Saturday, January 17, 2015

The Tragedy in Littleton

Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, May 2, 1999

We have been living recently through a couple of weeks of horrendous, heart-rending images: images of mayhem and evil from across the ocean, replaced by images of mayhem and evil from much closer to home. Kosovo blurs into Colorado, as Pristina becomes Littleton.
As the pictures from Columbine flicker across our television screens, or greet us in the morning newspaper, a sense of "Haven't we been here before?" "Oh, no, not again!" sad and sorry deja vu, envelopes our being-- only more horrible this time, more horrible than words can say.
I know that I (and, I would guess, many of you, too) have felt heavy-hearted as we've watched the news from Littleton. Colors don't shine quite as brightly any more; we walk around a little more slowly; our shoulders feel a bit more stooped; we are, perhaps, feeling suddenly older than our years. This early spring doesn't thrill us quite as much as springs in other years, as the pictures-- the images-- keep returning to our minds:
students running for cover... blood-stained schoolhouse doors... a body lying covered on the driveway... then, the tragic and sorrowful aftermath... commiseration in the school parking lot... tears and hugs, sadness and empathy... grieving parents... the guilt-ridden joy of knowing that at least, my child is safe...
These images affect us deeply, don't they?
The fact that we can feel at all any more in this vapid and shallow culture should, perhaps, give us more than a little hope and faith...
In a week of painful portraits, the one that I found, strangely and unexpectedly, the most moving of all, was that on the cover of this week's Time magazine.
It was a simple enough concept: color portraits of the two killers, Klebold and Harris, surrounded by smaller, black and white pictures of their victims.
Both smiling, clean and well-groomed, friendly faces. "Could these be their portraits for the high school yearbook?" I wondered. "What good-looking boys," I thought... and then found myself starting to weep...
Harris looked a little bit like my nephew when he was few years younger... Klebold could be the boy who lives across the street... Either one of them could be any of a half dozen of Sarah's friends... Or, they could be Noah's friends in a few more years, or could be Noah, for that matter...
The caption under the portraits called them "The Monsters Next Door". But no, I thought-- monstrous deeds, certainly... unspeakably monstrous, evil deeds, for which these two young men stand responsible, for which they will be judged (at least by the judge of history now, if not by a judge and jury of their peers, and if not by some cosmic judge in heaven). Unspeakably monstrous, evil, unforgivable deeds...
But monsters? No, not really.
 It would be so much easier-- and somehow, so much more comforting, if they were "monsters", creatures from another planet, Untermenschen, in the neo-Nazi terminology they both affected... Then they could simply be labeled, condemned, and dismissed. Then, if we could just label Klebold and Harris as freaks of nature-- somehow sub-human-- somehow not one of us-- there would be no need for the great national soul searching in which we are now engaged.
But we can't simply dismiss them this way, because we know, deep down inside, that Harris and Klebold are not, ultimately, monsters-- but young men who did evil things to others. They are our children, no less than their classmates that they gunned down. They are our brothers, no less than the science teacher they murdered...
They are our children, all of them. And it is frightening, sometimes, how fragile our human psyches are, and how thin the line between sanity and mayhem can be in any of us...
God knows, high school years are never easy. As Eric Venet reminds us, "...taunting can whittle away all but a razor-sharp sense of self-esteem, and esteem in high quantity is a rare find in a teen-age world."
I don't know. Thinking back upon the "glory days" of high school seems (to me at least) a pervasive enough pastime as one reaches middle age. Especially when one has children of one's own who have (somehow) made it to adolescence, one starts thinking back more and more, and making the inevitable comparisons. (I tell Sarah all the time that she is both blessed, and cursed, to have parents who are young enough to remember [barely, perhaps] what it was like in high school.)
I suppose it's just human nature to make these inevitable comparisons between then and now. But at times of national catharsis like the Littleton tragedy, such looking back becomes more than mere nostalgia; it becomes a time of intense introspection. We look back to the past to try to get some glimmer of light as we stumble our way into the future. The past is an imperfect mirror, but sometimes it's the only mirror that we've got.
My own high school years weren't easy ones, certainly. As some of you already know, back in high school, I was a Communist (a Maoist even)-- which made me, obviously, the school radical-- kind of a "weirdo"-- maybe even something of an outcast. As you might imagine, my asinine ideology didn't endear either to the school administration, or to many of my peers.
I can remember the feeling of being alone in the world-- or at least in the world of that school (which was, to a large degree, my world back then). I can remember the ostracism, the loneliness, the taunting I faced at the hands of some people for being (in this and other ways) "different".
As I was talking about the Littleton tragedy with Bill Sevrens at coffee hour a week ago today, suddenly a long-repressed memory from high school flooded back into my mind, as clear as day. It was the fall of 1972, and we were going be the very first class to graduate from a brand spanking new high school in Woonsocket, Rhode Island. So, in the early weeks of school, they gave everybody a map, a floor plan of the building, to help us find our way around from room to room. And I can remember sitting at home room one dreary morning that fall, with a copy of the school floor plan before me on my desk, fantasizing: Where could you plant the bombs in this building so that they'd cause the most damage? Where would the escape route be? Would such an action inspire the great working class rebellion of which (I thought) I dreamed?
Sometimes, it's scary how thin the line between sanity and mayhem can be in any of us...
But what was different back then? What stopped me from acting out these dark and evil fantasies?
For one thing, I had a sense of values-- which had nothing at all to do with the peculiar and perverse political way in which I chose to act out my adolescent angst. As warped as my ideology was (and you don't get much more warped than Stalinism, for God's sake), the values I really held, deep within my heart, that had been inculcated into me from an early age told me that it was never all right to inflict indiscriminate harm on another human being.
Even in my warped and dark fantasies in which I yearned to blow up this new school building-- this great, new symbol of the "Establishment" I loathed, I didn't want to hurt anybody, let alone kill them. It never occurred to me actually to do something to hurt anyone-- even those few people I loathed (and who, I guess, loathed me).
Second, as fragile as my adolescent ego was (and it was as fragile and prone to hurt and shame as any of yours) , there was enough of a sense of self-esteem within me to provide me with a deep and abiding sense of my own self worth; to let me know the validity of the gifts and insights I had to offer-- in spite of the teasing and taunting all around me.
And even though I am hardly one to sentimentalize the dysfunctional, alcoholic family in which I grew up, I nevertheless had parents who let me know, in ways great and small, that I was loved-- that I was valued-- and who gave me every opportunity they could (and at times, I now realize, probably at no small cost to themselves) to express myself and achieve my goals and reach (however imperfectly and fuzzy-headedly) for my dreams.
As I've said, I'm still young enough to remember (barely, and only if I try real hard) what high school was like a generation ago. As someone who graduated from high school in the early 1970s, and who taught in a high school in the late 1970s, I am convinced that, in many ways, the times in which our children are now growing are not all that different than those years in which many of us came to maturity. I think that the "generational divide" between us and our children is not as wide as is often portrayed, and that, all in all, it is significantly narrower than that which existed between our parents' generation and ours.
 But there are, nevertheless, some major differences, and as we saw at Columbine, these differences sometimes explode in deadly and tragic ways.
For one thing, as much as the 70s are oftentimes derided as the "me generation"-- a time of mindless hedonism and pot smoking and disco music and bell bottoms and long hair and maxi skirts and leisure suits and all that stuff-- those times didn't hold a candle when it comes to emptiness to the shallow, mad, consumerist culture in which we now live. At least there was back then some sense that there were values deeper than those of the marketplace; that life was more than an unending search for newer and better stuff to buy; that there were badges of honor more meaningful than those you could buy at Aberscumby and Finch.
We didn't have all this violence permeating every aspect of our culture back then, either. Maybe we had drugs and booze and sex and rock and roll, but at least we weren't all carrying weapons with us to school (which is the way it seems at least nowadays). There were fights in the parking lot after school, sure-- but at least you didn't have to worry about someone pulling out an automatic rifle and blowing you away in the school library.
Since the Littleton tragedy, I've been going around saying that 20,000 young people in America have been killed by handguns in the past twenty years.
I need to apologize, because my figures weren't quite right:
The actual figure is that 16,000 young people under the age of 19 have been killed with handguns in America in the past four years-- more than 20,000 in the past five years.
More than 20,000 young people under the age of 19 have been shot and killed in America over the last five years. If that's not obscene, then what is?
More than 90% of those killed have been young, male African Americans or Hispanics-- products of the ghetto where racism's assault on meaning and hope and values has reached nearly genocidal proportions.
When something like Columbine strikes in an affluent, white suburb, we are shocked (quite rightfully) out of our senses. But we also need to stop just looking the other way in the face of the violent warfare raging on the streets of our cities.
One more thing is different than it used to be: In spite of all of our well-meaning "sensitivity training", and all of our political correctness, there is probably, in our high schools today, less respect for differences and diversity than there was twenty, or even ten, years ago.
At least as far back as I can remember, there have always been "cliques" in high school-- people who were different from one another, and maybe just didn't like one another very much. Now, we are in danger of seeing those "cliques" degenerate into heavily-armed, pitched camps. We can no longer stand back "politely" as the racist divide in our culture keeps growing; as more and more, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer and those of us in the middle get squeezed more and more tightly. We can't just stand back politely any longer as right wing fanatics-- spearheaded by right wing religious fanatics-- continue to stereotype and demonize and deny full civil rights to our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters.
There is a deep sense of rage in our children's hearts, a darkness at the edge of all of our towns. And my sense is that it's growing.
You know, we had our problems growing up in the 60s and 70s. I can't imagine how tough it must have been for some of you who grew up twenty or thirty years earlier, and had to have to give up your childhoods when the Great Depression struck, or your adolescence when the bugles of World War Two called, or when you were drafted to go off to Korea or Vietnam. I know that, relatively speaking, I grew up in a much easier and more coddled age than you did.
Perhaps I'm just another old man looking back in nostalgia, but at least there used to be a sense, that as difficult as life could be, there was joy-- there was hope-- there was something to live for.
You know, some of the music we used to listen to back in the 70s was pretty heavy stuff-- Pink Floyd and Deep Purple and Led Zepplin and all those bands. It was real hard rock, not that different from the kinds of Gothic rock that Klebold and Harris and their friends apparently liked. But even here, in the midst of the burned out nights and all that wildness and all of the inevitable pain and foolishness that growing up brings, there was within us a sense of how exciting it was to be young and alive-- there was always an ever-fresh, youthful hope that called out to remind us that the best was always still ahead.
I hope I'm wrong, but sometimes I'm afraid that that sense of hope is dying in our young people, and that they're growing way too old before their time.
But, of course, it's not enough merely to analyze the situation, or sit and moan or cry and complain about how bad things are. If that's all we do, then where is the meaning in those thirteen senseless deaths in Littleton? How do we keep faith with those blessed souls? What are we going to do about it?
First of all, each in our own way, we need to tune into our kids. Whether it's convenient for us to do so or not. Whether they want us to or not. We need to know where they are (as much as we can). We need to know who their friends are. We need to listen to their music (even though we might not really want to). We have to try to understand it, and listen for the feelings the words are trying to express. Remember what Bob Dylan wrote: "Mothers and fathers throughout the land/ Don't criticize what you don't understand...". He was right.
We have to sit down in front of the television or PlayStation and ask if this is what we really want our kids growing up with. These things might have their place-- our children need release, steam valves, good honest pleasures as much as any of us do. I'm not just saying-- Pull the plug! Ban video games! No more Nintendo! Down with Marilyn Manson! Not at all. But part of being a parent is to be the gatekeeper-- to evaluate-- to decide-- to protect-- and to promote the values we feel are most life giving and life sustaining.
And all the while that we're keeping watch at the gate, we have to give our children the space and the opportunities to express who they are in positive, meaningful ways. (This is a difficult dance, and this is not always an easy balance to maintain, I know. But we have to do our best, and not just abdicate our responsibility because the task before us is hard.)
We need to let our sons and daughters find their voices, and express themselves. Perhaps this means, sometimes, raising our daughters to be more assertive and our sons to be more gentle. Maybe, in particular cases, it doesn't mean that at all! Most of all, it means raising them to be who they truly are. If there's one thing we should have learned by now, it is that becoming a happy, functional adult means having the chance to express our own personhood openly, without shame, without having constantly to wear the mask of society's expectations of who we should be.
And growing into maturity also means giving our children meaningful and worthwhile ways to serve-- to serve others, to serve their communities, to develop their own creativity and talent in service of something greater than themselves. Life is more than one big video game or one long trip to the mall. Life should demand that we all-- young and old alike-- do something to pay back the debt we owe to life; add something to further the common life of us all.
So, that means that society has to get involved-- our communities, our churches, and, of course, our schools have to be transformed into places where the contributions of all people-- young and old alike-- are honored and affirmed.
It's a daunting task, because so much cries out to be done. But this is the only way we have to keep faith with those fifteen souls who died at Littleton-- and with the thousands of our other children who have died:
Schools need to become less factories for turning out acceptable test scores, and more incubators for nurturing the human spirit.
Churches need to concentrate less on keeping the wheels greased and turning, and more on building community.
Politicians have to concentrate less on feathering their nests and more on being role models for the young people who are watching them.
We need to develop support groups for parents-- and for young people-- to help us all, in whatever ways we can, through these difficult years (made all the more difficult in the face of a culture that doesn't seem to care).
We need to find ways of convening a Great Dialogue, within the generations and between the generations, to find ways of bringing this dark night of our national soul to an end.
We need to establish mentor programs-- a bridge between the generations-- where young people can gain something of the wisdom and perspective that the years bring-- and where we older ones can share again some of the wonder and energy of youth.
And, not incidentally, and as immediately as possible, we need to get guns out of the everyday fabric of our society, and tell those who are profiting on the deaths of our children that there time has come.
A famous man once wrote:
"The world is yours as well as ours, but in the last analysis, it is yours. You young people, so full of vigor and vitality, are in the bloom of life, like the sun at eight or nine o'clock in the morning. Our hope is placed in you. The future depends on you."
Beautiful words. Words to live for. Those were words that I had copied on the front cover of my notebook when I was in high school. The cover of that notebook was also emblazoned with a hammer and sickle and a red star and a portrait of Chairman Mao.
Indeed, those words-- beautiful as they were-- were written by Chairman Mao himself-- arguably, one of the most evil men of our century.
It is amazing how deliciously unpredictable and ironic life can be at times! For those words, whoever their author was, inspired me, and gave me hope, and gave me some reason to face life fully and go on living.
It was stupid to be a Communist back then, and I don't recommend it to anyone as the surest way of guaranteeing a productive adolescence...
But because I was young, I could be excused for making mistakes. And because I had people who cared about me and were patient with me-- and who lived out deeper, truer, more abiding values before my eyes-- people who loved me-- then when I became an adult, I put aside childish and foolish ways. And, I hope, learned a thing or two from the experience that might be worth sharing.
We need to do what we can to give our children back their hopes and their dreams-- to give them something to live for-- to show them life is worth living.
And when we do that--

when we stand up as a people and do what we need to do:
then the sun of a new day will dawn;
and the spring will come back again;
and love's sweet columbine will flower beautifully in our hearts.
Blessed be. Amen.

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