As a parent and Head of School, I have been unable to stop thinking about the awful events that took place at Sandy Hook Elementary School. As individuals and as a nation we are going through stages of grief. Anger that such a thing could happen and a search for the unanswerable question of why; and if a motive could ever be found, it would remain an unsatisfying discovery, as no motive is justification for that heinous crime.
And so we move on to blame and responsibility – as if that would bring satisfaction or that even a single cause could ever be connected to the mass murder. Our nation’s conversation is focused on gun control and mental health. They are important and necessary conversations.
And while changes in those areas are necessary, no amount of gun control legislation would ever be sufficient to stop such meaningless slaughter. Our approach to mental health is in desperate need of change. As a parent of a child with mental illness, it is closer to my life than most. There is much to be said about how we address these issues, but that is for another time.
There is something glaringly missing from the national conversation. It is safer to point fingers away from ourselves. The government is responsible because of lax gun laws. Or the media is responsible because of all of the violence it promotes. Or health care insurers are responsible for lack of access to good mental health care.
We do need better gun laws, better mental health care and a more open understanding of mental illness. Our children are exposed to a lot of violence in the media, but we forget that children have always been exposed to violence; just read a fairy tale!
We are avoiding the more uncomfortable conversation – the conversation about the fabric of our culture and society. President Obama is right when he says that a society is judged by how it cares for its children. Our Jewish tradition takes it further – we are judged by how we treat all vulnerable people in our society. God demands justice and compassion!
The American ethos of self-determination, the individual independent of community, has led to a society that is increasingly filled with self-absorbed individuals in the endless pursuit of self-satisfaction and personal happiness. Our consumer-driven economy plays into that drive. The result is an overarching lack of responsibility to others. We do not want any person or any institution telling us what to do or how to act. We have taken “all about me” to new heights.
It is not that we do not do good things. Americans are charitable, and in crises we see strangers reaching out to those in need.
Why is it we live in a culture where it is cool to be “bad,” “tough,” and physically powerful, but when someone calls for people to own their actions, be responsible for their choices and do what is right and just, that person is judged self-righteous or arrogant? In others words, no person, no institution, and no God can tell me what to do.
Is it a coincidence that fewer people are involved in religious pursuits or interested in being guided by organized religion than at any other time in our society? In America more people claim to be spiritual, looking for personal ways to connect with God and the universe, but again, this spirituality is about the self, not the other.
One of the changes our society needs to diminish senseless killings in schools, malls and movie theatres begins at home. There is a quote that says, “Let everyone sweep in front of his own door, and the whole world will be clean.” It begins around the dinner table where parents care more about raising good people than about being their children’s good friend. Parents need to teach love, compassion and responsibility for one’s actions and choices. Parents need to be there for their children, leading by example. It needs to be “cool” to be good, to care about others, to face our choices, and to recognize the world is not “all about me.” And parents need a structured community of shared values to help.
It is not enough for us to rally around our neighbors just in a time of crisis. It is not enough for our politicians to stop being uncivil to each other only after the slaughter of children. Civility, compassion, concern and actions that help others need to be ever-present in the fabric of our culture.
It’s easier to point fingers at Washington. However, if we really want to create a just, compassionate and safe society, it needs to begin with each of us and with each and every school and community. The murders at Sandy Hook Elementary School were horrific, and yet we are still fortunate to live and go to school in a relatively safe environment. The greater risks our children face each and every day are emotional and developmental rather than physical.
So while we increase police patrols and lock more doors, let’s invest at least as much energy and resources in protecting and nurturing the minds, hearts and souls of our children. Goodness and compassion are not natural. They are learned. Too many people think they are good because they do not break laws. They are merely not criminals. An absence of goodness can lead to unethical, selfish, and in extreme cases, criminal behavior. We need to be intentional when teaching our children and we need to be clear that we care as much or even more about their actions as we do about their grades!
Better gun laws, a more systemic and compassionate approach to mental illness, fostering responsibility in our young people, and more attention spent to creating a society where compassion, love and concern for helping others is as least as important as individual freedoms, will go a long way to decreasing this type of violence.