Symptoms

It’s not often that I write about specific events in the news. Most stories get pushed through the news cycle like meat through a grinder. There’s often little left to say that hasn’t already been said and I rarely feel the need to comment on things that are already sensationalized.

However, the shootings in Connecticut are different. Maybe it’s because I have kids that are school aged. Maybe it’s because the story knocks on the deepest fears of a parent: losing a child. Maybe it’s because I am a teacher. But whatever the reason, it is events like these that cannot tolerate silence.

There’s no doubt in the coming days that public dialogue will shift from the tragedy that these families experienced to matters of policy. The gun lobby will recite their tired slogans. The gun-control proponents will do the same. Fingers will be pointed and news anchors will ask, in a vague and slightly sincere way, “How could this happen?” This story will dominate the news cycle for a week or two — at least until a more interesting story hits the front page. They will profile the shooter and try to explain what was wrong with him. They will interview people who said they never saw this coming, and others who say they did. And that will be that. Shootings in Oregon, in Connecticut , in Colorado, in Arizona and in Virginia will eventually be filed away, only to be mentioned as a comparison of body counts when the next mass shooting occurs.

In some ways, these things have become a sort of accepted archetype. Since Columbine (and maybe before) mass shootings have simply become a fact of post-modern society. It’s never a matter if another shooting will occur, but a matter of where and when. And in some way, we’re complicit in this.

Psychiatric patients aside, shootings like this demonstrate how untethered — how utterly disconnected — people can become. There is no other explanation for such violence and evil. It’s not access to guns that are causing these murders. It is not the failure of institutions or law enforcement to identify these people that is the problem. The problem is that we live in a society that allows for such extreme and destructive isolation.

It’s all too easy to be isolated from each other: from friends, from family, from a sense of community. These things root us. They provide a sense of how we are connected (and important) to each other, to our sense of place, and to the world. When I sit down with my daughter and read her a book, I understand that she is utterly dependent on me for not only the necessities of life, but also for teaching her a sense of place and belonging — to orient her in this world. When I gather to celebrate with friends, I begin to comprehend that I am forever tied to the narratives of many other people’s lives. When I worship in the pew on Sunday, I understand that my own history is written on the walls of the building and on the wrinkled faces of people who have watched me grow up. I am connected and my roots run deep.

We are not all so fortunate. The allure of our screens, the normalcy of divorce, and the breakdown of a sense of community allows us to cast ourselves adrift. It’s too easy to “plug in and tune out.” Without community and without connection, there are no outside forces to correct us, to question us, or to reveal our connection to the larger world. In my opinion, the problem of isolation is the problem of perspective. When I am connected to others, I am no longer the center of my own universe. I conceive of the world as a more complicated, connected, and wondrous place. But when I am isolated, my universe revolves around me. The daily struggles, failures, and problems of my life are not put in the larger context of a world far bigger than my personal problems. On the contrary, when I am isolated, my problems and struggles are the problems and struggles of my universe and become a much deeper, more serious problem. It is in this darkness of isolation, without the perspective and connection of a larger life, that we encounter the worst of ourselves.

I’m not suggesting that I know why the killer did what he did. Only God knows. But we have to look at such acts of violence not as an independent act, but as a symptom of something much larger. It’ a symptom of a disease. Our society and our lives are not healthy. Until we address the underlying disease — until we have the difficult discussions and the social revolution we need to become connected — we are simply treating the headache of a brain tumor with Advil.

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