Woke up Friday morning, excited that we had bought advance tickets to see The Dark Knight Rises. Early show, beating the crowds. Then came the news from Aurora. Then my Facebook feed, filling up with more images, stories, sympathy, expressions of how this terrible latest mass shooting should make us hold our families close and think about what really matters.
On one level, I couldn’t agree more. It’s just human nature to have horror bring us back to the things we really value, and calls to be kind are the best response.
On another level, I hate human nature. We should focus on these things every damn day, and I cannot stand how it sometimes takes a shocking act of violence to make us do so. Drilling into it, it also bothers me because it makes a killer in some way an inspiration, in some way responsible for our brief burst of loving behaviors.
After September 11, there was an Ad Council PSA that made this connection directly. I found it moving and disturbing for the very same reasons (and more, of course—9/11 brought out patriotism and kindness, but also, well, a fair amount of other distinctly less awesome stuff, enough of it that I couldn't even begin hyperlinking to all of it and just have to trust that you've followed the news over the past decade.)
I’m not saying that we should instead take this day and use it to be a real jerk to the 7-11 cashier, hide our grandparents’ dentures, kick the dog. I’m saying that I refuse to allow a psychotic gunman to inspire me to hug my loved ones more or be kinder to strangers than I already try to be. Every day, I struggle with my own pettiness, with annoyance at bad drivers, with impatience at work, with the conflicts created by the sometimes competing desires to be kind and to be honest. And I fail all the time. But I want to be tolerant, patient, gentle, loving, and generous every day, and not just when some crazy a-hole shoots a bunch of people and makes light stand out against dark action. Not just in response to carnage.
(It reminds me of a line from Tom Lehrer’s song about Christmas: On Christmas Day you can't get sore/Your fellow man you must adore,/There's time to rob him all the more/The other three hundred and sixty-four. Lehrer’s National Brotherhood Week has some relevance here too, in its capturing of being decent just long enough for a self-congratulatory bonding moment.)
I always feel—and let me say, I hate that we've had enough of these effing shootings that I can say "I always feel"—unease that it seems to take heinous acts of violence to bring out our best selves. Doesn’t that kind of imply that we require these horrors in order to rise to the occasion? That core goodness can only be accessed reactively? Maybe it’s true, but I find the idea fairly depressing. America could use more gentleness on an everyday basis.
While I don’t want to get much into politics here, the most recent news reports all say that the guns used in Aurora were all purchased legally. This is where I always come up against the NRA’s arguments that gun laws are stringent enough and that background checks will protect us. Yes, the vast majority of gun owners in this country are decent, law-abiding citizens, but there are too many cases now that indicate that those who snap often have no criminal records, nothing that would red flag them as dangerous … until, suddenly, there’s a red flag made out of a bunch of dead people. While I generally think that you can’t base laws on rare aberrations, when those rare aberrations have such heinous results, don’t they have to be factored in?
But enough with the polemic.
Bruce Weigl’s amazing poem “What Saves Us” is not about a mass shooting, but it is about violence—the last stateside night of a soldier about to leave for Vietnam—and about the small, unexpected places and forms redemption can inhabit. I love the lines “We are not always right/about what we think will save us”—a large “we” statement that’s risky in writing, but which I think Weigl earns with the specificity of what leads up to it.
I thought of the last lines when I heard about the shooting in Aurora. I have always found them incredibly haunting, expressing something so true about the human condition: our entanglement. I think it is this entanglement, these strands of connection, that make every day kindness decency both so difficult and so necessary. As Auden put it, "May I, composed like them/ Of Eros and of dust,/ Beleaguered by the same/ Negation and despair,/ Show an affirming flame."
What Saves Us
We are wrapped around each other
in the back of my father’s car parked
in the empty lot of the high school
of our failures, the sweat on her neck
like oil. The next morning I would leave
for the war and I thought I had something
coming for that, I thought to myself
that I would not die never having
been inside her body. I lifted
her skirt above her waist like an umbrella
blown inside out by the storm. I pulled
her cotton panties up as high
as she could stand. I was on fire. Heaven
was in sight. We were drowning
on our tongues and I tried
to tear my pants off when she stopped
so suddenly we were surrounded
only by my shuddering
and by the school bells
grinding in the empty halls.
She reached to find something,
a silver crucifix on a silver chain,
the tiny savior’s head
hanging, and stakes through his hands and his feet.
She put it around my neck and held me
so long the black wings of my heart were calmed.
We are not always right
about what we think will save us.
I thought that dragging the angel down that night
would save me, but instead I carried the crucifix in my pocket
and rubbed it on my face and lips
nights the rockets roared in.
People die sometimes so near you,
you feel them struggling to cross over,
the deep untangling, of one body from another.
(from What Saves Us, 1992)