It may surprise people who know me that I am not completely anti-gun. It seems like something I might be. I don’t like loud noises and I don’t like violence, and killing hurts me. I have to avert my eyes form a lot of TV and movies. But the gun thing is no longer simple for me. The last time I was stridently anti-gun was while lecturing my father about the dangers of guns. He happened to be holding off a midnight intruder with a hammer and wanted me to go get his gun. I was a senior in high school and I knew everything and I refused.
The intruder had awakened my parents by announcing he was a private investigator investigating a murder that was about to take place. He held a hammer over them. He was all kinds of high and very unpredictable. My father wrestled him down the stairs, getting the hammer away from him and was standing barefoot in the broken glass of our back door window when I came downstairs.
I didn’t get the gun, and my father was too preoccupied to deal with me. My mother had called a relative who came over with his big gun while we waited for the police. They got lost, we lived in the sticks. It was a good thing my cousin was there, too, with his big gun. Because when the intruder went for the gun in the holster of the cop who had finally arrived he was helpful in stopping him. No shots were fired, but additional reinforcements were needed.
I usually tell this story as a funny one. It can be, within the safety of the present. But it is also terrifying. Forty-something me looks at high school me and is speechless at my arrogance and my naivete. That story could have ended so very differently and I no longer feel the same way I did in high school about much of anything – weapons included.
I know too many responsible gun owners who I respect and trust to be totally anti-gun. The discussion we need to have is not pro-gun/anti-gun. Why must we always force our world into stark dichotomies that don’t fit? Guns are tools. They are not inherently evil (Is any device? Is any person? What is evil? I don’t like using that word). It is true that they are tools for dealing death and dealing death is never something we should do lightly. However, the real problem lies not in the weapon, but in the person wielding it. I have needed the help of a trusted and responsible friend with a gun several times in my life. I’ve been comforted by the presence of a weapon. I want to tighten access to certain weapons and ammunition, but I do not want to ban all guns.
We need to look at our need for weapons more closely. Yes. We need to ask ourselves how much death we need to deal and how swiftly. Yes. We need to wonder how readily accessible these tools need to be. Yes. We need to look at a culture that glorifies guns and desensitizes us to violence. Yes. We need to disentangle the manufacturing and sale of weapons from our politics. Yes. Limiting guns is part of the answer. Oh yes. But guns are not the core problem. The fact that people go to a place where they see mass murder as a viable option is at the root of this horror. How dark must one’s lens be to see that as a choice you make?
We need to look at a culture that is a such a pressure cooker of dysfunction that people go to that place. Yes, I know not everyone goes to that place – most do not. But many people are closer than we think, and our culture desensitizes us to the plight of people we don’t know (and even those we do). We have an empathy deficit, a lack of emotional resilience, an abundance of entitlement and tools for dealing so much death in ready reach. It is a toxic recipe.
Life can be hard. Life is often unfair. People struggle. Reality rarely matches up with our pretty imaginary scenarios. We need to understand that mental health is not a clear dichotomy of health and illness (us and them). Emotional health is a complex changeable spectrum and is, for many of us, a landscape fraught with effort and risk. Many of us can slip easily in and out of dangerous emotional places. We all need to work on our emotional health just like we do our physical bodies and it is a constant process for everyone – even if we don’t admit it.
We need to look at how we teach people to deal with their emotions and how to deal with life’s disappointments right from where they are. Life is an ocean of failures and successes and so many feelings – some of which are so intense they threaten to overwhelm. We need to learn to swim in that ocean despite things falling apart – because things do.
Change is part of life and the ability to deal with the rapidly accelerating pace of change in our world and the ability to work with even the most intense of emotions are the most important skills we can posses. Why do we just assume people magically develop resilience? Some of us have to learn it. No matter what our cognitive/emotional situation we all have to learn, right where we are, to live the life we have. No matter our cognitive/emotional situation we can learn to work with our minds.
Over the last several years I’ve struggled with fear, anger, anxiety and doubt that were, at times, crippling. I’m a self-employed sales person and I sell people to people – highs and lows are part of the business, and I’ve always ridden that roller coaster pretty well. But, like many people, my physical health and my mental health are intertwined and so deciding to “work with my mind” became not an abstract concept or a luxury, but necessary for my survival.
Self-awareness, mindfulness, acceptance and rigorous self-honesty involve facing feelings that are gritty, difficult,and anything but some new-age fantasy. As we learn to feel what we feel and face what is in front of us (instead of living in denial or fantasy), we can learn to navigate anything that we encounter. I think a lot of people lose heart when their life doesn’t turn out the way they thought it would, or the way they wanted it to, or when things fall apart as things so often do. It is in those crunch times when we think “I can’t (or won’t) do this anymore” that terrible things can happen.
Skills to navigate challenging times can be learned, and as a society we must make these life skills part of being a responsible person in a functioning society. We teach physical fitness, and dental hygiene, and we require a license to drive a car. We need to teach mental and emotional hygiene as well. Resilience is essential to modern life.
Tuning up how we think about and acquire weapons as a society is a very necessary beginning, but we will need to go beyond these first steps toward a gun control policy, and have a really different conversation about emotional health and how we incorporate mental hygiene and resilience training in daily life. We can’t afford not to.