Remember how, when the Virginia Tech shootings happened, I didn’t want to say anything right away except “my deepest sympathy goes out to the families and friends of the victims”? I didn’t want to rush to judgment about what happened and why?
A couple of weeks ago, Jon Carroll wrote pretty much the thing I’ve been wanting to say, and I wanted to quote it here and talk about it a little. The main gist of his piece was about the stupidity of using the tragedy to support the anti-immigrant agenda — a sentiment I heartily support. But what really jumped out at me was this:
To get this out of the way: I don’t think the tragedy at Virginia Tech means anything at all. I think it’s just a tragedy. There are 300 million people in America, and some of them are crazy and violent. There are always warning signs that the crazy person might do something crazy and violent, but usually the warning signs do not presage slaughter, or they presage a basically harmless manifestation, like room trashing or poster defacing. How is one supposed to know which warning signs are the warning signs? One cannot know. The ratio of warning signs to acts of mass murder is just too large.
Bad things happen in life. People grieve. The pain is entirely and absolutely real, but the pain does not require meaning. Would it ease the loss of the relatives of the deceased to know that the killer was a product of an abusive foster care system? No, it would not and, anyway, he wasn’t. He was a brooding student who thought about death, and I knew lots of people like that. They became graduate students. They took up golf. They worked in regional theater.
So here’s what I’ve been wanting to say:
I think that we — and that absolutely includes me — have a tendency, when terrible things happen, to try to figure out how and why they happened. We do this, quite reasonably, so we can see if the terrible thing can be stopped from happening again. And we do this because we want and need for the world to make sense. Because, as Joan Didion so famously said, “we tell ourselves stories in order to live.” Because to accept the idea that some things happen for no real reason, we would have to accept the idea that we can’t control the world. We’d have to accept the idea that we can shape the world to some degree, but we can’t always stop terrible things from happening — and for that matter, we can’t always make wonderful things happen, either.
And that can be a truly terrifying thing to accept.
But the reality is that not everything happens for a reason. Or rather, sometimes the reasons aren’t very reasonable. Sometimes the reason is “that’s how the world works sometimes.” (In this particular incident… well, the human brain is a complicated thing, and sometimes things go horribly wrong with it, and some people become seriously and violently mentally ill. As best as we can tell, it’s almost certainly an inevitable by-product of human evolution.)
Are there things we can do to minimize the number of terrible things that happen — or to minimize their bad effects when they do? Absolutely. And we have a moral obligation to do so, as well as we can. (When it comes to the Virginia Tech shootings, my money’s mostly on “better funding for research into the treatment of mental illness.” Gun control is probably on the list as wellâŠ although as Timothy McVeigh proved, a smart and determined person can kill a huge number of people in a short time with no guns at all.)
But I think we also have a moral obligation to see the world as it is, as well as we can. I think we have a moral obligation to not use everything that happens in the world — good or bad — as a stone to grind our axes on, as evidence of why our opinion is right and everything should be done our way. I think that, if we’re going to try to prevent terrible things from happening and minimize their effects when they do, we have to start by knowing what we can prevent and what we can’t. Like the AA serenity prayer says: we have to have the serenity to accept what can’t be changed, the courage to change what can, and the wisdom to know the difference.
I think seeing the world as it is, as well as we can, is an essential first step in deciding how to act in it. And as painful and terrifying as it is, I think a crucial part of the reality of the world is that not everything happens for a reason, and not everything means something.
And I think the tragedy at Virginia Tech may well be one of those things.
[Before I close: I can’t write about the Virginia Tech shootings without citing one of the most powerful and moving things I’ve read about it: An atheist at Virginia Tech, by Daily Kos blogger Mapantsula (an atheist and a professor at Virginia Tech). The piece was written in response to Dinesh D’Souza and his particularly revolting anti-atheist axe-grinding in response to the massacre. D’Souza’s comments are one of the reasons I’m flinching away so strongly from the “Virginia Tech would never have happened if everything in the world were done my way” punditry… and Mapantsula’s response is just stunning. Read it.]