A Time for Reflection, Part III of III

This is the third installment in my three-part series, “A Time for Reflection.” It is a commentary on the Newtown, CT shootings earlier this year. My first installment was about lack of access to mental health, my second installment was about gun control, and this, the most difficult installment, is about the violence that is so accepted and prevalent in our society. It is so entrenched and goes so deep into our collective consciousness that it can be hard to grasp, and therefore, it took me weeks to write this post.

We live in a violent society. We all acknowledge it, and I have a theory about WHY we’re so violent: all violence stems from fear. Numerous studies have shown that human beings are not inherently violent, but become so in response to fear. We are the most prosperous and militarily powerful nation on earth, yet we are consumed, as a society, with fear: fear of terrorism, criminal attacks, economic collapse, apocalypse, viruses… and one another. The media deserves a large share of the blame, with their constant fear mongering. The TV “news” does not reflect the whole reality of our world; it is carefully chosen and filtered by someone else for us to view. The intention is to create emotion and sensation, and keep us tuning in for more. Our “news” channels are nothing more than a propaganda machine. Even today’s game shows are for more dangerous and humiliating for contestants than those of 30 years ago.

It’s impossible to turn on the TV without being bombarded for ads for pills, for every conceivable “condition.” Two things I’d like to point out about the pills: First off, these pharmaceutical companies do not altruistically focus on a particular disease, with the intention of finding a cure. They mix chemicals and test them on humans. When they find a combination that treats a particular symptom, they spend copious amounts of money to promote it, regardless of potential dangers, including death. When you buy prescriptions, generally speaking, you are paying more for ads than research… pure profit for this monster industry.

My second point is that one thing many mass shooters seem to have in common is their use of these psychotropic prescription medications. Was their violence the result of their mental instability, or the dangerous, under-regulated chemicals coursing through their bodies? Other nations have banned some of these chemicals, but not ours. It’s irresponsible to talk about the violence in our society without taking a look at the violence committed by those with a legally altered consciousness, on drugs known to create erratic, even violent behavior.

We are a nation built on violence, exploitation, and subjugation. I mention this because fear begets greed, which begets violence. From the genocide, rape, and land theft against the Native peoples, to the kidnapping, trafficking, and enslavement of the African tribes, and the exploitation, trafficking, and blatant racism toward Chinese, Irish, and now Hispanic immigrants, we have continued our bloody, shameful legacy. We have been an oligarchy, run by the very wealthy, right from the start. The people who run this country want nothing more than to keep us fearful, medicated, and violent toward one another. So I believe that fear, greed, and violence are incorporated into our cultural psyche.

But I’d like to take it one layer deeper: Why do we buy into the fear? I believe it has to do with how we define power. Fear is generally the result of feeling a threat of losing power or control, over someone or something. We have all we need as a nation, yet it is never enough. The entitlement is burned into our collective psyche, and like a spoiled child, we are overly competitive and insecure, because we perceive power as “things,” and we fear having it all stripped away.

We tend toward violence as a quick solution, in much the same way we rush to take a pill to solve our problems, rather than change our lifestyle. We put a higher value on people who have power manifested externally, such as physical prowess and wealth, rather than valuing every person equally. When we dehumanize people in this way, we pave the way for justifying violence.

I once heard a story I will never forget: in WWII, our soldiers were enlisting by the thousands to serve their country, but were reluctant to kill other humans…we humans aren’t hard-wired for violence, remember. The war propagandists put their heads together, and hired a young cartoonist, named Walt Disney, to draw caricatures of Germans and Japanese with rat and pig faces. This dehumanization had the desired effect, making them “the enemy.“ Americans were more willing to see them as less than human and kill them.

Being aware of how violence is ingrained in our culture is the first step to changing it. It’s also important to understand, especially as we are in the longest war in our history, that violence on higher levels supports violence on lower levels. Everything from domestic violence, to bullying, to racism, to global aggression is part of the same continuum, and is self-perpetuating. In other words, the same excuses we use to hurt those close to us are the same ones we use to justify global violence.

There will always be a tiny percentage of the population that will be psychopathic, and delight in the suffering of others. But much violence in general can be alleviated if we change our outlook. What if we switched our focus on valuing living things instead of inanimate ones? What if we stopped cutting funding to arts and music programs, while glorifying sports in our schools (which sends a message that athletes are the “important” kids)? What if we taught our kids more about cooperation than competition, and giving instead of achieving?

It’s truly up to us to re-evaluate what power really means, and look at authentic power. Picture the last street person you saw and think of your reaction to that person. Was your initial reaction to them based on fear? Gratitude it wasn’t you? Now imagine that same person, cleaned up, in expensive clothing. How would your response be different? This is how we need to shift our thinking if we are going to learn to value one another as equals in our society.

I wonder if things might have turned out differently in Newtown if the shooter’s mother had not been so fearful. She apparently stockpiled food and guns in preparation for something she believed and feared would happen. Even though she had knowledge of her son’s mental instability, she chose to take him to the shooting range to teach him to protect himself from some perceived danger. The danger, in this case, was himself. How incredibly sad for so many people.

We are at an exciting juncture and this is a great time to be alive. We can begin to consciously choose non-violence, and act as inspiration to one another, or we can continue the same old patterns of greed, fear, oppression and violence. We can strive to address the violence on all levels of society, be it interpersonal or international. When we honor and value each human being, there is nothing to fear. When we stop believing that the evening news reflects the norm, we begin to realize that the world is not such a horrible, hateful place. I personally see acts of love and kindness on a daily basis that will never make the news. When we rid ourselves of “us and them,” and understand that we are all “we,” the violence begins to end. Without fear, there is no need anymore.

I write this at the very tail end of 2012, and I am optimistic that we as a species, and hopefully as a society, will continue to evolve spiritually, and learn to love and care for one another… not become more isolated and fearful. I believe in the human spirit’s ability to rise above adversity. Here is my favorite quote of all time, which I find more inspiring than anything I will ever write. I hope you will carry it in your heart this coming year, and that it brings you peace:

“To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness. What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places—and there are so many—where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction. And if we do act, in however small a way, we don’t have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.”

Howard Zinn

A Time for Reflection, Part II of III

Here is Part II of my three-part installment on the Newtown, CT shootings.  As I stated before, I see three very strong factors behind the current incident.  I’m not trying to minimize the complexity of this incident, or “place the blame” on any one thing, just outlining my own beliefs about three factors that may have made a difference.  Part I of the my blog post was about barriers to access for mental health treatment.  Part II is about gun ownership.

I haven’t heard anyone advocate for taking away everyone’s guns, yet I have never seen such vitriol and paranoia, in the mass or social media.  People are entrenched in a very contentious national argument right now, both sides are polarized, and I’m going to say what needs to be said:  We need to ban assault weapons.  Period.  Assault weapons are for one thing: killing as many as possible as quickly as possible.  And in this case, I believe that if assault weapons were illegal, this young man might not have gotten one.  Here is why I believe this:

It so happens that the weapons belonged to his mother, a gun enthusiast who purchased them legally.  He had tried to purchase a gun and was denied.  His mother was not a criminal, so if they were illegal, it is unlikely she would have them.  Like most of these mass shooters, he was a socially awkward, mentally disturbed person, not a hardened criminal with a network of gun-running associates.  While it is possible that if his mother hadn’t have had the guns, he would have gotten one, it’s not probable.  Yes, criminals will still have guns, and people will still do bad things… but there would be fewer of them available, and they would be harder to access, especially for a withdrawn, emotionally disturbed kid with few connections or friends.  

I’m sick to death of hearing, “guns don’t kill people, people kill people.”  Well, what do people use to kill people?  It’s easier to import guns in this country than it is to import bananas, yet people don’t kill people with bananas.  Shouldn’t it be at least as difficult to import guns?  No, guns don’t self-animate and shoot people.  But it’s equally hard for a madman (or woman) to kill dozens of innocent people in mere seconds WITHOUT a gun.  So yes, people kill people, but it’s pretty damn easy to kill lots of them, very quickly, from a distance, without getting sweaty or even getting blood on you, with a gun.  Makes it nice and convenient, doesn’t it.

Does anyone honestly believe that someone who walks into a crowd with, say a knife, is going to do the same amount of damage, in the same amount of time, as someone carrying an assault weapon?  Case in point:  the same day the Newtown shooting took place, a man in China entered a classroom with a knife and stabbed 22 schoolchildren.  As horrific as this is, NOBODY DIED.  I am told that in the Newtown shooting, the medical examiners used photos for parents to identify their children because viewing their grisly little bodies would be too traumatic.  Such is the damage done by a high-caliber assault weapon: it did more than kill them; it annihilated them.  How can we defend these weapons? 

I am all for people having guns to defend and feed their families.  I grew up shooting guns, and I support the Second Amendment.  But this was written at a time when assault weapons did not exist, when it took 15 seconds to reload the single shot muskets that were being used at that time.  I do not support the ownership of assault rifles.  I maintain that this shooting may well have been prevented if this young man had not had legal, easy access to a weapon of mass destruction.  And while he could have perhaps made an explosive or used another weapon, that would not have been as easy or convenient as grabbing a legal, readily available instrument of death. 

There is also a sad fascination with guns in our culture; they denote power and glory.  They are in all the video games, movies, etc.  How often do you see the hero “blow the bad guys away” with a knife, or a homemade explosive?  No, there he stands in all his glory, with his high-powered assault rifles.  When things get out of hand, we “bring in the big guns,” don’t we.  And what is cooler in our society than going out in a “blaze of glory?”  Guns are cool, just ask the NRA.  Oh never mind, they’re being a little quiet right now.

I’ve talked to several people with varying views on gun control.  I think I now understand the irrational rage and hostility people exhibit when anyone dares to suggest banning these dangerous assault weapons.  It’s FEAR.  That’s right, behind the mask of bravado, behind the Monday morning quarterbacking of “I carry a concealed weapon and could have stopped him,” behind the cries of, “Arm the teachers!!” is stone cold fear.  When I ask people why they think we need these weapons, they are scared to death… of government takeover, of zombies (no, I am not kidding), of deadly viruses (because we all know how handy a Bushmaster can be to blow away that pesky flu virus), of economic collapse and their homes being attacked, and the list goes on. 

These people are so taken in by the culture of fear which is stoked by the NRA, gun manufacturers, and the mainstream media outlets, that they have lost their common sense.  They are willing to scream with outrage about gun owner’s rights, yet these same people are silent about the rights of schoolchildren and teachers to return home alive each day.  I’m not saying they don’t care; they are just so consumed with fear that their priorities have been warped.

It is time for a serious conversation about an assault weapons ban, stricter regulations around gun ownership, such as training requirements, etc., and consequences for those who choose not to behave like responsible gun owners.  We owe it to the victims of last weeks shooting, and their families.  And this needs to be a conversation devoid of hysterics, false bravado, and paranoia.  We owe it to them to be adults and TALK.

This leads me to my next installment, while I will post tomorrow, about our culture of violence.  It is deeply enmeshed in our culture of fear, and greatly contributes to the misguided belief that our world is an unsafe place without an arsenal of assault weapons.

I have posted several posts on gun control on my Facebook page, which have set off a firestorm of arguments, rants, and personal attacks.  When I posted a link to an article that provided information about direct ways to help the shooting victims’ families and community last weekend, only one person “liked” it, nobody commented, and nobody shared it.  They were too busy fighting about gun owner’s rights.  Here’s the link, in case anyone is interested in learning more about how to actually help:  http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/12/14/connecticut-elementary-school-shooting-how-to-help_n_2302760.html

Grief and Gratitude - A love story

Tonight, my plan was to post part II of A Time for Reflection.  But something happened today that was too special not to share, so I will post it tomorrow.

The weather matched my mood today: gray and cloudy, and cold.  I was feeling the weight of the recent shooting event, and other typical life stresses, and in addition, today marks three months that have passed since the death of my dear friend and co-worker, Deborah (Deb) Yund. 

Only Deb knows how many times I have looked at the 8 x 10" framed picture of her on the bookshelf, in our lending library at the office... for inspiration, guidance, or just to remember.  Deb was more than a co-worker.  She was a confidante, co-conspirator, mentor, and possibly the smartest person I ever met.  She made work fun, and everyone adored her.  Her death was unexpected, and has been extremely difficult to accept.

About a month ago, I was in the mail room at work, waiting for the printer to finish spitting out hundreds of copies.  Deb's empty mail slot caught my eye, and I felt that old familiar lump travel from my gut, through my chest, and into my throat.  I noticed a piece of purple paper, and on an impulse, began cutting out little purple paper hearts.  Purple was Deb's favorite color.  I wrote "I miss you" on each little heart, and slipped them into the mail slot.  I felt a little better knowing that, wherever she is, Deb got the message.

Within a few days, I noticed something: other hearts were appearing in Deb's mail slot.  Different colored little paper hearts, with little notes and phrases written on them.  The little collection grew as my co-workers paid their silent tribute to Deb, and I would smile every time I looked at her once-empty mail slot.

About a week ago, we had to move our little heart display as we needed her old mail slot for a new employee.  We put all of the hearts into a blue glass vase that sits in a place of honor on the bookshelf by her photograph, ready to be added to anytime.

Today, as I struggled with that same old lump in my throat, which kept threatening to spill down my cheeks, I posted a simple comment on my Facebook page: "It's been three months today. Deb, I miss you so much."  

After work, I stopped off at my daughter's house to pick up the grandkids.  While I waited for my granddaughter to find her shoes, I noticed I had a notification from Facebook on my phone.  I checked my Facebook page, and there, under my comment, were six comments from my friends.  No words, just hearts.  

My daughter wondered why I was bursting into tears, and I explained about the hearts we all gave Deb, and the hearts my friends gave me, and she said, "Maybe Deb is letting you know she is still around."

I agree, and it's more than that.  Love never dies.  No act of love is ever wasted, no matter how small or insignificant it may seem at the time.  That heart you post on someone's Facebook page, that smile, that five minutes of being a good listener, offering to help do some small thing... it all means something... more than you know.

At a time when most people I know are stressing out over gifts, love remains the greatest gift of all.  I wish everyone reading this love.

"...and in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make."  The Beatles

Thank you, Deb

A Time for Reflection, Part I of III

Like everyone, I have been rocked to my core by the recent massacre of 20 small children and seven adults in Newtown, Connecticut.  My first thoughts were of my children and my grandchildren, and trying to imagine a world with one of them ripped so violently away.  This attack defies logic and reason, and we may never truly know what motivated the killer to do what he did.

As we can’t really comprehend why, then we can only speculate as to how to prevent such a horrific tragedy from happening again.  It seems to me that three things really need to be addressed:  Access to mental health services, gun ownership, and our society’s addiction to violence.  Any one of these three issues can make for one overwhelming conversation, and I don’t claim to have any easy answers, but I'd like to try to address it.

This is the first of three installments on this subject.  This first post is about mental health services.  The second post will be about gun ownership, and the third will be about society's addiction to violence.

According to sources I have read, the shooter had a history of emotional and behavioral troubles; his mother had attempted to get mental health care for him, and was basically told it wasn’t available until he “did something bad.”  This is a common theme in our society, and I believe there are two reasons for this: 

One reason is that programs serving the mentally ill, and other marginalized populations, have been drastically cut.  This leaves providers the unpleasant task of putting out fires, rather than providing early intervention for at-risk kids.  It also seems to create a tendency to “throw pills” at the problem, which certainly creates a big risk of its own, since a common side effect of some of these pharmaceuticals is irrational, violent, or suicidal behavior.  It's a lot less effort to fill out a prescription pad than to strategize effectively with parents on techniques that might help the child.  And sedated kids are a lot less effort for teachers and caregivers than hyper/troublesome kids.  Certainly an entire blog post could be easily written on the corruption of the pharmaceutical industry alone, and its collusion in causing violence. 

The other reason that people often can’t/don't access help, besides the obvious financial one, is overly restrictive involuntary commitment laws.  These laws, which were set up to protect people from being wrongly committed to institutions, has some negative unintended consequences.  Anosognosia, a physiologically-caused lack of awareness about one’s illness, prevents approximately half of severely mentally ill people from taking their meds or seeking treatment.  Many are unlikely to get help unless others step in, in the form of attempting an involuntary commitment.  In Oregon, that means that at least two family members have to sign a sanity hearing petition, which results in a court hearing to review whether or not that person should be committed.  It has to be proven that the person in question is a danger to himself/others, or can’t meet his own needs, at least in Oregon.  It is not enough for that person to have bizarre behavior, be vulnerable and living in a box under an overpass, or in danger.  It usually means “something bad” has to happen. 

The Treatment Advocacy Center is a national non-profit dedicated to eliminating barriers to treatment for those with mental illness.  

According to their website, Connecticut has an estimated 140,000 people with severe mental illness, of whom approximately one-half are untreated at any given time. It is one of only six states without a law authorizing court-ordered outpatient treatment for qualifying individuals with severe mental illness. Between 2005 and 2010, the state eliminated 17% of its public hospital beds, leaving it with only 43% of the number deemed minimally adequate to meet public needs, and has twice as many people with severe mental illness behind bars as in psychiatric hospital beds. 

If the young shooter had received mental health care, would those 20 children be alive today?  Perhaps.  It certainly is an important factor, as the majority of these mass killers seem to share a profile of long-standing, and often untreated, mental instability.  This should be an intense part of our current national discussion.  If we truly care about the safety of our children, and the overall health of our population, we MUST start finding ways to fund, and make accessible, better mental health care. 

The Fight Before Christmas

A little poem I wrote that hopefully brings you a smile:

‘Twas the fight before Christmas, and all through the land,
People were shouting and taking a stand.
“Happy Holidays!” “No, Merry Christmas!” they shouted,
As claims of “un-Christian” behavior were spouted.
“You’re taking the Christ out of Christmas!” they roared,
As the actual meanings of words were ignored.
For “holiday” means “holy day” to the Dutch,
And I honestly don’t mind being wished THAT too much.
As for Christ-mass, its roots are of Pagan proclaim,
And Christ never once lit a tree in his name…

So it seems like a whole lot of fuss and ado
‘Bout a “war against Christmas” that hasn’t come true,
But by keeping us all in a climate of fear,
We ensure peace and brotherhood never come near.
And we miss opportunities here with this drama,
To learn more about what we all have in common.
For each major religion has love as it creed,
What they all have in common is God as their seed.
Just IMAGINE what peace and good will we’d create,
If we’d just accept love, and stop acting in hate.

So go Kwanzaa, go Christmas, go Hanukkah too,
Enjoy your traditions, Happy Holidays to you!  

Close the Camps

A couple of days ago I packed up my sister and my kiddos and attended a rally in support of closing the camps on the southern border of ...