Trying to make sense

How do we make sense out of the recent school shootings?

The Unitarian side of our heritage gives us a strong belief that we can control our own destiny. Instead of assuming that God will bail us out of tough situations, we believe it’s up to us humans to make the world a better place. However, this belief seriously challenged by a senseless act of violence: for although the level of violence has been declining steadily in Western societies over the last few centuries, nevertheless horrific acts of violence still occur. We have less control over life than we’d like to believe.

The Universalist side of our heritage gives us a strong belief in the inherent worth and dignity of every person (that’s what universal salvation was all about, that every human is worthy of be saved). But this belief is seriously challenged by mass murderers. Intellectually, we might be willing to assert that yes, even mass murderers have inherent worth and dignity, but emotionally we can’t help thinking that a mass murderer is not quite human, and neither worthy nor possessing dignity.

Another common theological resource we have for making sense of such senseless and horrific events is existentialism: the belief that the world is absurd and senseless, with no inherent meaning or purpose; that whatever meaning or purpose comes from the way we act in the face of life’s absurdities; and even if we do the right thing, our reasonable and moral actions might still lead to evil consequences. For some Unitarian Universalists, existentialism provides no comfort, since it challenges our belief in reason and our belief that we can have quite a bit of control over life. But many Unitarian Universalists over the past seventy or eighty years have appreciated existentialism as confirmation of their perceptions of the world: that it is an absurd world with no inherent meaning, and we do what we can to make meaning out of the absurdity.

Another common theological resource for Unitarian Universalists is throwing ourselves into social justice work. It almost doesn’t matter what the social justice work is; we redouble our efforts for whatever social justice project we have been working on; and doing something rather than nothing makes us feel better. So what if it’s a way to avoid thinking? Maybe it’s not such a bad thing to not think about senseless violence any more than we have to.

Another theological approach to dealing with senseless random events is to refuse to let the news media set your priorities for you. Henry David Thoreau, who grew up as a Unitarian, said the newspapers of his day emphasized sensationalism, trivia, and momentary horror, all of which can distract us from the highest things in life. After pointing out the triviality of most news, whether accounts of robbery, murder, or foreign wars, Thoreau quotes the Confucian Analects:

What news! how much more important to know what that is which was never old! “Kieou-he-yu (great dignitary of the state of Wei) sent a man to Khoung-tseu to know his news. Khoung-tseu caused the messenger to be seated near him, and questioned him in these terms: What is your master doing? The messenger answered with respect: My master desires to diminish the number of his faults, but he cannot come to the end of them. The messenger being gone, the philosopher remarked: What a worthy messenger! What a worthy messenger!” (from the chapter “Where I Lived and What I Lived For“)

Thoreau would tell us to turn away from the television news, the Twitter feeds, and this blog. Spend time with your friends and people you love. Spend one day as deliberately as Nature, not allowing yourself to be thrown off track by every Facebook discussion and blog post that to derail you. That’s what Thoreau would say. Perhaps he’s cold comfort, too; but better comfort that is cold and also true, than comfort that is warm but false.

6 thoughts on “Trying to make sense”

  1. And yet, many of us need to do the work of trying to understand, fruitless as it may be. sometimes the heart cannot be fully free until the mind has made an attempt to do its duty. All I ever need to do is read a bit yauu and I am ready to face the world again. Thanks, Dan.

  2. Nevertheless it gets more and more difficult to see many of our mass murderers as unredeemable human garbage. They mostly weren’t kids who killed dogs and cats or bullied schoolmates. Instead they were emotionally fragile individuals who eventually snapped. Then they managed to acquire guns and use them expressively. Maybe it wasn’t the guns’ fault, but we might still face a choice between preventatively locking up a lot of guns or a lot of human beings.

  3. the level of violence has been declining steadily in Western societies over the last few centuries

    I know Steven Pinker says this, but he isn’t always the clearest thinker, so I’ll have to read his book before I believe it.

    But in any case, over 10,000 Americans were killed by guns in either accidents or homicides last year (mass shootings make up a tiny fraction of these, though they are either on the rise, or we are in a spike). That’s a serious public health problem, whether we pay attention to the news or not. And since many countries have a much lower rate of death by these causes, I don’t consider these deaths an artifact of life’s absurdity or unpredictability, but as something very much within our control (not entirely, of course). Which theological approach am I using, then? I would have said social justice, but your description suggests that social justice is about distracting ourselves from the issues rather than addressing them.

  4. Amy, I don’t know Pinker’s work, but other historians have documented the decline in violence in Western culture. Sorry I can’t offer specific citations, but the rate of violence in Western culture is discussed in, e.g., David Hackett Fischer’s The Great Wave, among other sources.

    And yes, obviously violence still exists in our culture; and equally obviously, we should continue to reduce violence in our society so we don’t start moving backwards to the level of violence during, e.g., the Commonwealth period in England, or France before and during the Revolution.

  5. David, you make an interesting point. In my home state of Massachusetts, funding for mental health was cut dramatically a couple of decades ago, and a goodly number of mentally ill persons were ejected from institutional care, and dumped into Section 8 housing; many of them wound up on the street. The combination of easy access to guns, and lack of societal support for mentally ill persons, has not served us well as a society. Not that I believe there is an easy or quick solution to this problem.

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