You don’t have to be a nuclear physicist or a psychologist to recognize what’s happening in our world today or, for that matter, in our own community. Murder, suicide, incidents of severe anxiety, depression and alcohol, drug and sex addiction are increasingly reported on the nightly news and daily newspapers. But, sad to say, we human beings have a tendency to ignore anything that is painful, noxious, ugly or atypical until it hits close to home.
That was alright in years past, when it might have been factual to say that Jews weren’t alcoholics, didn’t divorce, and didn’t beat their spouses, abuse their kids or go to jail. Unfortunately, today we know better and it hurts when you think “There, but for the grace of God, go I or my kids”. For example, I would speculate that every parent of a college-age student had to react, at least in part, to what took place several weeks ago at Virginia Tech. Thirty-three people dead, others injured. And how did people deal with it? They filled the airwaves with newscasts that excited and aroused fears regarding the possibility that the same thing could happen at the university their sons or daughters attended. Meanwhile, newscasters and reporters talked at length about profiles of mass murderers. They did the same with both the Columbine and post office slayings. Although it solved nothing, they repeated it over and over again. It was shock news designed to grab your attention, but it never fully addressed the problem, which was far greater than one individual reaching a point where he exploded and spewed his anger and hatred out on society.
And how did people respond? The same way we generally do, no matter what kind of problem we face. We looked outward and dissected the murderer or detailed the lives of the victims. We became spectators who preferred not to look inward at ourselves. We don’t ask why we now live in a society where these types of acts take place in our schools, workplaces and homes. We avoid the faces of desperate, lonely, estranged, depressed or hopeless people in our midst, even when they are members of our own families.
Well, it’s time to open our eyes to these problems. You can start by asking why, in every instance, the mass murderer has been a depressed male who had previously exhibited atypical behavior. Most of them were loners; uncommunicative individuals with few friends, who were rarely accepted by their peers. They were considered misfits or outcasts, and served as scapegoats for the jocks, cheerleaders and “popular” people on campus. As a result, they were looked down on, ridiculed and bullied.
All of which says a great deal about the way we human beings treat one another. Too often, we are discourteous, lack compassion and demonstrate lack of sensitivity to the feelings of others. Our attitudes and behaviors suggest that it’s alright for people in our world to starve to death, to be killed and buried in mass graves, bombed or beheaded, particularly if it happens in some third world country, far away, but not when it happens in New York City or Oklahoma.
People have to wake up to the fact that the world has shrunk. It now takes seconds to know what’s happening in Baghdad, Somalia, India or China, not days or weeks. We also need to recognize that people, no matter their color, the slant of their eyes, whether they’re short, thin, fat, tall, weak or strong, have the same color blood and the same feelings. More importantly, they have the same need for love, support and compassion, no matter where they live, or whose family they belong to.
But you don’t have to go to a third world country to see the disdain that people display for one another. Just go to a local middle school and watch 6th and 7th graders belittle, demean, prey on each others’ shortcomings and search for scapegoats they can put down. The effects of these hurts don’t wind up in the newspaper, or serve as conversation at the dinner table. Nor do they end in middle school. Instead, they build up, ferment, intensify and condense into feelings of humiliation and hurt that eventually result in one of three behaviors: the scapegoat kills himself, kills others, or both. It’s then that we finally realize that early “playful chiding” is more like planting a land mine. Long after the war seems over, someone steps on it and it explodes with devastating results.
Fortunately, these problems can be dealt with. However, it requires that every one of us look at ourselves and commit to becoming more compassionate to those who are different, needy of emotional support and love, or who aren’t as strong as we’d like to think we are. I add that last part because one day the person in need of that compassion could be any one of us.
But that’s only half the solution, because messages dealing with kindness, compassion and care for fellow human beings are disseminated in synagogues, churches and mosques every weekend, to millions of people, but the words don’t last very long. The same people who listen intently during the sermon are the ones who rush to their cars after church, cut each other off, pull in front of one another and refuse to let anyone else into line. Something more has to be done to make these messages hit home. If Virginia Tech didn’t do it, we have to ask ourselves how many more deaths will it take to gain our attention for a longer period of time, and what every parent, teacher and person of authority can do to make a difference.
In part, that question can be answered by an editorial by William Raspberry. He spoke about two animal preserves in Africa. One was overstocked with elephants. The other had been created primarily for rhinos to grow and reproduce. To balance things out, a group of young elephants from the first park was introduced to the rhino refuge. Months later, several rhino carcasses were found scattered throughout the refuge. But there was something strange about them. The tusks were still attached, so it wasn’t the effect of poaching. The park rangers sent out to learn what was causing the problem discovered that the young elephants had banded together in small groups, similar to gangs. They ran the rhinos to their deaths and then trampled them, behavior totally atypical of elephants. The cause was obvious. In transporting the elephants, they had only taken young ones because it was easier to transport them, less dangerous to catch them and financially cheaper to execute the operation. They failed to realize that by transplanting only young elephants, they deprived them of adult role models who could set limits and boundaries, and teach them how to be social animals. In many ways, we are seeing the same lapse of leadership persevorate throughout the world. Our leaders are poor examples, extremely poor teachers, or the product of a lack of leadership themselves. As a consequence, people are left homeless in war-torn or poverty-stricken situations where parental role models are absent, or fail to inspire trust or sufficient strength to indicate they can be leaned on.
So, there you have it. We are living in a world filled with intolerant, insensitive, egocentric individuals who are oblivious to the pain they inflict on others and the damage they cause to society in general. Because of the absence of adequate role models in their lives, they lack boundaries, have little respect for authority and are incapable of trusting people who attempt to care for and nurture them. In most instances, their primary caretakers had problems themselves. Those who didn’t may have been basically good, well-intentioned people who were so involved in their careers, their need to make money, have bigger cars, fancier clothes and grander toys that they lost any sense of true values. As a result, they failed to realize that it isn’t what you have, but who you are inside, what you feel, and what you share with those you love that really counts.
That’s the whole problem. To solve it, each of us has to recognize that the problem is already close to home and that every one of us has to be a part of the solution. We have to become the leaders and role models for others. We have to learn to accept, guide, protect and encourage those who are less fortunate, less attractive, or less intellectually or physically endowed. Because if we don’t, weapons and automatic pistols in the hands of those so-called weak, timid, potential mass murderers who were bullied and/or scorned in middle school will become equalizers, which will wind up destroying us and them as well.