Tuesday, April 17, 2007
Tragedy happens, and there is nothing we can do, short of total isolation from other living things, to avoid it.
My personal lesson came with the passing of my mother, who at the age of 63 had lived nearly two lifetimes worth of experience, much of it negative. As we put it to the doctors who feared our blaming accusation at the manner of her passing: her body simply had no more to give. She gave up.
The lesson continued through the next 18 months or so after her passing, starting with a psychotic breakdown that required 13 months of weekly therapy to reconcile. To say that her passing caused it would be wrong; to say that she was at the center of it would be completely accurate.
I cannot, except by extension -- having parents who survived, separately, one of the most violent spans of time in human history -- know how it feels to be confronted with violent death. Violence sickens me, physically. I'm one of those who will react as he must during a violent crisis, but will toss his cookies (even if there are none to toss) afterwards. But, despite several opportunities, I have never had to confront violent death.
The beloved and loving survivors of war casualties know this next part very well -- and I can assert that because I have yet to meet such a person who didn't know it. We dishonor our dead if we refuse to recognize their manner of death in the time and place -- the context -- in which it happened. When a soldier dies in combat, this recognition is easy. When children are gunned down by a psycopath in the context of everyday life, that recognition can be beyond difficult... but it is no less important than the recognition we offer our soldiers who die in combat.
So, for all of us who are grieving, at whatever proximity or remove, the death of children at Virginia Tech, we must -- for their sake -- understand the context of their deaths.
We must avoid quick judgment of the situation. We must withold judgment of the murderer until his background and motivation can be ascertained; and, with that, we must refrain from speculative conclusions about him and his motivation if we fail to obtain the necessary facts to come to a rational conclusion about him.
Above all, we must avoid stereotyping the situation or the people involved. The British author J.R.R. Tolkien has entered the mass consciousness in recent years, with the Peter Jackson movies being so widely seen, so I won't hesitate to use a quote from his novel The Lord of the Rings:
“Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgment. For even the very wise cannot see all ends.”
This expresses the importance in both ways. We can, not because we think he deserved it, offer the murderer compassion. We may never know for certain, but that he was a student at the school narrows the possibilities of his motivation. Was he a social scapegoat? Was he under more pressure than he could handle? Was he that rare case of a psychotic just waiting to explode? These and other, similar, possibilities point to one thing: there is nothing anyone could have done to prevent his actions. If we can, as is appropriate, console the survivor of a suicide in like fashion, we must extend this notion to our college campuses, because the real crime would be if we turned them into armed fortresses, made them into gated communities cut off from the surrounding culture. I promise every parent who might say, "yeah, I want that" one thing: it will happen again despite the best of any such effort.
If we do nothing else, we must teach our children one thing: to live life to its fullest, to confront all that life might bring, and to never let fear rule life.
I will end with one other bit of wisdom from Tolkien's pen. I offer it as both solace and recognition of our grief.
"I will not say: do not weep; for not all tears are an evil."
May the Great Mother take you to her warm and loving embrace.
Wednesday, April 11, 2007
Hang Imus from the tallest tree, but first you must answer these questions three:
Why am I supposed to feel any respect for the reactions to Don Imus, when the very people calling for his figurative head have been basically silent about black rappers?
What is the difference between ruining Imus' career and trying to beat or kill him?
Show me the evidence that any woman on the Rutgers team has been or will ever be harmed by Imus' words?
Saturday, April 07, 2007
Rush to Judgment
So, before my head explodes, some thoughts and rants about judgment, honor, and the idea that we (in general) know a damn thing at all about the hearts and minds of others.
I am the son of a warrior. I phrase that deliberately. My father was born to a militaristic culture. His schooling was militaristic in the literal sense. His expectation upon reaching his majority was primarily an officer's commission in an army. He was, himself, special in his native skills, so the expectations of others were if anything well beyond what any young man might have on his own.
He had, in my never humble opinion, as accurate a sense of honor as any person I can name. And, in any rational sense, he was completely unworthy of my personal trust.
In his own culture, he was eminently sane. In the US, he was rightly diagnosed with clinical paranoia, and the only reason he was not involuntarily committed was because a judge wasn't convinced that he was a threat of physical injury to himself or those around him. The emotional scars he left in myself, my siblings, and my late mother were, of course, of no matter. [end brief sarcasm]
But that in no way contradicts the fact that he was an honorable man, that he comported himself with honor while a soldier, and that he accurately commented on the state of military conduct in the US. I have his letters and personal notes, collected over 40 years. They are lucid, direct, and in some cases brilliant.
Yet, in his personal life, he could not trust others, thus preventing him being in any way trustworthy in himself.
We are faced with a mindset, in our contemporary world, that is by itself capable of more destruction than any other single mindset I know of. It is, in short, the notion that one's faith, ethnicity, form of government or nationality are somehow more important no matter the circumstances than one's own life, or short of that one's own personal dignity or physical well-being.
We see it in action every day in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. We see it in hate crime legislation (more details about that in a future post). We see it in the current debate over the behavior of the captured sailors and marines held in Iran, and I find it exceedingly difficult for anyone to offer the slightest criticism of that group of men and one woman at any point prior to knowing exactly what transpired during their incarceration, and without knowing what their standing orders were from their commanders concerning being caught in that sort of situation.
I find all of the commentary, even the parts that praise them prematurely, cowardly posturing at best.
Do them a favor. Say nothing about them until you know all the facts, on both sides of the question. Every commentator has a completely random chance of being either completely right or completely wrong. If nothing else, that random chance should cause one to hesitate.
But no. In this journalistic world of me-first, get the prize, scoop the world regardless of the confirmation or even possession of facts, we get inundated by personal takes on a situation that most writers have never faced, not even vicariously through someone close to them. We get inane comparisons with isolated (but oh-so-well documented) cases like that of John McCain, inane because every logical point in the comparison is ignored; only the outcome matters. And, in the end, being the one to publish commentary about the outcome before it manifests is all that matters.
Wednesday, April 04, 2007
There are several key elements to online civility in its practice, but it all starts with the internal processes, the attitudes and perspective of the person. In my never humble opinion (all puns intended), the ego is the prime culprit in lack or loss of civility.
At the top of my list of personal practices, kept in mind especially when an egregiously uncivil forum is encountered, is the notion of acknowledgement of feelings.
This notion is simple: before replying to a post or statement, before exploring my personal feelings and reactions, I take a moment to acknowledge the feelings of the author whose words I just read. This is simple, non-judgmental, and in no way assumes or implies that I agree with the statement or the feelings. They exist, they have been expressed, and a fundamental component of respect for others is recognizing common ground, that being in just about every case being human.
In most instances, I don't have to state the acknowledgement, at least not beyond a bare "Okay" or "I hear you". Usually, my response is composed to show the acknowledgement, even in the subtlest ways. However, sometimes it is profitable to both parties (and to those reading) to explicitly write that acknowledgement, in direct proportion to the strength of the feelings: the stronger they are, the more attention they deserve.
My personal proof of this notion is also simple: whenever I forget to use it, I find myself quickly becoming embroiled in argument rather than discussion, I expend much greater effort to be understood, let alone heard, and my own feelings become more likely to get in the way. In short, I fall in the ego trap that is present in every uncivil forum. Indeed, I can point to many a thread where an immediate improvement occured because someone acknowledged my feelings.
So, do please try this at home. Injuries incurred by the confluence of head with desk, monitor or other unyielding surface is the responsibility of the user. Management will disavow any claims of philosophical validation. This message will self-destruct in 1,000 years or at the advent of the next ice age, whichever comes first.