The outrage over the Aurora killings at the Colorado premiere of The Dark Knight Rises has once again raised disturbing issues about the landscape of American culture: Why does the fact that 84 people die from gun deaths every day in the U.S. seem to matter so little despite how shocked we are at the end of these tragedies? What does it say about American culture that our death-by-guns rate is 16 times higher than the death-by-guns rate of the next 25 countries combined?
Is it archaic to think that statistics such as these would be impetus enough to start a conversation? That the conversation would be followed by action, and that ultimately the trend would be reversed, somehow? When you also consider how deeply affected so many families are by such events, how widely attended the gatherings after them are, how many conferences get organized, and how many prayer meetings are attended, how could we not solve the problem? When it looks like it’s not being addressed at all (an easy conclusion to draw if you bury yourself too deeply in the media) you end up scratching your head: where does all this energy go?
Part of it, of course, goes to theories - the NRA’s lobbying power, spineless politicians, crazy loners, lax gun laws, the inevitable consequences of bullying, the effect of the constant diet of violence in our media - these theories all get revisited, and the merit of each debated. Sometimes we go down a more morose track, and talk about our inevitable decline. All this happens, and then the world seems to go quiet again until the next disaster. What does this say about about our capacity to look at the really difficult things that plague us - all of us?
Yes, all of us - it’s no good for people in places like New Zealand, Norway or Australia to point the finger at “crazy Americans”: every country has “undiscussable” issues, and the pace of globalization is such that none of us is immune from the impact of such events, no matter where we live. The Japanese tsunami affects us all. So does Barclay’s manipulation of the Libor rate.
One thing we need to recognize is that the questions facing us are the “pointy end” of destructive actions we, as a society, have been taking for a long time. They reflect the accumulation of years of incrementally corrupt behavior, short-cut ethics, and a seemingly insatiable appetite for success at all costs. This is magnified by the impact of a rapidly growing population, increasing the rate at which our long festering errors spill over randomly in predictable-yet-unpredictable ways and places. Did we really think we could escape the impact of British and European colonialism on how so-called “3rd World” countries developed? Are we so naive as to believe that our voracious appetites for consuming the world’s resources - so magnified by the beginning of the Industrial Age, and still accelerating today - wouldn’t paint us deeper and deeper into an environmental corner?
Most of us aren’t so naive, but we can get overwhelmed by the hugeness of cleaning up our messes: especially if we think things can be turned around quickly. Is a quick turnaround of a huge problem possible? The example of the worldwide ban on CFCs from industrial products once scientists pointed out the destruction of the ozone layer is often held up to reflect our capacity for a quick, effective, unified response. But even in that instance, the recovery of the ozone layer to the health it was in before such products were released is estimated to take another 50 or 60 years.
And that is a crucial thing to remember. We have been messing things up in a variety of ways over a long period of time, and in most instances we should expect it to take a long time to get the recovery we want: even if we can get past the first step of agreeing on what the actions needed to bring about that recovery should be. We need both urgency and patience if we’re to address these kinds of problems.
That calls for a very different psychology than the instant gratification models of fast food restaurants, internet at your fingertips, and transferring your money to off-shore havens at the touch of a button. A psychology that embodies short term action with long term vision. A psychology that challenges things that seem horribly wrong but is flexible enough to change course if the solution that’s activated in response turns out to be worse than the problem. A psychology that integrates justice AND mercy, individual AND community, truth AND loyalty, short term AND long term concerns. (Those familiar with ethicist Rushworth Kidder’s work will recognize these dichotomies - so clearly discussed by him when he was alive.)
We should not despair that the changes we want to make in the world will take time. We should not despair that we won’t be able to predict the outcome: we can’t do that anymore with certainty, no matter how good our scientific modeling becomes.
We shouldn’t despair because we have in front of us the circumstances which, potentially, make us shine the brightest: enormous challenges. We need to recognize that despite the magnitude and uncertainty of what we face, we are at our best when we do these three things: 1) Acknowledge our problems honestly, 2) Throw our hat in the ring sincerely, and 3) Give whatever unique gifts we have to the community around us. Are we up to it?