I wrote this essay a few days after the shooting in Parkland. I sent it to some family, considered sharing it more widely, and then sort of forgot about it. It did not feel like the right time for me to be sharing my thoughts about gun violence, not when students were grieving their friends. I knew one of those students, a Florida teenager who, by reasons of extended family and Jewish geography, wound up growing up at the summer camp where I worked for many years. She and her sister, already out of high school, had both been my campers. A member of their synagogue in Florida was one of the victims of the Stoneman Douglas shooting. It didn’t feel appropriate to co-opt her community’s own particular private grief in order to pivot to commenting on a national debate. Also, it was abundantly clear that she and her friends had it covered with the March for Our Lives.
Then came Pittsburgh and over the past few days I’ve kept expecting myself to feel something strongly like pain or anger or grief. But instead what I feel most powerfully is resignation–mixed with a sort of Jewish inevitability that feels like I’m being presented with corroborating evidence–and I fear that I am growing cynical. This essay was written in the days after the Parkland shooting, and then tweaked after Pittsburgh, and I’m sharing it now before the time comes when I return to it after another mass shooting somewhere in the public square of America and I am so worn down that it makes me feel nothing at all.
The world is fundamentally broken. It is incomplete. It can be cruel, and ugly, and harsh. Its imperfections reverberate across humanity and echo in the souls of each and every one of us. That’s just the way it is. Neither this generation, nor the next, nor all the ones that follow, will ever see the world made whole. Incompleteness is a precondition to the world’s existing at all.
There is no one correct way to adapt or respond to that condition of brokenness. If I were tempted to be reductive, I could argue that adapting to the incompleteness of the world is what motivates our entire lives. Some of us create art, some of us work in service of others, some of us attempt to fill the cracks in our existence by making money. Some of us raise families. Some of us bully. Some of us study the past. Some of us plan for our future. Some of us teach. Some of us dwell on our regrets. Some of us dream. Some of us listen, and some of us talk. Some of us run away. We all do something.
And some of us dull ourselves through sex, or chemicals, or yes, some through violence.
Incompleteness reveals itself to each of us in its own way. We begin to learn it’s lessons from an early age. This is a pedagogy of pain, loss, regret, abandonment, isolation, hopelessness. It can be overwhelming. Sometimes, for some of us–more than we like to admit–incompleteness causes sickness inside of us in the form of compulsions, anxieties, disorders, addictions, and depressions. Sicknesses that can be diagnosed and oftentimes treated.
And sometimes, for others (I like to believe this number is very, very small), incompleteness empties the soul and refills it with something evil.
And an unfortunate, inevitable aspect of the incompleteness of the world is that we will never be able to fully understand how to help all of those people, the sick or the evil. But there is beauty and grace in incompleteness, and some of it comes from the fact that we will never stop trying.
Which brings us to Parkland. And now Pittsburgh. And Aurora. And Columbine, Charleston, Sandy Hook, Orlando, San Bernardino, Las Vegas and the sad et cetera. There are people who blame these shootings on “mental health.” (I’m going to interrupt myself here eight months later and say that blaming conspiracy theories and the internet and even Donald Trump amounts to much the same thing. Of course we should work to minimize suffering and treat mental health issues, and it should be far more difficult to learn to hate strangers to the point of violence. These are big important problems in their own right, but they are not policy prescriptions for ending gun violence.) “We could have intervened,” these folks claim, “if we had been watching more closely.” When I hear an argument like this I shake my head in resigned frustration. Is that what we should be doing? Watching each other closely out of suspicion and fear? Will that help the sick? Will it root out the evil?
No. Mental health is a paltry, alienating excuse for the wreckage that we bear witness to all too frequently in night clubs, schools, community centers, houses of worship, concert venues, movie theaters and other public spaces of American life. It is a cowardly way to distract from discussing real, attainable solutions. Labeling the problem of mass shootings as one of “mental health” is an attempt to blame incompleteness itself, as if we aren’t all haunted and driven by it in one way or another. This distraction divides us from each other and it cheapens our suffering and our sympathy.
The world is fundamentally broken. In one way or another, it will be broken forever. But our nation’s gun laws do not need to be. If the right people wanted to, we could repair them today.