Carol Bly, one of Minnesota’s finest essayists, published an essay with this title in her collection, Letters from the Country. It’s probably my favorite, written when she lived in a small prairie community in the 1970s. She advised us, in that bossy way of hers, to sit in the dark and so discourage passing drivers from turning in at the driveway. Do not answer the door. Instead, think about all the subjects that can’t be discussed with coffee-klatching neighbors.
It is a quiet night at my house, and I am drawing up a ledger of sorts, musings about this most cantankerous of years. I’m thinking about the shooting of 20 children in a Connecticut school and where to lay the blame. It’s not possible simply to stand aloof. We in the middle class have become more and more in love with roughness and violence, and less and less aware of what it means to be truly desperate. This divergence between real suffering and the noise and menace we manipulate for enjoyment frightens me.
Item: After President Obama “saved” the Detroit automakers, instead of instituting guidelines for smaller cars with higher fuel efficiency, we porked out on bigger SUVs and 4X4s–souped up trucks so big they roar down residential streets like tanks. Flamboyant displays of power going nowhere!
Item: Sitting in a movie theater as far from home as you can get and not tread on Asia, we waited for a showing of “The Life of Pi.” The previews were for shows you’re supposed to see with kids. The screaming sound tracks nearly broke my eardrums. The images of mayhem and destruction were so huge and menacing, so “in your face” that I had to hide mine in my lap.Yet all around me, wriggling, jumpy kids kept eating their candy and popcorn, taking it all in.
Item: We know nothing, not really, about the 20-year-old who broke into the elementary school in Connecticut with enough ammunition to kill everyone in the school. We do know that his mother bought the assault-style weapons and the ponderous bullet cases he used. Is it possible that she, who never let anyone close to her house, was engaged in full-fledged terrorizing of her son? Is it possible that his horrendous act went twenty-eight shots beyond what he was experiencing at home?
I’ve just talked to educators who work with protection against, and prevention of school violence. About lock-downs, one said, “We practice what to do–lock classroom doors, never let anyone in during a class. But within days, all the doors stand open and anyone can appear at a classroom door and get the teacher’s attention.” The other one said, “Prevention is even more important than protection–talk to students who seem depressed. Ferret out the suicidal and get them help. It’s often the suicidal who kills others, then himself.”
Item: When I was in high school, we practiced what to do if someone dropped “the bomb.” We filed out into the halls and hunkered down, our arms draped over our heads. Then on Saturday night we danced ourselves silly to loud rock ‘n’ roll. But there was only one shooting in my small South Carolina high school–it was an accident. A brother cleaning a shotgun killed a younger sibling at close range. He was a pariah afterwards, always walking alone, his head down. No one had ever heard of assault-style rifles. Television was silly comedy shows, boring new commentaries and Saturday morning cartoons on our small screen.
Item: My father drove like a maniac, arguing with my mother, lifting his hands off the wheel. In the back seat, I was terrified and furious. Even as a girl, I knew that he was using the car as a weapon to intimidate her.
There is only one conclusion and many corollaries: Humans will be violent, loud and bullying.
Corollaries: Arms control doesn’t mean only a detente over the bomb. It also means removing the most dangerous weapons from civil society. Assault weapons and huge magazines of bullets should not be available to anyone except the military. Period.
Violence needs to be channeled to do the least harm: sports and challenging outdoor activities are the best. Children (and that includes teenagers and young adults) are particularly vulnerable to huge, loud, repeated images of aggression. Fed such junk long enough, they will be unable to distinguish between what is playful and what is harmful. The two will become melded. Fear will curdle in their chests and they will spew it on others.
Instead of such a diet, they (and the rest of us) need gentle, quiet, thoughtful activities. We as humans need to learn how to protect and care for living things smaller than and bigger than we are. We need to learn empathy for those around us. Otherwise, we all grow an exaggerated sense of our own power and place in the world, which is an awful set-up for dealing with the biggest challenge we face: repairing the planet in hopes of saving life as we know it before it’s too late.