Sacramento is a long way from Newtown, Conn. Even so, there may be causes to the Sandy Hook Elementary tragedy that are nearby. Closer than one might think.
It's natural to go in search of causes we want to know why, and then to fix it. We sleuth for causes in and among our favorite villains, depending upon our bias the NRA, perhaps, or liberal judges or movie violence.
But the deeper cause, indeed the cause of causes, is supremely local. It is the human heart, our natures. This is how the setting for Sandy Hook is in a way shared by Sacramento, or Wichita, Miami, Spokane or anywhere, actually. As we rise to act on the horror 3,000 miles away, we dare not avoid reflecting on the causes that reside in our very natures, in a spot just a few inches behind our eyes.
I realize that by the common word "heart" I could also use "soul" I refer to something that at first seems too unspecific to fix. By this word I refer to our values, choices, relationships and practices. I refer to honesty, compassion and the balance between individuality and community.
And I do not mean to infer that some lack of heart in Connecticut is to blame there I am referring now only to the wider culture, and our responsibilities in it.
The social fabric is frayed, and each of us is one thread in particular.
And we have become I have become insulated and unconcerned for its integrity. So I blame, when I should look within.
And what do I find within? If I'm honest I see my comfortable and accepted hatreds, my limited affections and my consumption of entertainments that distract me from those who might try my patience or exhaust my interest.
Now take this narcissism and multiply it over all of us, over the millions of us. In its full flower we see a kind of moral abdication. We have turned our cry for independence into the demand to be left alone. We then create huge bureaucracies that will care where I will not, or cannot, and then some of us complain rightly, I think that those bureaucracies are too large and costly.
If we saw this abdication, this vacuum, and understood its negative power, we would repent. We would turn from our ways and meet our neighbors, learn the names of their kids and watch for their safety on the streets. We would bring meals when neighbors' grandparents pass away, ask to see the pictures of their vacations, pray for their teenage daughters when they run away. We would volunteer. We would repent of our most insidious judgments, where we have called others wackos or fly-over-people, lefties or hicks.
We would stop all that and weave a new fabric.
History gives us a few examples of such spiritual and cultural reformation, such as America's "Great Awakenings" which contributed to public sentiment against slavery. Or on a smaller scale, and more recently, we can point to a grass-roots effort like Mothers Against Drunk Drivers, which moved the dial on public perception of drunkenness from a quaint humor to a deadly irresponsibility. Yes, the force of law came to bear on these examples, outlawing slavery and increasing punishments for drunken driving. But the foundational reassessment was at first a matter of the public soul, and continues to be.
The tragedy was even more than an injury to us; it was an affront. The killer shamed us. He shamed our community and our humanity. One of our members spited us; he snuck under our instruction and avoided our scruples.
He defied us, or perhaps ignored us. We move to bring justice for this affront, yes, but what are we learning about ourselves?
We think how could this happen? Like a fix-it person who's certain the problem must be out there, like a broken fuse in a circuit, we fail to look inwardly. Most of the discussion after Sandy Hook is about blame, and not introspection. Rather than "shame on us," the messages are shame on the NRA, on the court rulings against prayer, on the Reagan-era disinvestment in community mental health practices, on video gaming or on movies.
But I think we, and the way we live, is more at the heart of the matter than we want to admit. In the words of the late "Pogo" cartoonist Walt Kelly, "We have met the enemy and he is us."