In Good Faith

I woke up to another shooting headline today. Something is terribly wrong. I don’t dare numb out the horror of what is happening in our country, and yet, it’s so horrible that if I allow myself to dwell too much on it, I’m paralyzed by heartbreak and fear. The reality is that people of all ages are dying every day in the most common of places. I’ve spent hours trying to understand it. How can you just walk in the door of a grocery store, a school, a hospital, and shoot to kill? I can’t make sense of it.

According to The Violence Project, 98 percent of mass shooters are men. During 2020, the first year of the pandemic, there was a marked reduction in mass shootings. That has changed. As of March 31, 126 mass shootings fit the Mass Shooting Tracker project criteria (a single outburst of violence in which four or more people are shot), leaving 148 dead and 481 injured, for a total of 629 victims. By May 1, there had been 203 mass shootings.

This week, I asked Buddhist leader and Colorado College religious educator David Gardiner to share his thoughts about the following question: “In your opinion, what’s happening in the lives of American men that leads to an increase in violent crimes — especially shootings — and how can spiritual practice help?”

David Gardiner

David Gardiner

The other day at the grocery store, I was struck by my assumption of safety in a place where others have been slaughtered. Some terror followed. Then much sadness. We have a serious illness of violence plaguing our land.

The country’s very foundations were also built upon it: the decimation of the societies of the indigenous population coupled with centuries of forced slavery. American poet Robert Francis wrote that the native names of our towns and rivers “hover like ghosts of eagles.” We are collectively haunted by these, and other, ghosts.

We suffer from immense, repressed guilt and anger. America is not the world’s only violent society, but our dominant national “stories” like to ignore violence in favor of showcasing the glories of freedom, progress, ingenuity. Our people and history have displayed abundant greatness, yet we remain a diseased society fixated on the power of the few, which often implicitly excludes women and non-whites.

Why are so many men so violent? The reasons are complex, but one thing is clear: They are suffering, lashing out in pain. Working to cure such suffering requires multiple approaches. David Kessler’s recent book Capture offers insight from psychology and neuroscience.

The earlier Habits of the Heart and The Good Society by Robert Bellah and others, provide trenchant analysis of the breakdown of support offered by traditional social “institutions” and the concomitant decline in commitment to the public good.

Our rampant individualism seems to be driving people crazier and crazier. Alice Miller’s books, starting with The Drama of the Gifted Child, illuminate with great compassion and wisdom how the almost inevitable traumas of childhood need to be treated honestly and courageously lest they perpetuate cycles of repression and violence.

I believe any spiritual or religious attempts to remedy our ills of violence will only be successful if they address social, psychological and even biological factors, too. If I had to identify one element, I would emphasize the imperative of overcoming men’s isolation in our society and affirming how our embeddedness in community is our deepest source of genuine satisfaction. 

 Ahriana Platten, founder-executive director of In Good Faith, leads Unity Spiritual Center and speaks on the topics of interfaith and intercultural understanding.

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