In the aftermath of the tragedy of the mass shooting in Arizona, I attended a memorial service for a very kind man who died at the age of eighty-two. Dementia and disease in his last years could not eradicate his smile, the twinkle in his eye, or a loving word.
During the Quaker service (which also honored his Jewish roots) one of his relatives rose to speak of how her brother-in-law was a mensch—Yiddish for human being, but meaning fully human in the sense of having great compassion and integrity.
Indeed, Norm was a mensch, who believed in the power of love and community. His family requested, in lieu of flowers, that people remember Norm with acts of kindness towards family, friends, neighbors, strangers. That is, to share kindness in community.
Synchronistically, President Obama has asked the same of us as a nation. When the President spoke last week, he noted our own sense of community as a nation: how the people that died in Arizona are part of our family.
However, part of our family are also those for whom we have a hard time accepting. That is, the gunman (Jared Lee Loughner) is also part of the community. And as community (I know this goes against the grain of rugged individualists) we do need to ask ourselves what in our nation’s “family system” is awry? Apparently, there were major mental health issues that were not addressed.
Most people with severe mental illness are not violent. However, there remains a stigma regarding mental illness. So, for one, we as a nation-community-family need to work on removing the stigma and providing the necessary care. (Note that many of our homeless population suffer from mental illness, some are veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Partly, they are homeless because our community support—aka, “funding tax dollars”—shrunk.)
The nation-community-family also needs to care about gun control. I find it peculiar that I, as a psychologist, have performed lethal weapons assessments for people who have jobs requiring them to carry guns. Yet, there is no such psychological assessment necessary for anyone else to purchase a gun (at least in this state).
That nation-community-family might also consider how we speak to one another in general. I am confounded that we all say we want our children not to be bullied or to be a bully; we all say we want our children not to scream and yell and call each other names. So why do we think it is okay for adults to do less? When do we begin to model right behavior for our children?
(Of course, we all have moments of reactivity when we blurt out something we wished we hadn’t said.)
Why should discourse in the public arena be any more a shout fest, and worse, an incitement to violence, than the family dinner table or third-grade classroom?
A Buddhist teacher once said that before you speak, ask yourself four questions: Is what you are about to say kind? Is it necessary? Is it true? And is this the right time to say it? We need to have honest and open dialogue; we need to have free speech. But free speech does not mean a free-for-all.
And words do matter. Our environment is an influence on us. Neuroscience now gives us evidence of that. Words inspire us for good or ill, subliminally, or otherwise. Good grief, we’ve been brainwashed to buy everything from cigarettes to soaps for years. All with sound bites (and pictures).
Words can move people to march courageously and peacefully with Martin Luther King, or words can incite people to riot. Nine-year-old Christina Green, the day she was killed, probably hoped to be inspired by Congresswoman Gifford’s words to do good in the world.
We need to comprehend how immensely interconnected we are, so that we can see that we all share in the responsibility for what our nation-community-family values. President Obama said, “How we treat one another is entirely up to us.” We have a choice to pass on the values of kindness and honesty or we can incite hate. (Hmm, choice?)
At the memorial service I attended, a woman wanted to share her own story of how she had been depressed at early stage of her life. One day as she was walking alone, forlorn and dismayed, she noticed a person acknowledging her with a warm smile. That smile, that connection was the beginning of her own transformation out of sadness.
Perhaps the person who smiled chose to be kind and to make connection that day—chose to be a mensch. To be fully human is to be kind. Being kind is our true nature. No, it won’t eradicate evil but it might be the antidote to its sting. We have a choice.