Two days after the massacre of children in Uvalde, Texas, and 12 days after the racist massacre in Buffalo, Chenxing Han, chaplain and teacher, told a Buddhist parable.
A man is shot with a poisoned arrow, Ms. Han said as she led a group of high school students to visit a Thai temple in Massachusetts.
The arrow piercing his flesh, the man demands answers. What type of arrow is it? Who shot the arrow? What kind of poison is it? Which feathers are on the arrow, those of a peacock or a hawk?
But all these questions miss the point, said the Buddha to his disciple. What’s important is to pull out that poisoned arrow and heal the wound.
“We must be moved by the pain of all suffering. But it is important that we are not paralyzed by this,” Ms Han said. “It makes us appreciate life because we understand that life is very precious, life is very brief, it can be extinguished in an instant.”
The past few days have revealed an arrow lodged deep in the heart of America. It was revealed in the massacre of 19 elementary school children and two teachers in Uvalde, and when a gunman steeped in white supremacist ideology killed 10 people in a Buffalo supermarket. The United States is a nation that has learned to live with mass shooting after mass shooting.
And there are other arrows that have become subsumed in everyday life. More than a million people have died from Covid, a figure once unimaginable. The virus is now the third leading cause of death, even with the availability of vaccines in one of the most medically advanced countries in the world. A rise in drug deaths, combined with Covid, has led to an overall drop in life expectancy in America to a degree not seen since World War II. Police killings of unarmed black men have long continued vows of reform.
The mountain of calamity and the paralysis on how to overcome it point to a nation grappling with fundamental questions: Has our tolerance as a country of such horror grown, dusting itself off after an event before shifting to the next ? What value do we place on a single human life?
Isn’t the toll too high?
After Uvalde, many Americans are searching deeply for answers. Rabbi Mychal B. Springer, head of clinical pastoral education at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital, found herself reverting to an ancient Jewish scripture in the Mishnah, which says that when God began to create, God created a single nobody.
From Opinion: The Texas School Shooting
Times Opinion commentary on the elementary school massacre in Uvalde, Texas.
“The teaching is that each person is so precious that the whole world is contained in that person, and we must honor that person completely and fully,” she said. “If one person dies, the whole world dies, and if one person is saved, then the whole world is saved.”
We can only value life if we are willing to really grieve, to really face the reality of suffering, she said. She quoted a lamenting scripture, the first line of Psalm 13: “How long, O Lord?
“It’s not that we don’t care. We have reached the limit of what we can cry and hurt,” she said. “And yet, we have to do it. We must value each life as a whole world and be willing to mourn for what it means that this whole world has been lost.
Instead of mourning together and taking collective action, however, each crisis now seems to be plunging the country deeper into division and fighting over what to do in response.
Human brains mourn the death of a loved one differently than the death of people we don’t know, and in times of crisis, grief isn’t our only feeling, says associate professor Mary-Frances O’Connor of clinical psychology and psychiatry at the University. from Arizona, who studies the relationship between the brain and grief.
“You can’t underestimate the need to belong,” she said. When something terrible happens, people want to connect with their “group,” she said, where they feel they belong, which can push people further into partisan camps.
Over the past few decades, Americans have lived in a time of diminishing membership, as trust in religious organizations, community groups, and institutions in general declines. Valuing life and working for healing means stepping out of yourself and your own group, she said.
“It will take collective action,” she said. “And part of the problem is that we’re very divided right now.”
The question of the preciousness of life emerges in some of the most intense debates in the country, such as that on abortion. Millions of Americans believe the overthrow of Roe v. Wade would increase the value of life. Others believe it would discount the value of women’s lives.
American culture often places individual freedom above collective needs. But ultimately, humans are born to care about others and not turn away, said Reverend Dr. Cynthia Bourgeault, an Episcopal priest and professor of mystical theology. She reflected on the myriad of crises as the clouds engulfed spring in Maine.
“Human beings are born for meaning,” she said. “We have very, very big souls. We were born for generosity, we were born for compassion.
What gets in the way of a proper assessment of life, she said, is “our very, very messy relationship with death.”
In the United States, death denial has reached an extreme form, she says, where many focus on themselves to avoid the fear of death.
This fear cuts through “all the tendrils of consciousness, of the common good and of the ability to act together,” she said, “because in the final analysis we have become animals that save our own skin, the way we seem to save our own skin is repression and dissociation.
The United States is an exception in the level of gun violence it tolerates. The rate and severity of mass shootings are unparalleled anywhere in the world outside of conflict zones.
America has “a love affair with violence,” said Phillis Isabella Sheppard. She directs the James Lawson Institute for Research and Study of Nonviolent Movements at Vanderbilt University, named after the Reverend James M. Lawson Jr., the civil rights leader who was expelled from the university in 1960. for his role in the lunch counter. ins.
Violence is an almost normal part of life in the United States, she said, and valuing life requires constantly asking yourself how am I engaged in nonviolence today? It also means letting go of some things, she said — a lot of people consider themselves non-violent, but consume violence in entertainment.
“The question that should scare us is, what will it take for us to collectively bring about this change?” she says.
“It may be our life’s work,” she said. “Maybe that’s our job as humans.”
When Tracy K. Smith, the former Poet Laureate of the United States, first heard of the Buffalo and Uvalde shootings, her immediate reaction was anger and rage at “those monstrous people.” It’s easy to sink into that sentiment, she said, and we’re even encouraged to think of it as “outliers.”
“But when I slow down, I realize there’s something alive in our culture that has hurt those people,” she said. “Anyway, it hurts all of us, we’re all vulnerable to it, it exerts some sort of influence on us no matter who we are.”
At Harvard University’s graduation on Thursday, she read a poem. It was a reflection on history, the violence we live with and what age demands, she said. In her version of the poem, she had her children in mind, she says, but it was also a wish for her students. So many people had had to deal with so many things over the past few years, being sick, caring for family members.
“I want you to survive,” she said. “I want your bodies to be inviolable. I want the earth to be inviolable.
“It’s a wish or a prayer.”