Like Adam Bilowus, I rarely feel any compulsion to write to the Brandon Sun in reply to a letter or article. But also like Adam, I feel a sudden urge to write a timely letter. I read his letter to the editor on Dec. 18 and while I identify completely with his sense of horror and despair, I can’t say I give myself fully to it as he does.
I believe he’s right on in saying that the recent tragedy in Connecticut is only one of many tragedies involving innocent children all over the world and that our self-fixated gaze can blind us from more global concerns for the marginalized kids the world over.
Six- and seven-year-olds in Syria are dying amidst adult warfare. Children in several African countries who should be in school are instead child soldiers; working in slave-like conditions; or living a brutal existence being trafficked in the sex trade. Then there’s the Phoenix Sinclair inquiry right here in our own province. All horrific stories of kids being robbed of their innocence, their youth, and even their lives.
However, I can also say that, as the father of a boy in Grade 1, this tragedy hit particularly close to home. Further, as I heard the more personal details of Ana Marquez-Greene’s death removed only by a couple degrees of connection, everything sunk in even deeper. I also wept. I do part ways with Adam in my perspective on this tragedy though.
I don’t think it is the actions of one mentally disturbed man who had too-easy-access to assault rifles, Western society’s potentially hyper-emotional responses to it, or our ambivalent responses to other tragedies that represent the state of “our species.” I don’t think this is about only gun control in the U.S., though certainly a lot of attention needs to be paid to it. I don’t think it’s only about mental health issues, but that is certainly a major part of the discussion in the spate of gun violence in the past year across the border. There is certainly a complex web of personal, social and environmental and systemic factors that converge every time we see an incident like this that frequently involves young, often educated, privileged, mentally disturbed and depressed young white males.
When the stories of the violent and murderous actions of these men take over news feeds, it is easy to succumb to despair. But I do not believe this is the summation of the state of humanity. Further, if we can be accused, as Adam suggests, of hiding from the “truly nasty facts” to gain a fuller perspective on our world and our race today, then I believe we must also face the inspiring and hopeful acts that also often accompany these tragedies to get a true sense of who we are as human beings on this continent and the world over.
From the heroism of Alex Teves in the Colorado theatre shooting to the unbelievable courage and self-sacrifice of Victoria Soto last Friday, these stories almost always evidence, with as much force as the perpetrator’s violence, humanity’s best qualities that often surface only when they are tested in the most severe circumstances. The difference is that with a gun that fires 30 rounds a minute, one 20-year-old man can do far more damage than a selfless 27-year-old teacher can do good. Miss Soto’s drive to serve children through the educational system could have produced a lot of positive change over a long career.
Hopefully though, her acts of courage in a moment where options were few inspire others to live boldly and generously even as the consequences of her actions were fatal for her. I believe there is some correlation with how great her life is to how generously she gave it away. I also believe that this selfless generosity can be part of a daily lifestyle — regardless of political, national, or religious affiliations — in which your life can be lived as a gift to others, even when the impulse to do the opposite is so strong. In fact, I know this to be true through personal experience.
After a year of my life filled with destructive and harmful decision-making through which a wide swath of people were wounded through my emotional assault rifle attacks, I was continually confronted by actions from others that were equally strong but opposite in nature. Every time I failed and let somebody down, I was shown grace by another whose kindness wasn’t conditional on my behaviour, but instead was anchored in their desire to see love overcome hurt.
While I lived a year of guilt, shame, and heartache, as a direct result of the selfishness that produced it, I experienced selfless compassion and support. Yes, inherent qualities of violence and destruction, willful mindlessness and self-centredness and disproportionate degrees of privilege characterize our species. But so also do the highest demonstrations of what people can achieve: selfless acts of generosity with the gift you can only give once — your own life.
This is taught and modelled by people everywhere in daily acts of love and compassion in our city, our country and our world. Certainly there are over seven billion reasons to despair in this time. Particularly in this season intended for the celebration of one born to give his life, there are also over seven billion reasons for a hopeful optimism that, while occasionally overcome with tears, is motivated not to respond in kind to violence, but to act with dramatic yet simple kindness, boldly and courageously.
The best of the season to you, Adam Bilowus, and to anyone else that despairs that humanity’s best days are behind us. I believe in the contrary that as our capacity for destruction increases, so also will our capacity to love and give like young Victoria Soto.
God bless us, everyone.
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition December 21, 2012