We live in an era of Random Acts of Violence. Yesterday yet another mass shooting occurred in San Bernardino CA. Last week a shooter took it upon himself to assault a Planned Parenthood center. We are only a few weeks removed from the Assault on Paris. Some of the random acts are terrorist-based. Others are politically motivated. Some of the assailants are simply angry. The impact of these random acts of violence on most of us is that we become afraid.
Such fear is not neurotic. I remember that in 2001 I was scheduled to run in the New York City Marathon. Up until a week before, city officials considered cancelling the marathon because it was unknown as to whether more terrorist attacks were coming. Fully a third of the registered runners cancelled. I have to confess feeling some fear myself. One of the first challenges, then, with the fear we experience in the face of random violence is how much power we give to that fear. Do we avoid travel? Do we steer clear of anyone who looks suspicious or at the very least belongs to a minority? Do we arm ourselves?
Politicians clearly taking advantage of this fear, seeking our votes by voicing angry solutions to fear. “We must identify potential terrorists!” say some. “We must close our borders!” say others. “We must stand by our right to arm ourselves!” say still others.
At a psychological level, fear informs my approach to potentially dangerous situations. As we said over and over again in the Army, “Stay alert. Stay alive!” How vigilant must I become if I venture out? Who is my enemy?
Fear also becomes a spiritual issue. It confronts me with the harsh reality that bad things happen to very good people. It confronts me with my own beliefs about evil and the manifestations of evil. AA encourages me to “let go and let God”. Some religions suggest that I can pray for and receive protection from God. Do such attitudes increase the odds that I won’t be a victim of a random act of violence?
Some religious leaders quote from the Book of Revelations and tell us we are in the End Times, interpreting this and other parts of Sacred Scripture to identify who speaks for God and who speaks for Satan.
Once again, I fall back on Viktor Frankl to help me. I can do very little about the degree of random violence in the world but I always have a choice as to how I face this. I have a choice over the extent to which I will live me life in fear.
The final challenge I face in these violent days has to do with those troublesome words “Love your enemy.” Really? I am supposed to love and forgive the Paris terrorist? The shooters in San Bernardino? Those who open fire on innocent children? If not, then who is the enemy that I am free not to love? Again, there is a choice to make here. Do I try to follow the guidance of a Great Teacher or to I follow the guidance of Howard Beal?
Reflection: How do you deal with random acts of violence and the related fear we can feel?
I love that you refer to Victor Frankl who was able to find joy even in the midst of hell. Fear gets a bad rap, but I’m reminded of Gavin DeBecker’s book “The Gift of Fear” which reminds us that fear is a natural human/animal emotion with which we were born that serves to protect us. I think he would say: Pay attention to fear and don’t try to “get beyond it,” but don’t set up residence there either. One way I’m dealing with this societal crisis is to notice that American culture is having a full-on psychotic break. The old stories on which we built industrial civilization are no longer working. In the collective unconscious, humans also realize that our planet is in more than serious trouble, and whether we realize it or not, this has a profound effect on the psyche. When I know this, I am no longer surprised to hear about daily mass shootings. That doesn’t mean I am numb. I am not. I am heartbroken, but I’m also not surprised. Even more sadly, American media is clueless and can only have a conversation about this on the surface, focusing on gun control which is like a band aid for cancer. Something is deeply, desperately wrong with the soul of America. Until we have a conversation about that, mass violence will keep erupting daily. That scares me, and it also stirs my compassion for both the innocent and the guilty.
When I hear someone say they feel fear, I realize that someone (or some group) is trying to control him. People can be controlled through the use of fear. But those who would use this mechanism need to be careful because, when you push an individual too far into fear, he becomes FEARLESS, and thus dangerous. Maybe he will be only dangerous to himself or maybe he will be dangerous to the one(s) who would control him, but either way the control effort will cease to be effective.
I want to add that neurotic fear is also very real even though the threat is internal. For those of us with neurotic fear, it is so much easier to deal with external fear (tangible fear). It is concrete. One can easily discuss it and fight against it with others, even strangers. Who can slay the demons within?