Reflections: Healthy children

Once again, several weeks ago, there was a horrific shooting at a school in the U.S., this time in Texas, resulting in 19 children and two teachers killed by the 18-year-old gunman.

And once again this has set off a firestorm of righteous condemnation of guns and earnest demands for better gun control. This is understandable. When in shock and grief people react with great emotion, often finding some measure of relief in apportioning blame for their suffering. 

What is much less acceptable is the way in which some folks, especially politicians and news journalists, use events like this to jump on the bandwagon of outrage and grief to demonstrate their righteous indignation and promote their simple solutions to the carnage. Sometimes it is difficult to not conclude that some of these folks are actually blatantly using such tragedies to enhance their TV ratings or political prospects. 

For the most part the reaction to the most recent school shooting was massive outrage against guns and demands for immediate measures of stricter gun control. This is understandable since there are more guns than people in the U.S. and it seems that acquiring one is amazingly easy for anyone 18 and older. But perhaps this explanation is too simple, and insisting that gun control be the focus of the response and the solution misses more important dynamics.

It is common practice in medicine to attend to presenting symptoms but to remain alert to possible underlying causes of those symptoms. Several years ago my 84-year-old mother had an very painful open sore on her lower leg that resisted healing. The medical folks provided good wound care but to their bewilderment the sore got bigger and more painful. Mom was in pretty good health but over the course of a year the pain became overwhelming and debilitating. 

We kids started asking about amputation (as an aunt with a similar sore had undergone and recovered) but the doctors insisted it was improving. By the time they agreed amputation was necessary Mom was too weak for surgery. She died likely from organ failure caused by the immense dosages of pain killers she needed to make the pain bearable. 

The medical folks treated the presenting symptom – the open sore – and did all they could to get it to heal. They failed to adequately look beyond the obvious symptom to figure out what was preventing it from healing and why the pain kept increasing. Most likely the infection from the sore had infiltrated the bone and other tissue in her leg and had they amputated six months earlier she would probably still be alive today since her sisters all lived well into their 90s.

The scourge of gun violence in the U.S. and increasingly so in Canada is a huge problem that has thus far proved unsolvable. But maybe it is a symptom of something more serious.

Might these shootings make us wonder why violence – via gun or other means – is so much a part of our culture? Why is violence so integral a part of the TV and movie and sports and music industries? If we were to eliminate any show or movie that depicted flagrant violence – what would be left? And if video and online gaming were to eliminate all graphic depictions of shooting and bloodshed – what would be left?

It seems to me that the many mass shootings (as well as car attacks on pedestrians, bombings, arsons, etc.) are in part symptoms of this deeper “disease” of the acceptance and glorification of violence within our culture. Apparently we believe that heroes can and should use violence to accomplish their goals.

In addition to this I think there is another even deeper symptom. Almost all of the mass shooters are young men – average age of school shooters in the U.S. is 18 – and almost all of them grew up without a father in the home, and/or without a healthy relationship with their father. In one of my congregations there was a prison chaplain who observed that the same was true for almost all of the men doing time.

To the great impoverishment of our nations more and more children are not growing up in stable homes where both parents are in a committed marriage relationship. And often it is the father who is unwilling/unable or not allowed to be a committed parent to his kids. It used to be clearly true to us that kids ideally needed the love and care of both their mom and their dad. Sometimes, most unfortunately for the children, this isn’t possible, and then family, friends, church, and community try to help lessen the loss. 

But these days many in our culture pretend that kids will grow up just fine without the daily presence and love and care of one of their parents. We especially underestimate how very difficult and wounding it is for a boy to grow up without a solid relationship to a loving and mentoring dad. Why are we so blind to the hurt of children living without a parent, especially the parent of the same gender?

Certainly connected to these two factors is the dearth of mental health supports, care and treatment available for youth and young adults. Ranting and raving about guns is the easiest response to this crisis but this will not address the deeper infectious “disease” of our culture which produces people – especially young men – who go on killing sprees. 

We need to ponder our history and recover a vision for what it takes – for a family, an extended family, a community, a church, a nation, a culture – to raise healthy children for whom using violence is unthinkable.

Dave Tiessen