April 25, 2007

Virginia Tech Shootings in a Friendly Universe

Today I found myself ruminating over information I read regarding the sale of guns and ammunition to the Virginia Tech student gunman Seung-Hui Cho. It's been speculated that, because Cho killed and injured so many people in such a short span of time, he must have used a high-capacity magazine with as many as 33 rounds in each clip. A federal assault weapons ban used to limit magazine capacity to 10 rounds of ammunition; the ban expired in 2004.

What does a clean-cut college boy, albeit one with no criminal record, need with high firepower weapons? Why aren't questions like this asked at point of sale?

When a tragedy occurs, we human beings like to figure out why something happened and what could have been done to prevent it. Why? (See, I just did it again myself.) It could be that we think the event should not have happened...that believing this will motivate us to elect officials who will put preventive measures in place...that if we understand the "why" then we can control the future.

Oddly enough, the shootings also seem to have sparked a surge in legal gun sales across the United States, as people become increasingly concerned about defending themselves. Somewhere we have gotten the notion that fighting violence with violence can result in peace. If you don't believe it, look at how you treat your children or spouse when they don't do what you tell them to do.

We cannot reverse what happened on April 16, 2007. We can't bring 32 victims back to life. We can't go back in time and help a man with a mind so confused that he believed his only way out of his pain was to kill. We cannot, in spite of our best efforts, keep murderers and other criminals from buying guns (most obtain theirs on the street). What we can do is to understand where our own suffering comes from. When we do, we can be compassionate to the families of the victims; we can help to quell the fears of our children (and our own fears); we can open our minds to clear and creative solutions and be available to do peaceful service in the world.

Deepening Transformational Inquiry: "It Shouldn't Have Happened"

Find and, using the four questions and turnaround (and three genuine examples) of The Work, inquire into a "should" or "shouldn't" thought that troubles you about the Virginia Tech shootings or another tragedy.

I was particularly struck by the story of the Romanian professor Liviu Librescu, who had survived the Nazi Holocaust as well as the totalitarian Ceausescu regime, only to be gunned down at the age of 76 in his own classroom.

Stressful Belief: He died violently.

Is it true? Yes, he was shot to death when he barred the door to his classroom with his body in an attempt to protect his students.

Can I absolutely know it's true he died violently?
No; I only know he was shot to death; I cannot know his state of mind as he died.

How do I react when I believe this thought?
I judge and mentally attack God and the gunman for taking a good man before his time. (Underlying belief: it is possible to die at the wrong time.) I imagine the pain I might feel in his situation and project that onto him, onto his wife and children, and also onto the students who witnessed his death. I feel horror and see images of the professor riddled with bullets, his body jerking, blood everywhere, the screams in the classroom.

When I believe he died violently, I feel my body go numb and get cold; my mind travels to all the senseless violence in the world and in my own neighborhood where there are drug-related killings, drive-by shootings, hunting accidents and violent incidents against women, not to mention police brutality perpetrated by young police armed with deadly weapons that I assume they just can't wait to use.

When I attach to this belief, I am angry with the NRA and people who enjoy owning assault rifles in spite of all the risks. I see everyone who has a gun (this includes members of my own family) as stupid rednecks whose selfishness in insisting upon their Constitutional right to bear arms often results in tragic death (rarely their own, unfortunately).

I can find no peaceful reason to hold onto this belief (self-righteousness is never peaceful). When I am thinking it and experiencing the effects, I am out of my business mentally and into the business of the professor, his students, his family, gun owners, gun sellers, the world.

Who would I be without this thought?
I can imagine Professor Librescu being like Gandhi or Martin Luther King, doing what he knew to do. I can relax and let him rest in peace. I can rest in peace myself. I feel my shoulders going back into their sockets as I type this, I am breathing normally, I am calm and present. Out of this presence, I can write to my representatives to suggest, in the wake of this tragedy, that they give more of their effort and attention to gun control laws. I can find ways to work with young people in my neighborhood, perhaps set up a "drop in" center where they (and I) can learn, literally, to "drop in" and clear their minds, as opposed to acting out of stories that don't serve. (Please send me your ideas for establishing such a center; I would love to help make this happen anywhere in the world.)

Turned around: He died peacefully.
It could be just as true. Three ways:
1. According to his students, Professor Librescu never made an attempt to leave the classroom, so he may have had no internal violence in the form of fear, as he put himself in the path of the gunman and urged his students to exit via the windows.
2. At the moment of death he might not have felt emotional or physical suffering or pain. We don't really know if death is experienced as violent.
3. He did not die violently at the hands of the Nazis even though his family was captured by them. He was not murdered by the Ceausescu regime even though he was a refusenik. He died in a place he purportedly loved, where he was productive and enjoyed personal freedom.

I died violently.
Truer. In the moment I heard the news I was there, in his place, imagining the worst.

If the universe is friendly, why is it a good thing that Professor Librescu was killed by the gunman?
1. It's good for me because his actions have shown me what heroism, love and compassion look like in the face of death.
2. It's good for him because he went to his death willingly, preferring to spare his students' lives rather than his own.
3. It's good for his students because he lives on in their memories and gratitude. As one young woman put it, "He's a part of my life now and forever. I'm changed."
4. It could be that this man's death, and the deaths of the other 31 people from around the world who were killed, brings us closer together, as a human race, in love.

Yesterday I saw a photograph of Palestinians planting olive branches in memory of those slain, as Israel soldiers carrying weapons stood by. What's wrong with this picture, I asked myself? And the answer came: nothing. This is what I needed to see, my own peaceful and violent feelings about other people as embodied and mirrored back by the world. Recognizing this is not meant to diminish the losses of young lives, the grief of the victim's families or that of the family of Mr. Cho; it also does not mean I condone what happened. However, I am very clear that a disturbed and armed young man, like everything else that upsets me, had to come to my attention in order to show me where I create an unfriendly universe.

For more assistance with deepening inquiry, read the source book for The Work: Loving What Is: Four Questions That Can Change Your Life by Byron Katie and Stephen Mitchell.

©2007 by Carol L. Skolnick. All rights reserved.

No comments: