The recent school shooting in Florida has left me feeling a mixture of numbness, anger, horror, sadness, shame, and many other emotions. I have been watching yet another round of arguments and memes online and in the media about the cause of this and other mass shotoings. "It's the guns!" "It's mental health!" "It's the loss of religion!" "It's religious extremism!" "It's the NRA!" "It's the failure of [insert person or organization here]!" There have been some notable changes as the children of the school have told their story and advocated for increased gun control. But for the most part, the battle lines have been drawn, and people have staunchly defended their territory.
I have read a few thoughtful, objective articles about gun violence, and the laws and behaviors around guns in several countries. I was tempted to do more research, draw some valid, helpful conclusions, come up with a plan to address the problem, and write an extensive piece explaining it all. It probably would have been good; gathering, verifying, understanding, and piecing together complex information is what I do for a living. The plan might even work if it were implemented. But I decided not to do any of that. Because while a few readers would likely praise me as wise and brilliant, just as many would argue vehemently against my analysis and conclusions. Most of all, through all of the discussions I've seen in social media, hardly any minds or perspectives have been changed. It would be arrogant to think that my writing would have a different effect.
Battle lines. Arguments and standing ground. And guns. Those are what I thought about as I considered how to respond. And what came to mind is a chapter in Jack Kornfield's book A Path with Heart. It's entitled "Stopping the War," and it primarily addresses the inner battles that we tend to engage in, usually without being aware of them--our struggles to escape from thoughts and feelings that we don't like, such as anger, shame, regret, grief, unfulfilled desires, loneliness, or terror. There is a vital realization here, because every war we fight externally--every shot fired, punch thrown, and word shouted or written in anger--begins with a thought or a feeling. If we want to stop the external wars, including mass shootings and the verbal fights about mass shootings, we first need to stop our inner wars.
Kornfield equates stopping the war with being present. Being present means experiencing whatever is here right now--all of the sensations, thoughts, and feelings that are happening in this moment, without grasping or pushing away any of them; fully opening to and accepting all of them. Stopping the war is no more and no less. It's a brilliant insight. He explains how, when we become present, we "step out of the battle." We recognize our likes and dislikes; our hopes, plans, desires, and expectations; and most of all, our worries, feelings of incompleteness, and fear. And we come to see how we identify with all of those feelings, and put up defenses and fight against things that threaten our identity.
As I reflect on the proximate and ultimate causes of gun violence, one thing that has become clear to me is that it is closely connected to some serious cultural problems. I say that with full understanding that there is no monolithic "United States culture," and no statements about "our" culture will apply 100% to everyone. But in general, we have a culture of quickly turning to fighting as a means for solving problems (or attempting to solve problems, at any rate). Our culture does a poor job of teaching us how to deal effectively with feelings of isolation, fear, hatred, and similar painful, powerful emotions. Our societal structure provides few resources or models for helping those on the verge of committing a destructive, violent act. And as a culture, we often fail to make people feel connected to others, to feel valuable, and to feel loved.
I often feel powerless to move the needle when it comes to discussing or debating guns, or the many other contentious topics or our day. But I have decided that what I can do is help, if only in small ways, to change our culture and remedy its deficiencies. So I make these commitments: I will do my best to stop the war, both within myself and between myself and others. This is why I practice meditation. It is the best technique that I have found for becoming present; it provides the best tools for stopping the war. I will do my best to become aware of my own desires, anger, and fears so I can recognize when they are about to drive my behavior in damaging, destructive ways. I will engage in discussions when it seems fruitful, and at times I feel that it is necessary to correct misinformation with facts. But when I communicate, I will listen for both the content and the feelings behind the content, so I can try to understand another's experience. And when I express my position, my opinions, and what I know to be true, I will try to do so firmly and confidently, but openly, without arguing or fighting. And I will do my best to be kind. I will do what I can to show others that they are important, valuable, connected, and loved.