period like that. It’s awful. And the feeling is almost impossible to explain to someone else. But I can tell you that there are few things worse in life than a feeling that there is no where for you to belong. It’s like being in a pit that the sunlight can’t reach, and clawing your way out seems like more than can be done. And the longer you’re in the pit, the more you forget that there’s a world outside of it. One with grass, and trees and water and sunlight. One where beautiful things happen everyday, where people laugh and hug and share moments. In that pit, there are no goals and there is no future beyond the cold, damp darkness of every single day. If, by chance, someone visits you in your pit of despair, it seems they’ve just come to show that you will never emerge. They remind you for a moment that there is another world out there, but also that it’s not for you. For a moment, perhaps, you remember that you weren’t always in this hole, that you did have goals and dreams and people who loved you. But you also remember just how much you’ve lost, how much deeper this pit has become since and how you’re so weak and compromised you’d never have the strength to build anything that might bring you to that other world.
I know. I’ve been in that pit before. I don’t ever want to go back. And I know what got me out of that pit: Love, compassion and understanding. I had just the right people in my life, people who didn’t give up on me. People who saw a reason to believe. People who checked on me, who coddled me for a time, who listened to me even though they had better things to do. People who gave me direction, or something else to focus on, even for a few weeks, so I could look at something besides the prison of my agony. People who showed me that they, too, had been in a pit like me and though it was hard, they found a way out. People who told me I was worth something to them.
I can’t imagine a life without those people, and their tenderness.
And that brings me back to the center of all this, the man who disrupted so many lives and caused so much pain. The man who killed three people and injured 14 others.
I don’t know if he was mentally ill, but it seems that he must have been. I don’t know if he was in pain, but it seems to me that someone determined to inflict so much pain on others must have endured incredible pain himself. I don’t know if he had people in his life who might have been able to help him, but it seems that he didn’t. I suspect he felt all alone. Killing another person is not a natural thing; for someone to do it is an indication that their mind or soul is broken in a very profound way. Some people turn that pain inward where it becomes depression, substance abuse or suicide. Others turn it outward, where it becomes abuse, tyranny or murder.
I’m not advocating for the man who ruined so many lives. What he did was terrible, and it has affected far too many people and will for far too long. I’m not ignoring the stories of strength and courage, like the Hesston Police Chief who charged into danger to protect other innocent lives. But I’d rather we didn’t have such frequent need for heroes.
I am advocating for broader discussion and thought about this issue, instead of the worn out guns/bad guy debate. That’s an overly simple explanation that isn’t really designed to find an answer – it’s designed to keep us comfortable.
I am advocating for wanting a future that doesn’t accept this as normal. A future where the term “active shooter” isn’t part of our everyday language, and where we’re not holding drills to teach 5-year-old kids how to hide under their desks when someone comes in to harm them. For however scary it might be deal with the aftermath of a mass shooting, nothing strikes more fear in me than raising a generation of children reared with fear at their core, who have been taught from an early age they are in constant danger.
I am advocating for an idea that being afraid of the world isn’t our only option, that maybe there is another world out there, away from our fear, that we can reach if the right people think it’s worth something to them and are willing to work for it.