Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Empathy, Not Outrage

In the wake of the Newtown murders, I need to believe my sons will be safe at school. This is the minimum of what I expect from my free society. I have that expectation because my sons cannot yet protect themselves in the public spaces where they learn how to understand and love their neighbor. They need those spaces to complement the worldview we try to instill in them, to learn diversity but also to test our indoctrinations against the world they will one day inherit. I expect my boys to attend public school in the United States, that great egalitarian social institution where they will learn something about how to become neighbors, friends, colleagues, confidantes, and enemies. At home, with my wife and our families, we will teach them how to become adults and men.

I understand that a school is a place where magnificent violence can happen between students, or between a teacher and a student, even habitually and secretively, over a long period of time, between predators and victims, bullies and the bullied. I taught for three years in a public elementary school in Chicago, where students were subjected to periodic body searches and, every now and again, they walked into school through metal detectors. The point was to contain the potential for violence between students because they were not yet mature enough to always make good choices about feelings, actions, and consequences. At that school, we had no contingency plan for a grown man who might walk into the school wearing combat gear, firing an assault rifle and handguns into roomfuls of children.

I fear the pattern I see emerging in our society to become a new norm: random and sporadic violence without consequence or response. A man at a university kills his peers. A man at a theater murders strangers. A man at a rally shoots a Congresswoman in the head. These are acts of terror committed by someone else’s boys.

I cannot say what happens in someone else’s head when he shoots a stranger. But the fact that it keeps happening, and with increasing frequency, means that something we do not approve of and cannot contain thrives. It is equal parts arrogant and pointless to speculate beyond that.

I can help to control how these circumstances are mended. And here, I think, is a point of consensus. A society agrees to grant, and then recognize the rights of its members, who suffer various penalties when they choose, individually or collectively, to deny those rights to each other. No right can be greater than our right to nurture, protect, and socialize our children. Schools must be safe public spaces for children to negotiate their relationships with the world, each other, and adults. We have an obligation as a society to make and keep those spaces safe.

Being an adult means sometimes feeling unsafe and vulnerable: to disease, to other people, to the natural world, to society. As a society, we contain that fear. Our children should not be forced to face their inherent vulnerability before they are mature enough to understand it and make choices for or against it.

In a parenting book I admire, I am encouraged to help my sons express their terrifying and extreme emotions in reasonable terms by using “you wish” phrases. It sounds like you wish you could keep playing with that toy rather than share it with your friend. The most basic acknowledgment of anyone’s wish is an expression of empathy, and empathy diffuses anger, hatred, fear, and suffering.

This is a time that requires extreme empathy. Whatever conversation begins or continues, let’s work to improve it. Whomever the vested interests and constituents, our talking to each other must not devolve into minor arguments about policy, health, lobbies, and tactics. Our circumstances are not beyond repair. Not yet, at least. We require some measure of restitution. Let’s start instead by saying, over and over, what we wish for each other, then listen to each other and hear whatever rings true in our hearts. I wish that our society will again become one in which our children are safe in public, in our schools and classrooms, from the particular violence of unreasonable adults. I wish that this tragedy will exist in words we only say once.

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