December 17, 2012
By Matt Palmer
The events of December 14, 2012 in Newtown, Connecticut shook our world. Since then, many us have read numerous articles, opinion pieces, rants, and essays trying to make sense of something that makes no sense. Calls are ringing out for gun control, and hard look at how we deal with mental health issues. These are necessary discussions to have, and finding a way to action as a result of this tragedy is essential. But, as an evolving system thinker, I keep thinking there is an opportunity for an even bigger conversation, one that has implications for every aspect of our lives. How do we strive towards, what Umair Haque calls, eudaimonia – life lived meaningfully well.
The arguments for better gun control laws are compelling. The time to act on stricter laws is now. The time to act on better mental health policy is now. But, we must ask, will action on these two fronts alone solve the problems we are facing? Because, in times of great tragedy, finger-pointing becomes a national sport. Fingers usually pointed everywhere except at the person doing the pointing. We all have a place in this world, and a responsibility for how we act towards ourselves and those around us.
Rationalization becomes a fallback defence mechanism. We can blame Hollywood, the NRA, the health system, the school system, the political system, and on. What about the human system? Look at how emotions have ramped up the gun control debate to such a virulent rage that people call each other terrible names or worse. Friends and families part ways, communities rip apart. Our anger over the injustice of what happened to 26 beautiful souls, becomes intractable hatred directed towards those who hold an alternate viewpoint. If someone calls you a stupid idiot do you agree with them that you are a stupid idiot, or become intransigent?
What is our true nature?
People say that we are a more violent society today, but does this hold true? Certainly we have created tools to make mass killing easier, and tools to amplify that violence through the media faster, louder, with greater distortion and impact. Within minutes now the social media universe can spread a dark cloud from a single event globally, and we all grieve and express our rawest emotions.
The Romans had the Colosseum and the lions, we have UFC and pay per view. Wars and violence shape our history and our present. Homer, Shakespeare, Hemingway and all great writers used the violent events of their times to offer insights into human relationships. human nature. One could surmise that the horrifying violence of MacBeth, or the children’s tales of The Brother’s Grimm had entertaining shock value, much like today’s video games or the latest Batman movie. All great narratives, and even those not so great, explore themes that sometimes are difficult, make us uncomfortable, shock us, or enlighten us.
The constant barrage of violence in the media surely cannot be healthy. The amount of violence that children are exposed to is not natural or healthy. Quantity and intensity matter. Why do we so easily explain away the increasingly intense violence that is our entertainment? And I ask this as a filmmaker, and a viewer of violent shows like “Dexter” and “Boardwalk Empire”.
Violence is a part of our world, is it our nature? Can it be changed? I do not know the answer to that, though I wish we could. But is the issue just about guns, mental health, and violence that is historically pervasive in our political, and social systems, and reflected in our choice of entertainment, and sports? Is there something within us that craves violence, or is that thirst created over time?
There are issues we can examine and discuss today, and tomorrow, and on. But I feel there are some bigger questions we can ask. How connected are we to our communities? To our schools? To our families? To our selves? When we greet people during the day and someone says “How are you?” do you give the bland “I’m fine” or “Okay”? Or are you brave and say “I’m having a bad day. I’m feeling depressed. All this negative news is getting to me. There is too much darkness.” or “I’m feeling alone right now. Scared. Unsure of my future.”
How do we react to those calling out for help? How do we react to those who do not cry for help, yet we sense something off, strange or different? Being sensitive to the energy of others is a step. Wondering why someone is quiet, closed off, a loner?
Hiding our emotions tends to be more acceptable than exposing them. How would you react if someone you knew, maybe not well, exposed their darkest emotions to you? Would you embrace them and listen, try to fix them, or glaze over then politely excuse yourself and cut off any contact with that person? I know I am guilty of running away from people at times, hiding my emotions, or not being willing to step into a difficult emotional situation. I have work to do, room to be a better person.
I made four trips to Kenya during the making of my film “Letters From Litein“. The people I met and communities I spent time in were so wonderfully rich in their warmth and spirit. These people live in poverty, yet I felt so much joy and love from them, and within them. It is not that they do not want more amenities or higher standard of living, they do want that, but they have each other, and they feel grateful for what they do have. Yet, there are struggles there too. Tribal conflicts, jealousies, misunderstandings, differences of ideologies, cultures, opinions.
While we push to ensure that talk about gun control and mental health moves from talk into action, perhaps there will be time for reflection on how we become disconnected from ourselves, from each other. Technology enables us to connect with anyone around the world instantly. I can connect at any moment with many of my friends from Kenya. That is powerful. But we are humans, technologically empowered, but without one to one or community connection, we are potentially disconnected from the moment. Human touch is healing, texting not so much. Without connection to our own emotions, owning our emotions, what are we?
We live in a codependent society, and we each take on roles. The perfectionists, the enablers, the controllers, the fixers, the narcissists, the compliant ones, etc. Blaming and shaming are tactical weapons. Look at social media now, the news, the op-eds. We all have our thoughts on who is right or wrong. Needing to be right, or certainty of being right adds to the noise, and acts as a block to constructive engagement.
Outside all of this, many are still alone. Hurting. Afraid to reach out. We will never be able to stop bad things from happening. But we can make things better. We can take a moment to honestly listen to someone else’s pain, sorrow, or fears, without needing to do anything more than acknowledging that you heard them. Being heard without judgement is a powerful gift.
In the few hours I have spent writing this, I have experienced emotions of doubt and fear over my thoughts, words chosen. Mine will be one voice among many. But that is okay. I feel compelled to share my insights. If you have read this far, I appreciate your willingness to listen.
It is true that guns are only a tool to kill people. People kill people. Changing gun laws will make a difference. Creating greater awareness, understanding, and action around mental illness makes a difference. Engaging with others, reconnecting through honest heartfelt conversation makes a difference. And listening. Having the ability to listen be greater than the desire to be heard is the greatest gift we can give to each other and to ourselves. Maybe that is the beginning of a life lived meaningfully well. Connecting with ourselves and others. Checking in emotionally. And, perhaps therein lies the change.