"I am he as you are he as you are me and we are all together.
See how they run like pigs from a gun, see how they fly.
I'm crying." ~John Lennon/Paul McCartney
When I was in my early 20s, my boyfriend and I broke up. As I had come to rely on our relationship to provide me with a sense of security, I was thrown into a feeling of chaos. I became profoundly depressed as I struggled to cope with this loss of identity as his girlfriend and find new ways of grounding myself in relation to the world around me. Seeing my struggle, one of my friends referred me to a therapist, a beautiful soul named Beth.
Beth was the first to introduce me to an important piece of wisdom: the idea of choice. Everything we think, feel, and do is a choice, she said. Every action, every reaction: it’s all a choice. Therefore, I could choose to remain depressed or I could choose to be happy.
In her book, “My Stroke of Insight,” Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor says that when we become angry, for example, we experience a physiological response – increased adrenaline, etc – for 90 seconds. If we remain angry after 90 seconds, it’s a choice.
Although I recognized the validity of this wisdom when Beth explained it to me, it took me years to integrate it into my own experience. In other words, I chose to remain depressed. While this may sound like an oversimplification, it isn’t really. For all the years I struggled with my depression, I refused to consider a pharmaceutical remedy. No meds for me: I can beat this on my own. I knew I had a choice and when things started getting too bleak, I flipped a switch inside myself and pulled myself back up. The problem I had was context. I had been depressed for so long that my frame of reference for “happy” was lacking, so the best I seemed to accomplish was “less-depressed” or, sometimes, “not-depressed.” It wasn’t until an experience with ayahuasca at a shamanic healing ceremony several years ago that the depression lifted and I suddenly understood the difference between “not-depressed” and “happy.”
I tell you this to provide you with my personal understanding of the idea of choice. As I say, I believe that everything is a choice. When someone tells me that they wish they could do what I did, leave their job and travel and experience the world and new things, I ask why they don’t do it. “Oh, I can’t,” is the usual response. “I have a mortgage.” Or something along those lines. “I can’t,” a refrain that echoes through my past like an insanely loud gong, is, if you’ll excuse me, a totally bullshit excuse. “I choose not to” is far more accurate.
It wasn’t easy for me to make the choices I did. I gave up a very good job, sold a condo that I loved, parted with material possessions I’d become unwholesomely attached to, and departed the city I called home, in which reside many of my very dearest friends and family. But I could, and I did. I too had a mortgage. I freed myself of it. It was a choice.
I think the problem most people in our society have with this idea of personal choice, the root of this misguided belief that we don’t have choices, comes from an avoidance of accepting personal responsibility. If we don’t have a choice, if we’re required or forced to do something, we are not responsible for the consequences. Sometimes we are afraid to make hard choices because we fear the unknown, which means we can’t foresee the consequences and we’d rather not have to face anything uncomfortable. But sometimes we have to face the uncomfortable. If we always remain in our comfort zones, we never grow. Trust me. I know of what I speak. Despite my great strides in recent years at leaving my comfort zone, making hard choices, and facing the unknown, I still resist making new hard choices at every turn.
But this avoidance of accepting responsibility doesn’t just leave us stuck at a job that we hate or in a relationship that’s stagnating or eating a mediocre burger when we could have had that really yummy-looking plate of pasta our friend is eating. It reverberates through our society, so that we run this way and that asking the wrong questions, therefore looking for the wrong answers and implementing false solutions. We have developed an entire social structure and financial economy based on a lack of personal responsibility.
I am not talking about that whole, “Get a job and pull yourself up by the bootstraps” versus “We need a social safety net” ideological debate, though it seems likely that such a debate is relevant to my point. Nor am I talking about the religion versus science debate, of “I don’t have to accept any responsibility because God will do that for me” as opposed to “There is no God, only random chance, and because it’s all chance, I couldn’t really do anything about it anyway.” I am talking about personal choice: not systems, not philosophies, not ideologies, not faiths. This is a free will universe. Faith in God or Goddess or Energy or the Universe or any other name we choose is not the point. Atheism is not the point. Whether we are guided by an infinite, omnipresent, omniscient being or not, we still have free will. We make choices and as soon as we undermine that fact, as soon as we absolve ourselves or others of responsibility for their choices, we also undermine our ability to psychologically, spiritually and/or emotionally evolve. We inhibit our own growth, collectively.
So this is what has been running through my head since I first heard about the Sandy Hook school shootings a few weeks ago. I watched on Facebook and in other forms of media a great debate emerge: we need gun control. We need to improve access to mental health services. It was his mother’s fault for keeping guns. Guns don’t kill people, people kill people. It’s the lack of public health care. It’s a fundamental breakdown in the fabric of American society because we have too many guns or we don’t have enough guns. Etc.
And I sat back and did not involve myself in any of the discussions, because the vast majority of my friends are strong advocates for gun control and I knew that my view would by wildly unpopular. For the record, I am also an advocate of gun control. In my ideal world, all handguns (I exempt rifles and shotguns for the purpose of hunting for food, though I think bow hunting is more ethical) should be melted down and recycled into something beautiful. Make art, not death. Etc. But despite this, despite the fact that this young man did have access to guns and used one to massacre a whole bunch of children, gun control alone does not address the problem. It doesn’t resolve the issue of personal responsibility, of personal choice. This young man chose to walk into that school and kill people, and despite the many Facebook posts I saw saying they don’t care why, just get rid of the guns, I do care why. What has gone so wrong in our world that anyone thinks it is okay to gun down anyone else?
So yes, if there were fewer guns and greater gun control, it would have made it more difficult for him to complete his actions. Yes, it is true that in places like Canada where we do have fewer guns, we have fewer such massacres, although they do occur. And yes, improved access to health services of any kind is always a good thing. However, there is no evidence from what I have seen that this young man had any kind of diagnosed condition – and I am extremely uncomfortable any time there is a correlation made between extreme violence and schizophrenia or psychosis, as that tends to enhance the fear and stigma rather than allowing us to learn about and from people who are considered mentally ill.
Why is it such a problem to stop and say, “Why did this man choose to kill people? What can we do to examine this kind of rage in ourselves, in others, in our society, and prevent such an action from happening again?” Why is it wrong to say, “Gun control is just one small piece of a much larger problem, that of violent rage, a rage that is permeating our entire society, the whole globe, and being manifested globally as international war and the rape and pillage of our planet’s natural resources?” The killer was acting out a global condition. He made a choice. We all make choices and we all need to be responsible for them. We need to look at ourselves and say, “what do I do or think or feel or say that perpetuates this violence?” and not just say, “it’s the fault of the government/corporation/gun lobby/military industrial complex/etc.” Because we are all part of all those things, we are one giant interconnected organism and while we feel tremendous sympathy for the families of those who died in that massacre, we should also have compassion for the killer, who acted out a collective rage that we all contain and for which we are all responsible.
Choose personal responsibility. Choose to accept that your personal responsibility affects the collective. Choose to love rather than hate. Choose compassion rather than anger. If we all make these choices, we can heal the hurt far more holistically than simply writing a new piece of legislation restricting access to guns.