This is a guest blog by IHE graduate Shannon Finch, M.Ed., in response to the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
Horrified, sickened, angered, saddened--like many people, this is how I felt about the killing of 27 people, most of whom were children, at Sandy Hook Elementary School this morning. I can’t wrap my mind around the terror these young victims must have felt. I can’t fathom the depth of the anguish their parents are experiencing right now. I mourn the lives cut short, the promise lost, the bright lights that have now gone out. These children could have become inspiring teachers, brilliant scientists, creative artists, innovative business men and women, and loving parents, people the world sorely needs. Any one of them could have gone on to solve the great problems of our time, be it in medicine, climate change, energy, poverty, hunger or peace. From this perspective, we have all lost something precious in Newtown, Connecticut.
I don’t know what went wrong in the shooter’s life, what mental issues he had, what filters were missing that enabled him to commit such a crime. The social glorification of guns, the desensitization to violence through video games and movies, and our culture of wild west individualism could also have influenced his decisions. Today’s mass shooting was just the latest in a long list of such shootings in 2012 alone. Ohio, Florida, California, Oklahoma, Colorado, Wisconsin, Texas, New York, Georgia, Pennsylvania, Oregon all were scenes of a disturbing trend: Mass shootings that take the lives of innocent people and often end in the suicide of the shooter.
I wish it didn’t take the deaths of innocents, including babies, to finally force us to have a civil, honest and reasoned discussion about gun violence in the United States. I know this is a hot button issue. And, I submit to you that gun control, whatever that means, is only one part of the solution, like sticking some gum in the hole on the leaking dike. By focusing on that one angle, we miss the opportunity to get at the root causes of such violence. We have to look at the deeper question. Why would someone turn to a gun as a way to address his pain? I’m not a psychologist or psychiatrist; I don’t pretend to understand the convoluted thinking that can lead to this. But I do believe that these choices don’t come out of nowhere, and that as humane educators, we may have a role to play in prevention.
I know, that sounds big, maybe even a little presumptuous. Let me explain.
After hearing this news this morning, I cried. I wanted to hide under the covers and shut the world out. Instead, I called my friend Valerie. We trotted out the usual suspects that we use to rationalize horrific deeds: He had a bad upbringing, he was mentally ill, he was plain evil. Maybe, maybe not, we don’t know yet. But oddly, what kept popping up in our conversation was kindness and its twin, respect, the basic tenants of humane education.
Being kind and respectful has so many permutations. It can be relocating the spider outside instead of smushing her, picking up trash on the riverbank rather than walking by, or helping your neighbor after the hurricane. It also means being kind and respectful to oneself. Sure, some folks are kind to themselves and a jerk to others, but more often, that kindness spills over. Being kind and respectful to others takes you out of yourself, creating empathy and connection.
Please understand, I am in no way excusing Lanza’s despicable and cowardly actions. What I am saying is that if, through all the twists and turns of his life, at all those critical junctures, he had had a well of kindness and respect to draw from, then maybe, just maybe, he wouldn’t have made the choice he did today. Sounds so simple, doesn’t it? But think about it. If kindness and respect were part of our education from an early age, so much so that it was part of our core being, then picking up a gun to solve our problems wouldn’t even occur to us. If we are kind and respectful to others, whether it’s the spider, the river or the neighbor, we value them. We don’t destroy them to solve our own problems. I believe we are better people when we practice kindness and respect. I know it’s true for me. And lest you think this concept of kindness is trite, then remember the young people in recent years who opened fire on their classmates because they had been bullied. Think of the violent actions of loners who were often ostracized, and those with mental illness, whom we judge and turn our backs on. Kindness is not the mark of a weakling, nor is it just gooey sentiment; treating people as we would want to be treated can literally be a lifesaver.
So, this is my call to humane educators everywhere: Continue to do your work helping others to become what Zoe Weil calls Solutionaries--thoughtful, effective problem solvers who have a solid foundation of kindness and respect. We have a lot of work to do to shine a light through the societal fog surrounding violence, guns, and mental illness. I am not so naive as to think that kindness and respect will prevent all of these tragedies, but I also don’t underestimate their power. In my mind’s eye, I see all this kindness and respect pouring out of people like a big billowing quilt, affecting everyone it touches, like a virus, but a good virus. Continue to sow the seeds of kindness and respect. Do so despite—and maybe because of—the helplessness, fear, and despair that we feel when something like this happens. That’s what I’m going to do.
- Shannon Finch, M.Ed.