On Tuesday, Oregon experienced what many other states are experiencing, a school shooting. My social media sites are filled with people expressing concern and compassion as well as with degrading, vicious comments about the fifteen-year-old shooter and his family. Each time violence occurs in the U.S., I find myself pulling away from the mainstream narrative. People are quick to make disparaging comments. Quick to judge offenders as “evil.” Even turning on each other when in disagreement. It seems that people are unwilling to step back and contemplate the whole picture. I think this is because when we step back - no matter how far we think we are from the tragedy - we see that we are part of the story and therefore accountable in some way.
Violence sucks. I cannot be eloquent about this. I am a pacifist, a trained mediator, and I wear my heart on my sleeve. I will never hold a gun and I choose not to watch violent television, movies, or other media including mainstream news. I am not in denial about violence. I have been the victim of violence. I understand that the human mind is soft and full of places for violence to creep in making a home in the psyche; normalizing violence and encouraging anxiety about the world. I treat violence as an unavoidable toxin; while I know it exists and is even floating in the air I breathe, I don't pour it into a glass and drink it.
When I heard about the school shooting on Tuesday morning I did not grow angry or righteous. Instead, I grew quiet and introspective. The lyrics of Pete Seeger's "Where Have all the Flowers Gone" and the line "when will they ever learn?" spinning in my mind.
We like to blame mental illness, bad parenting, guns and the like for the reason(s) why a person or people become(s) violent. These things certainly can contribute but they too are symptoms of a more pervasive issue. Violence is the result of alienation, oppression, and disconnection.
If we were to take steps back and look at the whole picture we might see things we are not ready to see. We might relate to the offender. We might identify with his/her pain. We might become compassionate to everyone involved in the story. Actually... we will relate, identify and feel compassion. And this makes most of us very uncomfortable.
Compassion is not about granting permission. It is not about accepting violent behavior or giving a pass to someone who makes choices that cause others pain. Compassion is the serum to alienation, oppression, and disconnection and thus the most impactful and lasting solution to ending violence. Compassion is about choosing to understand someone long enough to recognize where the break from inner peace took place. Without this understanding, we cannot prevent the next tragedy.
It is my hope that the silver lining of this tragedy and the many others like it is the beginning of a new kind of discourse. One that stems from a place of curiosity and good nature. A discourse that seeks to understand rather than persecute. When the exception becomes the rule, we are fools to hold accountable only those who are instigating violence. Something is tugging at the strings.
In a peaceful world, accountability is queen and compassion her scepter.
Maybe people worry that if they spend time seeking to understand a violent offender they might be infected with whatever it is that creates the violence in the first place. Maybe it is rooted in our biology and our unconscious need to ensure our own survival. The irony is, that when we give compassion in lieu of persecution, people heal (including and especially ourselves). It is a huge mistake to believe that “bad” people don't deserve to heal. A mistake because the fewer oppressed, alienated, and disconnected people there are in the world, the more peace there will be. If we want change in the world we must begin within.