How do we get numb to all of the school shootings? How do we accept school shootings as facts of life in our society? Why are the lives of children treated so callously under the guise of “freedom?” Why are weapons of war – assault rifles with their tissue-destroying bullets – even considered acceptable for public use? Why are the assault rifles of today now conflated to be the musket of yesteryear?
Columbine, Sandy Hook, Marjory Stoneman Douglas, Uvalde, and Nashville are just a few of the sites of childhood carnage in recent times. When the events of this week (Nashville, March 2023) unfolded, I again had a visceral reaction, a gut punch, due to the lack of action by our officials that can do something. Other countries have similar rates of mental illness so mental illness cannot be blamed. I would contend that two things – the toxicity of hate1 and the availability of weapons to easily express that hate – are the primary drivers. Herein, I will discuss the former, to address the culture of hate and our duty to combat it.
I heard a respected journalist recently state that we have become desensitized to a constant barrage of speech that seeks to demean, belittle and demonize certain people. That statement alone is mind-numbing. The fact that she could not bring herself to outright condemn such speech and to accept our desensitization speaks volumes to our current state of affairs. There is no point-counter point argument for moral vs. immoral behavior, only moral. There is no “fair and balanced” response that accepts hate and lies. An unremitting fusillade of disdain for others only fuels the fire of hate.
Yet, there is also a reality that each of us can do something. Back at the time of Columbine, I reached a crossroads. I had to speak out. I started a journey to leads to today and hopefully for the rest of my days. Below I would like to share the genesis of that journey from an article I wrote (edited and abridged for clarity).2
The day, April 20th, 1999 started innocently enough. I was in Chicago for a strategic planning session of the Executive Committee of the Section on Genetics and Birth Defects for the American Academy of Pediatrics. We spent all day in front of flip charts trying to plan a future direction for the section. This exercise was reasonably satisfying, but I was tired and ready to get home to my family.
I caught a shuttle to the airport late afternoon and went to the gate to await my flights home to South Carolina. “I’ll just relax and read my book,” I thought to myself. But there was quite a hubbub near the TV monitors in the gate area. A shooting at a high school, Columbine High School, in Littleton, Colorado? How could that be? Unfortunately, in my lifetime, murderous rampages have been all too common. Wait a minute – the shooters were fellow high school students! And they murdered some of their fellow students in cold blood!
As the story unfolded over the days to follow, I was numb. I followed all the news to try and understand how this could happen. I felt powerless. The incident was in Colorado and I was in South Carolina. (I graduated from high school, college, and medical school in Colorado, so I had more than a passing interest in Colorado affairs). I couldn’t change anything there. My thoughts and prayers were with those families. But I needed to make a difference!
I felt that I needed to resolve to help ensure that such an incident would not happen in my community – Greenwood, South Carolina. I obviously couldn’t do it alone, but I needed to work with my fellow citizens toward positive change. We needed to be moving away from hatred and intolerance. Every community wrestles with teen pregnancy, drugs, violence, and poverty. But what have I done to help?
Only now do I realize that the stage was set for this personal “inquisition” about five years prior. I was at a hospital fundraiser listening to a health care futurist, Leland Kaiser. Leland Kaiser is no ordinary futurist. He demanded that hospitals take a much more active role in their communities outside of traditional healthcare. While some of the audience rolled their eyes over his somewhat evangelical approach to his message, I found myself in rapt attention. He had a message for me though I have to admit that it took me several months to really hear it and understand it.
“For anything that happens in our community,” Leland Kaiser said, “each of us as individuals and your hospital as an entity need to say, ‘I am the problem, I am the solution, I am the resource.’” Those were pretty simple words, but the message was powerful for me. I have to take personal ownership in the issues in my community (I am the problem), I have to work with my fellow citizens (I am the solution), and I need to be willing to devote my continuing energies to the community (I am the resource). Those 12 words have become my mantra and catapulted me headfirst into community activities since 1994.
As a geneticist and pediatrician, I’ve always felt that I was making substantial contributions to the community. But was I really contributing as an individual or was I contributing as a physician keeping my “proper professional distance?” When I answered the question honestly, I knew it was time to roll up my sleeves and really get involved. Numerous projects subsequently occupied my community activities, and I was active and involved. Then Columbine happened in April 1999.
So, what else could I do? I was active, but was I making a difference? I typically have not been the kind of individual that writes articles for the newspaper, but I felt inclined to do so after Columbine. In the process of writing the article, I found myself trying to come up with specific action items for myself and fellow citizens. In that initial article, I considered five action steps to make a positive difference in our community.
- Learn to be the best parent you can be –
- Parenting is the toughest job in our lives and is always an on-going process. We can always improve our parenting and consequently our children. Parenting is the key to having good citizens.
- Get involved –
- Remember the words of Leland Kaiser (“I am the problem, I am the solution, I am the resource”) for what is happening in our community.
- Stay involved –
- Sometimes it’s easy to get involved but true commitment means staying involved. Be willing to adapt to change and be part of the process.
- Love for others –
- Intolerance, hatred and poor conflict resolution will not exist if we exhibit love for our fellow man.
- Forgiveness –
- We need to be able to forgive others for their mistakes and forgive ourselves for our mistakes as we move forward. Without forgiveness, we are stuck in a cycle of inadequate conflict resolution never moving forward.
If you use a pentagon to symbolize the Five Steps and then connect all the steps (since they are all interrelated), we now see a star. I’d like to see this “star” as illuminating these steps and the path to follow for positive community improvement.
In retrospect now, I can see that I have been on a journey that I had not anticipated when I started my career as a geneticist/pediatrician. This journey is important, and I also know that I am not in charge. I willingly accept the role that seems to be evolving.
We are now over 24 years post Columbine yet only days post Nashville shootings. My journey continues. I realize that I can make a difference. I hope we can all make a difference. If you substitute “we” for “I” in the words of Leland Kaiser, the twelve words now read – We are the problem, we are the solution, we are the resource. We can change our communities, one neighbor and one neighborhood at a time. It is not my traditional role as a physician – or is it? The more I think about it, it is. It is absolutely my job! We have the opportunity to help “heal” the mind and body of our community in addition to our patients. I look forward to this on-going journey and encourage your participation.
Let’s not accept hate as someone just blowing off steam or “that’s just the way they are.” Hate is evil. Hate is how we have allowed genocide in the past. Hate is how we have allowed racism to exist so long. Hate is how we dehumanize others and seek to dismiss them as subhuman. The perpetuation of hate must stop but will only stop when we say “enough” and stop becoming desensitized. And, the role of forgiveness cannot be overemphasized.3 Without it, we are stuck.
- Saul RA. My Children’s Children: Raising Young Citizens in the Age of Columbine. CreateSpace, 2013. 238 pp.