This has been a rough week.* Not just here in my own home & life, though definitely that too, but on a bigger scale. Nationally? Maybe. Regionally? Probably. Locally? Yes.
There was another school shooting in the United States, in Florida, and a rash of outcry and protest about gun control laws and who should be doing what and who is to blame and who should have a gun to stop the person with the gun. And so on and so forth.
As a parent every school shooting hits close to home. With every single one I can’t help but think “What if that was my kids’ school?” Just the thought freezes my heart with terror. My kids go to a smaller charter school so I feel like they’re a little safer. Smaller = statistically less likely to get shot; more people watching fewer kids, more aware and involved parents, etc. I feel lucky to have that option. But that’s not fool proof.
Earlier in the week, right on the heels of the horrific school shooting in Florida, there were multiple school closings due to threats of violence. Facebook friends from different districts on different days posted about their kid’s school being closed because someone had threatened to go in and shoot it up. Here in America, the self-proclaimed Greatest Nation on Earth, we are keeping our kids home from school because they might get shot. Let that sink in for a minute.
And it continues. This morning (maybe this afternoon; I don’t know, I work nights.) the news broke that a teenager had fired shots in a dorm room at Central Michigan University. Two college kids were killed. IN THEIR DORM. Their home. By another kid.
I don’t have any personal connections to Central but my oldest son visited the campus twice last year. He really liked the school and was interested in going to it. His interest waned & he’s still at home. I don’t know if I’ve ever felt so relieved that my kid didn’t go to college. At least not that one. But, again, this could be happening anywhere. It just so happens that it’s taking place in my home state right now. It’s way too close to home for comfort but kids getting shot anywhere is too close to home.
Seriously, what the fuck is wrong with people? And how do we solve this problem.
Obviously something has to change. Maybe tighter gun control laws are the solution. Maybe not. (I have an opinion on this, I’m not going to share it because it’s irrelevant and detracts from the point of this post.) Either way that’s really not a solution.
The problem is bigger than guns getting into the hands of those who shouldn’t have them. I mean, who knows if those kids who threatened to shoot their schools had guns or not. They were still able to perpetuate the problem and stir up fear. They still made school an unsafe place to be on that day.
It has more to do with whatever causes people (young people, old people, whatever. Any people.) to see shooting or threatening to shoot or bomb a school as an acceptable course of action.
Lately I’ve been listening to a lot of podcasts. They’re a good distraction from the mundane chores of life. I listen to them when I’m running, when I’m folding laundry, or doing dishes, or doing thoughtless tasks at work. One that I’ve delved into is the Art of Charm podcast.
I was listening to one episode, Episode 684 with Celeste Headlee, while making dinner a month or two ago when I realized I was hearing something really important.
Celeste Headlee is a journalist and radio talk show hosts. She’s spent years interviewing people and sharing their perspective. The podcast I was listening was about having conversations, specifically how to do it effectively. (And it’s not the way you think it is.)
What really jumped out at me was something she said (roughly 33 minutes into the podcast) about empathy.
Empathy is one of those woo-woo, popular buzz words, you might see it tattooed on the foot of some trendy young hipster. It gets lightly thrown around quite a bit, but what does it really mean? Why is empathy such a big deal? And, more importantly, how do you get it?
The Oxford Dictionary (online version of course) defines empathy as “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another”.
That sounds simple enough but it doesn’t really explain much about empathy (like why it’s important or what any of this has to do with school shootings).
Celeste Headlee tells us that empathy is the only known way to overcome our evolutionarily engrained biases.
While talking about conversation Celeste Headlee also points out that empathy has measurably decreased over the past some odd years. (Apparently there are legitimate studies that track empathy levels.) In other words we as a society are failing in our ability to see things from other’s perspective. More and more we are being governed by our basic instinct instead of our humanity. That’s kind of a big deal.
A decrease in the ability to comprehend how others are feeling, to put yourself in their shoes, is a deadly decrease. We’re seeing this play out. And it makes many parents feel helpless, like it’s near impossible to keep our kids safe.
So what do we do?
Sure modeling kindness, something that’s offered as a solution, is a good thing but it’s not the answer. Because, let’s be real, how many teenagers actually notice the small things other people do?
Having conversations might be a solution, though, a realistic and feasible way to make a change in our current culture. Even brief, seemingly meaningless interactions are more impactful and important than you’d imagine. In fact, according to Headlee, those are possibly the most important type and the biggest way we can build empathy. See, you can’t just choose to be empathetic; it’s a skill and skills, like those pesky toys labeled “some assembly required”, have to be built before they can be used.
If you don’t believe me you should listen to the podcast (linked up above) or check out Celeste Headlee’s TEDtalk or book.
And then go out and talk to people. Don’t pass up on the opportunity for brief conversation with a stranger, the more different than you the better. Make the world a better place one conversation at a time. Because we need something to change and public policy, laws and all that crap, take a very long time. This you can do every day. Sometimes the smallest actions can make the biggest difference.
*Please note that the time frames mentioned are relevant to when I was writing but not necessarily to when this was published. There’s a bit of lag going on here.