Let me begin with what must be said.
The slaughter in Orlando was tragic, reprehensible, unspeakably horrible. It should not have happened. Nor should any of the mass killings that we now daily endure. My heart aches with those who are grieving. The dead, the wounded, the survivors weeping: all are in my prayers. We need to ban automatic assault weapons permanently. We need a tighter system of controlling who has access to guns.
I am not interested in rehashing all the things that by now have been said and repeated at each fresh bloodbath. I am not interested in arguing the various points relative to gun violence. But I do have some things to say in response to this latest massacre.
First, did you catch in the carefully worded statement of President Obama a certain note of something like fatigue or exasperation? He was objective, reassuring, and, no doubt to many, comforting. There is no way that the President can ignore such enormities, and by now it must be a familiar part of his job, responding to this daily visitation of mass death. Regardless of what the President feels or thinks, I claim my own fatigue and exasperation. It has become routine. “Outrage.” “Senselessness.” “Sickening.” “Terror.” “Stand together.” “Courageous first responders.” One could compile in advance of the next mass murder an accurate thesaurus of the words that will be spoken and heard over and over until, after a few days or weeks, we have put another tragedy behind us.
What we have developed, indeed what we are in the midst of at the moment, is a ritual. It is the American ritual for dealing with what you might say is an insoluble problem that shows no signs of going away any time soon. Just as there are other public rituals that have all the marks of predictability, this corporate reaction to mass shootings is predictable. First there is the news. Then there is a period of uncertainty as to the scope of the killing. Then the media people shape the story by speculating and passing on speculation as fact by using loaded words, like “terror,” for example. Once the killer(s) have been identified, the search is on to answer the question of “why,” in response to the natural assumption that there must be somewhere a rational explanation for a monumentally irrational act. Then begins the blaming. If a minority of some sort is involved, there is scapegoating. Then there is counter-reaction. If the tragedy is of such proportions to warrant it, the President will address the situation. News reports will show for the next 36-48 hours or more the grief, the support, the devastation of the killing. Depending on the circumstances, funerals will be public events, sometimes even narrated by the press. Meanwhile, a host of people will exhaust all the known methods of ritual responses expressing grief, anger, and solidarity: candlelight vigils, prayer services, flowers at the scene of the crime or at other significant places.
Before all this gets thoroughly underway, you can count on the old, tired political arguments to assert themselves in full force. From the right will come accusations leveled at those in charge who have allowed such a thing to happen through willful negligence. From the left will come handwringing and measured statements of outrage about the prevalence of violence, the chokehold on Congress that the NRA continues to have, the necessity of some form of political action that will ameliorate if not solve the problem. Voices of religious leaders will articulate messages of sorrow and resolve. Politicians will, regardless of their actual records in addressing gun violence, aver that their “hearts go out” to the victims and their families, whom they assure of their “thoughts and prayers” at such a tragedy.
During all this, there will be a kind of leitmotif of utterly useless debate about whether the event should be politicized, as if it weren’t by its very nature a political act. “Can’t we just grieve without someone’s hijacking this event to suit their own political purposes?” will be the question that folks here and there will raise.
The reason I bother to write all this down, as if you don’t already know it by heart, is to make the point that this is indeed a ritual, a rite, that we choose to go through each time it happens. I am not suggesting that elements of this aren’t useful. They are. I am not arguing that there is any practical way to avoid any of this. If there were, I’d say so, and you would already know about it.
We are trapped in a cage of our own making. And I have come to understand that very few of us see it.
“Our own making.” Whose making? Who is “we” and what is “our” making? We cage ourselves by continuing to parse these things in terms already available to explain the situation. After the Sandy Hook shooting, when it was discovered that the killer had a history of mental illness, a huge discussion opened up about the adequacy of our mental health system. If there is a possible link to international terrorism, a hue and cry goes up about our policies and practices regarding terrorist threats. It seems bewildering if no link can be found between the killer, the killing, and some obvious motivation. The supposition in plain view is that we could and should fix whatever it is that causes these things to occur. Even the NRA would agree with that, so long as the cause is not the availability of weaponry. But the brutal fact of the matter is that none of our go-to fixes for the situation, including any legislation that has ever been proposed, will in fact successfully address the problem.
The problem is that for generations, for centuries, we have corporately built an American culture soaked with violence to a depth so profound that it is difficult to see how we can begin to dismantle it. The presence of weapons to virtually everyone is not the problem, but one of the more visible symptoms of it. The plain truth is that what we sow we will reap. Sow violence, discord, hatred, and you will have a bumper crop of the same. But—and here is what we don’t see very well at all—in a culture in which people in great numbers despise themselves, spurn their bodies, are ashamed and made to feel ashamed of who they are, it should be no surprise that massive violence in various forms results. That is how repression works. Starve a part of yourself, and it will become the alligator that bites you in the behind when you are looking the other way.
Add to that the fact that the vast majority of violence in this country is state sponsored. Some of the very voices that denounce the heinous violence of Orlando (Donald Trump is a prime example) call for yet more violence to be directed towards the newest conveniently identified enemy: ISIS. We have a pretty limited repertoire of how to deal with anything threatening, and violence in some form is a familiar default response. The State, supported by huge numbers of people, expands its prison systems ostensibly to lessen threats and violence and to promote safety. In fact those very prisons are themselves factories of crime and scenes of unspeakable violence not just to the body but to the soul.
But even that does not get to the bottom of things. For at the deepest level our culture is overwhelmed to an extent it does not even recognize. I am not talking about stress. I am talking about a widespread, internalized, well rationalized fascination with death. It is “fascination” in the sense of being a powerful dynamic, all the more powerful because it is largely unconscious. We have not come to terms very well with the truth that what looks like death is not necessarily death, and what seems to promise life might in fact rob us of life. That is the irony that sits in the middle of the human condition. The difficulty with Orlando—and Charleston, Newtown, Columbine, and all the other mass killings—is that they are so patently about needless death that they mask the real Death that has us in its vice. And that Death begins with the basic failure in us all to affirm our bodies, and thus to embrace our own mortality.
Now you may think that I am all wet. You may think that “psychologizing” or “philosophizing” in the face of so stinking a shame as Orlando is well shy of the mark of addressing the obvious elements mixed up in the decimation: homophobia, accessible assault weapons, and so on. I agree that those elements in the mix have to be addressed, and I understand that on the whole people grab onto what is most obvious. But I cannot say too strongly that even those elements are realities that spring from a deeper place. Until we recognize their origin, they will continue to dog us, haunt us, and kill us in droves.
The deep place happens to be a very familiar one—the human body. It is actually the human soul, but the soul cannot be known apart from its fleshly container the body. And it is the body that our society simply does not know how to honor. Bear in mind that what looks like an omnipresent exaltation of the body (billboards with half-naked people, magazines full of beauty products for men and women, etc.) is not at all what honoring the body is about. Along with all that, we have a public aversion bordering on hysteria about nudity. And much of the fitness industry caters to people who pay to improve their bodies but somehow fail to gain a lasting positive self-image. What is eating away at our soul is not “moral rot” as it is usually understood. It is something worse. It is a distrust, a massive fear, of bodily pleasure.
How can this be, in a society so given to excess? Look again. Even though we do have plenty of excess, track carefully who owns the excess. If you are seeing clearly, you will note that with few exceptions, it is the rich, the powerful, a small minority of people who manage to live opulent lives but who never have enough. And even many of those people are thoroughly disconnected from the pleasure principle that really has nothing to do with excess, but rather with balance and proportion. Look at men, for example, who do not know how to stop working, who take their cell phones with them to the beach, who are constantly enslaved to emails and texts. Look at women who barely get past the first baby before they are absorbed in childrearing and who frequently tune out completely on any sexual pleasure, with the full support of many religious traditions that approve of that tuning-out. Check out scores of lifeless, sexless, and sterile marriages. Pay some attention to eating disorders, both excessive fasting and dieting as well as gorging on food.
There was great wisdom in the hippie poster that said, “Make love, not war.” Making love is not about sex only. It is about living soulfully. It is about celebrating the body. It is about being in love with life. It is about giving oneself away. The things that militate against a happy life are a familiar list of destructive behaviors and attitudes: acquisitiveness, disrespect, self-centeredness, insatiable appetites for control, projections, discrimination, envy, strife, discord, hatred. That is just the beginning. Along comes religion—and it is not just the monotheistic religions—that frequently spins out and then re-enforces a narrative that spirit and body are opposed to each other, spirit always being superior. Atheists are frequently no better than religious fanatics at affirming the body, and certainly no better on the whole at affirming the soul.
So while I have grave doubts as to what we can do in the never-ending discussion about gun control, I hold out some hope that we can make a difference in something that is much closer to home. Change the way you view your body. Be aware that you can choose to live a soulful life. Start by paying attention to your inner core. Rather than building your life on a legalistic foundation of shoulds and oughts and musts and rules for this and that, build your life on a practice of being present to who you are, to what your senses are telling you. Get in touch with nature, including your own. Read a good book. Go on a walk. Spend some time with a kid. Look deeply into a dog’s eyes. Expose your flesh to the sun and breeze. Buy a piece of good art. Get off of talking about all the crap your family did to you and start just learning and maybe telling the stories of the nuts who make up your family. Stop judging everything and everybody because what they do is usually none of your damn business. Take long hot baths or showers. Give money away. Lots of it. Enjoy a glass of wine with a friend. Get a massage. Give a massage. Look at the parts of your body that you pay least attention to. Stand naked before a mirror and engage in a ritual of loving yourself. Say it out loud: “I love you.” Make a litany of things you are grateful for and smile when you say them one by one.
You get the picture. We will never get rid of violence through legislation, as critical as some legislation might be. We will never get rid of death, because it is built into the fabric of the universe. We can overcome it, however, by embracing it, thereby owning our own mortality. (That, by the way, is what the story of Jesus is all about—and its truth does not depend on your believing it.) And we will find in the process, as counter-intuitive as it may be, that in embracing our old enemy, we will have made a friend. The best way to defang death of its power is to engage in the pleasurable practice of being joyful.
A soulful life is a gentle life. Until we learn to live gently, enjoying each moment to the fullest, we will very likely settle for periodic rituals in which we express frustration, anger, and grief at the way things are. We could make the change—but deep change is never without cost and never easy. So there is, and will be, great resistance. Yet many have already discovered that the change is well worth the price. And, should enough people decide to live differently by living more soulfully, there might come a day when swords will become ploughshares, spears pruning hooks, and assault weapons artifacts of a distant past.
© Frank Gasque Dunn, June 13, 2016.