Like many people here in the States, I’ve spent the last week thinking about the Sandy Hook shooting. I’ve been busy, oscillating between writing-working-planning-packing, feeling down about the shootings, and really enjoying myself at holiday parties and early Christmas dinners with family and friends before leaving for a long vacation. I have a tendency to feel pangs of guilt about enjoying myself in the wake of tragedy, but I also feel disingenuous hanging my head all day on principle. So, besides taking a little extra time the last few mornings to not just count but also think a little about the “blessings” in my life, I’ve been going with whatever flow I find myself in.
Luckily, that’s included very few conversations about Sandy Hook. The people I’ve been around are either of such the same mind as me about the prolificacy of weapons in civilian hands that we didn’t need to talk about it, or they were such staunch supporters of the (far-from-still-relevant, tragically misinterpreted) 2nd Amendment that to bring it up would be a fight, and no one wanted to fight. I know a lot of people are fighting about this, started fighting right away, but no one where I was wanted to engage, including me.
About mental health, I have very little of any value to say, and even less patience for others’ poorly-informed opinions on the mentally ill and the state of mental health treatment and care. You want to read something cogent about mental health, check out Liza Long’s blog entry, “I am Adam Lanza’s Mother,” about what it’s like to try to raise an inexplicably unstable boy who’s on his way to becoming a violent man, with no help and no end in sight.
On the fact of the tragedy itself, on 20 dead children – what is there to say?
Something Needs To Be Done, of course, but it probably won’t be. Either the government won’t stand up and demand it, or The People won’t stand by and abide by it.
Anyway, instead of debating or talking, I’ve been pondering. And I have to admit, I’m not really shocked by Sandy Hook. It’s fucked up, but it’s not beyond belief. Not for me, not anymore.
I was shocked by Columbine. I was a junior in high school, and that massacre stunned me, shocked me in the sense that I understand the term to mean, as in, put me in shock, into a weird state of disconnectedness in which although I “felt fine,” I was more or less incapable of attention for a week, after which I emerged shaking my head with the same sense of return-from-afar that I’d first experienced after a snowboarding concussion and that I’d experience, years later, in postictal states after seizures.
And I was stunned by the September 11th attacks, dazed and confused by the magnitude and proximity of the loss. Some of my friends lost family members, some joined the military and went overseas – are still going overseas in careers that started then – and I understood a lot about America’s place in the world in the years following that still causes me to feel, like a Coleridge wedding guest, that it’s a sadder and a wiser man I wake most morrow morns.
And now, I feel inured.
I was not outraged nearly enough. It’s to my sense of propriety’s shame that last Friday I was cynical to the point of shrugging and thinking, “So now we have our Breivik. Shocker.” Then I heard the number of times and places this has happened before, and I shrugged and sighed and scoffed at all the Calls For Change being made, sure that it’d all blow over and we’d be back to NFL highlight reels in no time.
But that cynicism didn’t last all week. I’ve tried not to think about Adam Lanza, but it’s been impossible. I tried to avoid seeing a picture of him, but I couldn’t avoid that, either. What kept coming to mind when I saw that face, the one they’ve plastered everywhere, with its hollowed out cheeks and even hollower eyes – a skinny, scrawny kid who looks in that picture as if he’s been transformed from some other and, if you look at his younger school photos, better, boy – under the predictable, omnipresent headline, “WHO WAS ADAM LANZA?” and the subsequent badgering of the universe with how-could-he-do-this questions, what kept coming to mind was this bit from God, in Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses. Musing on why one character (who was briefly incarnated at Shaitan/Satan) has gotten it into his mind to kill his onetime companion and friend (who goes in and out of trancelike manifestations of the archangel Gibreel), God discourses on the nature of evil, thus:
“Such distinctions [as true and false ‘selves’], resting as they must on an idea of the self as being (ideally) homogeneous, non-hybrid, ‘pure’, – an utterly fantastic notion! – cannot, must not, suffice. No! Let’s rather say an even harder thing: that evil may not be as far beneath our surfaces as we like to say it is. – That, in fact, we fall towards it naturally, that is, not against our natures. – And that Saladin Chamcha set out to destroy Gibreel Farishta because, finally, it proved so easy to do; the true appeal of evil being the seductive ease with which one my embark upon that road. (And, let us add in conclusion, the later impossibility of return.)”
This seems to me to sum up every evil deed and every evildoer, no matter how extreme or relatively benign that evil deed may have been. (There’s a secondary layer to this “ease” Mr. Rushdie alludes to, here in the US: the ease with which Adam Lanza got his hands on those weapons.) I’ve stared down my fair share of demons, and I’ve slipped here and there and done things of which I’m far from proud, and there was a period in my life when I looked down that long, dark road that leads towards evil, and I could spot the reddening lamposts along the way that mark out the byways to real insanity, and I could see how easily – or at the least how simply – it could be done. I’ve turned away from that path, thanks to some help and some hard work, but having seen it and having trod upon it for the short and horrible time that I did was enough for me to know, in my heart, that Mr. Rushdie is right.
There’s probably a certain amount of evil in the world, or a certain percentage of people that will always be evil, or turn evil, or give into evil. Adam Lankford had a great piece in the New York Times on Monday, “What Drives Suicidal Mass Murderers,” in which he talks about the worldwide ubiquity of this fraction of the populace that will always be into wreaking some kind of havoc on the rest of us, whether they be “rampage shooters” in Connecticut or suicide bombers in Gaza. And it’s been this that captured and has held my attention for the last couple days, and has been the way out of my funk – if there is a certain part of the population that’s evil and something we tend towards naturally, at first pass it seems we’re doomed to have it there and with us forever. But the fact that we tend towards it means that it’s a choice, or, if it’s not a choice for the mentally ill, it’s still arrestable by some kind of outside intervention. But what does that entail?
The fact that we have scientific names for evil – acute narcissism, antisocial personality disorder, paranoid schizophrenia, general psychopathy – changes our attitude towards it, to a certain extent. It’s no longer something foreign, incomprehensible, or supernatural, but rather something that maybe we have a shot at understanding, addressing, even reversing. And in fact we have more than a shot. Advances in mental health over the last fifty years have saved countless lives, both of the mentally ill and of the people they may have hurt.
But all the fancy Western Medicine names don’t change the fact that evil is at its core a fundamental spiritual imbalance. It’s an inability to think things through – or a complete lack of interest in doing so – to imagine what consequences one’s actions may have on another person’s life. Ian McEwan talked more movingly about this than anyone I’ve read in the wake of the September 11th attacks. About the men who carried out that attack, he wrote, “among their crimes was a failure of the imagination… If the hijackers had been able to imagine themselves into the thoughts and feelings of the passengers, they would have been unable to proceed.”
The same’s true for Adam Lanza, whose actions last Friday stemmed from the solipsistic attitude that only his problems mattered or counted, and only this extraordinarily selfish act could rectify or make up for the innumerable, insupportable wrongs done to him by existence and everyone in it. He was incapable of imagining the problems he would create, or incapable of caring – the difference is subtle and may be interesting to psychologists, but it’s irrelevant.
I call this a “spiritual” problem because there’s no medicine one can take, no surgery one can undergo, no tangible physic that can bring someone completely around. Sure, some psychotropic drugs can knock back the worst of the demons – while you’re taking them – but that only serves to give you a chance, some space in which to work on the other stuff, the real stuff. Psychotherapy is the closest thing in the Western medicine cabinet to the kind of inner alchemy that’s needed to combat these delusions, and I believe in it, wholeheartedly. But it’s not the only thing. And all of it is only helpful if you can find the right diagnosis, the right drugs, the right therapist – not to mention if you can afford it all. This is the conundrum Liza Long and her son have come up against – his aberrant behavior and unpredictable violence aren’t diagnosed, despite “a slew of…pharmaceuticals and a Russian novel of behavior plans. Nothing,” Long writes, “seems to have worked.”
Another big problem, especially as the mentally ill or imbalanced get older, is when this kind of insanity gets to a certain point, sometimes people don’t want to let it go. They’re so convinced by their delusions that they cannot recognize the horror. And sometimes, they’re simply incapable of controlling it. It’s all ego and super ego to the extreme, so insular and inward-turned in some cases that it spawns multiple egos, multiple faces that appear in the mirror, multiple voices that whisper directly into fractured, self-obsessed minds.
Which is all well and good – things are bad, people are bad, they’ll continue to be bad. Or not so good, really. But, what are we supposed to do about it? What can we do about it? Do we have a responsibility to do anything about it at all, or do we resign ourselves to this being The Way Things Are and insist that our second-grade teachers pack heat at the chalkboard?
If you believe, like I do, that evil is not innate but developed, or developed into, over time; if you buy Liza Long’s assessment of her son, that he’s turning into someone – something – that she doesn’t recognize, right before her eyes; if you can imagine the various Falls that Mr. Rushdie speaks of in The Satanic Verses (and that he continues to talk about day after day, in London, on twitter, everywhere he has a platform); if so, then you have to believe, too, that there is something we can do to help. We can help those who’ve yet to turn down that path steer clear of it, and those who have started down it to come back.
The way to begin doing this is to make sure we ourselves are walking away from that kind of behavior. There’s no such thing as staying still – you’re either walking forward on whatever spiritual or moral path you’re on, or you’re sliding backwards. So move forward, however you can. Develop your compassion. Increase your empathy. Think outside the box for ways to open your heart as wide as it can possibly go. The more compassionate we all are, the more in touch with one another we are, the better we’ll be able to sense those amongst us that aren’t, those lost and suffering souls that are starting to stray. (Because as much as we may hate Adam Lanza right now, we have to admit that such violence and hatred of self and others can only come from a place of profound suffering and anguish – or whatever the opposite of goodness and love are.) The earlier we can recognize them, the better. If we can offer a little bit of the empathy they may otherwise eventually become convinced does not exist, perhaps they can have something to hold onto. Because whether we should or not, we make choices based on how people treat us.
For those that are too far gone – well, at least we can get better at recognizing them, and maybe read fewer “WARNING SIGNS IGNORED?” type headlines, maybe have a little longer respite before this happens again the next time this happens.
Because it will. Something like it will happen again. There are too many of them, there’s too much pain and anguished that’s already been inflicted, bottled up, waiting to burst and catch fire. This is the hardest part of Liza Long’s piece, her insistence that in today’s America, there’s so very little to be done for her son and for the innumerable others like her son besides letting them commit just violent enough of a crime to merit pressing charges and having them locked up in prison, “the last resort for the mentally ill. “Rikers Island, the LA County Jail and Cook County Jail in Illinois,” Long continues, “housed the nation’s largest treatment centers in 2011.”
I leave the more immediate, tangible steps that can be taken to reduce the chances of Sandy Hook being easily repeated, and the debate over them, to people with more knowledge, and more energy for those kinds of fights.
I also realize that this is a rather heady solution, one difficult not only to practice but also to grasp, or even to take seriously – one at which many researchers trained in hard science, many physicians, therapists, social workers, etcetera, not to mention probably the vast majority of gun-toters, would smirk. But it’s something I believe in, and something that I believe is, ever so slightly, taking hold. Compassion, meditation, insight, leading an examined life – a sea-change in our relationship to ourselves and others – in whatever spiritual tradition or intellectual framework you chose, have to be the answer, because they’re the pieces that are missing. And we’re running out of options.
Lest I be misunderstood, let me be clear that I’m not talking about praying for grace, or relying on the supernatural for succor and salvation from the woes that we have created for ourselves. That to me is almost as ridiculous as thinking the .22 you’re death-gripping is going to save you from the Red Dawn or the Socialist Obamaite Takeover or whatever other fantasy du jour you’re buying into. What I’m talking about – and this will be something you’ll hear more about in these pages – is a kind of humanism. It’s about investigating, discovering, learning how each of us functions in this crazy, crazy world, and learning how we fit into (I’m gonna say it) The Web of Life.
That may entail a radical overthrow of the mental and emotional constructs that drive us as if they were lashes to grasp, yearn, long, want, need, amass – or it may not. But either way, it won’t be easy. Evil and corruption are easy. Their opposites are hard. We all know how much harder it is to do the right thing always than to tell a little white lie. That the human world tilts towards moral entropy is nothing new to anyone, and neither is the idea that conserving that moral energy, reversing or working against entropy, is difficult. Sitting and thinking and looking and changing are hard, hard things. To not “embark upon that road,” as Mr. Rushdie puts it, requires dedication and discipline and a strong, unwavering sense of right carried out and applied every day over the course of one’s entire life. But being hard is one of the ways we know things are worth doing, right? They’re hard, but they’re necessary. It’s part of our responsibility, as members of the human race, to life.
Header image: from The Extermination of Evil, by Sendan Kendatsuba