The Sandy Hook Elementary School tragedy seared my heart, as it did for most of the nation. It reminded me of the devastation of mental illness which took my son's life earlier this year, and added to my grief the loss of Mary Sherlach, the wife of a close family friend. Beyond the grief, what ties these events together is the deeper cause: a violent social fabric. To me, Sandy Hook is not just a wake up call about our gun laws; it is a wake up call about the reality of our violent culture. We are a nation addicted to competition, judgement and violence, both at home and abroad. We idolize and teach competition over cooperation, individual gain over group gain, and power over others. We do this through our economy, our politics, our entertainment and even our educational system. We isolate those who are different when we need to engage and support those who need it most. As we analyze this tragedy and the solutions to this crisis of violence among our youth and adults, we must look at ourselves and the violent social fabric we have together created, supported or allowed.
Less than nine months ago, my 17-year-old, biracial son took his life. My belief is that he died not just of suicide but of a broken heart, tired of this violent world. A beautiful, athletic and joyful child, he was confronted by racism at a young age, which got worse as he grew into a strong and confident young man. He was bullied by a local police officers as a young boy and later pressured by blacks, whites and hispanics in his new high school school to choose what racial group he would align with. But he didn't want to choose; he wanted to be friends with all. His father and I always taught tolerance, love and community, but this wasn't enough as he faced a society that is stressed and fearful.
In the face of growing pain and as a young man he manned up, drugged up and resisted the pressure to collapse in the face of hatred. And no physician, psychologist or psychiatrist could help him; most thought he was bright, charming and a little depressed. So he chose to escape from this world that made no sense to him. How many young men and women choose this each day by self-medicating or dropping out in the face of the pressures, intolerances, and pain in a world gone mad? Far too many, as our statistics sadly show.
Just hours before his suicide, my son texted me that schoolmates were harassing him and that he was worried that he may hurt himself or others. His father rushed to school to intervene, preventing what could have been injury to another teen thanks to Arin's call for help. Later that day, while talking with doctors to get him into a psychiatric hospital, my son hung himself. He was done with the fight and did not want to be medicated. He has said that the medications made him feel nothing. What a choice to face: brutality or numbness.
I believe what my son felt and couldn't endure was the pain of our society: angry teens, stressed adults, divorced parents, pressured teachers, violent games, insane reality shows, and a nation at war. While we let the media promulgate unconstrained violence through games, TV and movies, we also reproduce it in our culture through social systems that benefit the few at the cost of the many. Each day in America, millions of teens endure bullying, domestic violence, drug sales, and sexual violence because we haven't made different choices about how we as a nation want to care for them and for each other.
I am certain that it wasn't only mental illness that impacted my son, and perhaps Adam Lanza. Were they not also impacted by a mentally ill society that tolerates, and in many ways glorifies, hatred and violence? Violent behavior can not be tolerated and everyone must be responsible for their actions, but we as a nation must also be responsible for the culture we have created that allows or condones violence. None of us can escape the influence of culture, so we should be far more thoughtful and intentional about shaping it.
I share my grief to stimulate the deeper conversations, not just about gun laws, but about shaping policies to rebuild our institutions on a foundation of compassion, tolerance, love and inclusion.
This requires a major transformation in the hearts and behaviors of each of us. Any violence we see in the world is indeed a reflection of violence in our hearts. How can we become the love that we desperately need to heal our nation and the world? How can we help our leaders show our children how love is lived through policies that sanctify all human life, regardless of skin color, nationality or belief? How can we demonstrate that compassion and service is more important than wealth and power? Only when our nation is willing to honestly face and transform itself from a socially and economically violent one to a compassionate one, will we have a chance at saving our teens, our children and our school employees. We don't need more guns, we need more love.