20 April 2007

Unknowability and the end of the world

Yesterday morning Berkshire Community College evacuated students due to a bomb scare. First, there was a threat found written on the wall of a bathroom. In just over an hour, students and faculty were planning to meet to hold a moment of silence for the victims at Virginia Tech.

Then later in the afternoon, another threat was called in to the South County campus (which is tiny - one hallway, seven classrooms) and that building was evacuated as well.

It's not like this is something new exactly, I remember a bomb threat when I was in ninth grade at a small rural high school and we all stood in the parking lot while the police and their dogs searched the building. Bomb threats are almost always taken seriously. But when 32 people die in a shooting on a college campus, it is bound to feel more urgent and more than a little creepy when the college down the street is evacuated.

Since Monday I have been thinking a lot about what we can or can't do to prevent something like the shootings at Virginia Tech from happening again and the scary conclusion that I have come to is not much. Following the massacre a lot of attention was given to the question of whether the school administration could have done more, particularly in relation to preventing the second shooting. And while some people are wondering why they didn't do more, I have heard many students and others say that they did do all they could, and that essentially, there was nothing more anyone could have done.

We all know that the future is unpredictable. We accept this idea as true, but abstract. But when something like this happens, people still feel like they should have known. They want so desperately to have known, so that they could have done something, to stop it, to help people. But no matter how prepared you are; you just can't see the future.

I am pretty sure that what most people are most afraid of is the unknown. This can manifest in so many ways, the child's fear of the dark, fear of death, fear of loosing someone you love, fear of being alone, but essentially, they are all the same thing, they all involve a loss of control, a loss of security, and when we are afraid, we cling to what we know, what we can predict, anything that gives us a sense of security and reassurance.

Part of what makes us human is our fear, and our love. Nothing can prepare you for the death of a child because preparation for such an event would mean turning off a part of yourself that makes you human. I'm no Buddhist, but life is suffering in a way that ensures our humanity. In order to feel joy, we must also feel pain. I’m not willing to trade in my humanity for cynicism, and the only alternative seems to be that I must accept my lack on control, accept the unknowability of the world, and live and love and cry anyway.

I know this is getting a little abstract here and I'm trying hard not to get too philosophical, but what I am trying to say is this: there is nothing we can do to prepare for or prevent something like the Virginia Tech massacre that we are not already doing. Yes, there are ways we can make it more difficult for students like Cho Seung-Hui: we can make it harder to get guns, offer more mental health support, warn people as soon as it looks like something might happen, but ultimately, human beings are complicated and unpredictable. For every individual who is willing to go through with something like this, there must be hundreds or thousands who think about it.

How do we separate those who will go through with it from those who will not? Digital brain mapping? A standardized test? Lock them all up? The truth is, there is no good way, no sure-fire way to ensure that this kind of thing never happens again and this scares the hell out of people, including me.

But once we have accepted that there are some things outside of our control, where do we go from there? How is it possible to just sit back and say, yes, okay, things like this happen, and life goes on? It's not.

An event like this, that reminds us all how out of control we really are, demands our attention. It demands that we try again and again to refocus and think of all of the ways in which it could have been prevented. An event like this demands vigilance, a renewal of commitment in our own lives to live as if every human life matters, the woman at the supermarket checkout, the man at the tollbooth, the kid who pushes your kid on the playground, even the boy who wants to shoot people at school because he feels so depressed and confused and trapped that it seems like the only option.

Even though it feels like it can't possibly make a difference, it can and it does. Even though when I smile at a stranger on the street, it might not feel like I have done anything more than that, but maybe I have. We have all had those experiences where someone does something unexpected and kind for us on a bad day, maybe it is just a smile, or maybe someone holds a door open, or helps you pick up the papers that flooded from your bag in the middle of the sidewalk when you were already late for work. All of these things make a difference, and even though we can never control the behavior of others, and even when we ache in wanting to, this is what we can do. This is how we can make a difference in the lives of the people around us.

People have been killing each other for thousands and thousands of years. Accepting that this is a part of humanity does not mean that I have to resign myself to it. Accepting this means that I allow myself to embrace the complexity of the world around me and give myself permission to feel the fear, the grief, and the pain without allowing it to take over. Instead of surrendering to my emotions I can remember that even though I am only one tiny, tiny little part of the world, the way that I live my life matters, if only to the people around me.

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