The mass shooting in Sutherland Springs, Texas has stirred up all sorts of emotions in me. When I first read the headlines, it immediately called to mind September 15, 1999, when Larry Gene Ashbrook entered Wedgewood Baptist Church in Fort Worth and killed seven people, including himself. I was in seminary at the time, and lived just a few exits down I-20 from Wedgewood. My wife and I had even visited the church a few times. I’ll never forget the raw dismay the following morning when our professor came in and announced that one of our classmates, Shawn Brown, had been killed. I didn’t know Shawn, but I knew of him, knew his face, and that we’d both gone to Howard Payne, a small Baptist college in Brownwood. I think he graduated a year behind me.
There’s a harrowing account of that evening here (chapter 2).
While this isn’t a uniquely American problem, no other country in the world experiences it with the frequency or lethality that we do. Americans do have a disproportionately high number of mental illnesses compared to other countries and it definitely has a disproportionate number of guns. Gun rights activists will argue that stricter gun laws won’t stop it, as if it’s an all-or-nothing proposition, never pausing to acknowledge the merits of laws that might at least reduce the severity of it. If someone out there wants to kill people en masse, we can at least make them work for it.
I do agree with the gun advocacy that this is primarily a mental health issue. Guns are simply the preferred tool of destruction. The root of the problem is a mixture of very American things—a need for fame, rage as symptom of depression in men, frustrated white privilege, unrealistic standards of success, exclusion of the “other,” ideas of masculinity gone askew, hollow social media relationships, toxic politics, religious hypocrisy, and who knows knows what else. That is to say, the real problem is us. Americans. We place too much value on the wrong things.
We’ve become a culture that shouts each other down. We’re driven to intellectually annihilate those who disagree with us. We act as if the worst thing we can possibly be is wrong. We want things to be black and white, good and evil, but that’s not reality. Caught in the middle, hosts of struggling people are trying to find their way, falling to their knees, screaming, hands over their ears. Eventually, those people shut down or over-commit to a side. And every now and then, one becomes something wholly unrecognizable to the rest of us and completely loses his shit.
One of the top five most influential people in my life is a pastor. I’ve left the faith, a great disappointment to him, I’m sure, but his continuing impact on my thinking is undeniable. He was fond of the Greek word “ανοχή” which is translated “forbearance.” He used to tell me that in its native language, it almost had a connotation of giving someone permission to be themselves. I’ve always liked that. Perhaps there’s a point where a man can be too far gone, unreachable, but until then, I like to think that along that dark path, people stand at forks in the road who, with kindness and deep reserves of patience, can gently compel him to a better path. Forbearance.
Of course, it’s the surest solutions that are the least likely to come to pass. They ask too much of us.
Alternatively, maybe the Food and Drug Administration should require all fast food restaurants to add anti-depressants to their fry grease. That would probably cover it. Eating our way to better mental health! What could be more American?