On a snowy January day a few years ago I passed my neighbor shoveling snow in her driveway. “Looks like you’ve got your work cut out for you,” I quipped as she stopped to mop her brow.
“The trouble is, I don’t have the right tool,” she commented. Indeed, her small shovel didn’t look big enough to clear the snow from her drive and walk.
How often is it the case that we don’t have the right tool for the task at hand. This can be true for physical tasks like shoveling snow or home repairs. The lack of the proper screwdriver can make replacing a porch railing tricky. Or, have you ever tried to sew leather with a needle and thread designed for cloth?
Frustration results when our tools aren’t up to the job.
But the same can be true of less literal tasks. Often, as a parent, I wanted to fix my son’s worries by problem-solving. Most of the time, he just needed to vent his feelings, then find his own solution. (A wise parent I know responds in this situation by asking “Do you want me to fix it, or do you want me to listen?”)
In the workplace, we might attempt to resolve an issue by calling a staff meeting when what’s really needed is a private conversation between supervisor and employee.
Sometimes our misguided use of “tools” can result in disaster. A bored homeowner might try to inject excitement into her life by planning major home renovations, only to end up in debt. An ignored child’s misbehavior might be an attempt to get attention. Someone struggling with mental illness might turn to alcohol or drugs to medicate himself. Sometimes we employ the wrong strategies or tools in a desperate bid for help.
Recently, at Michigan State University — my alma mater — a troubled individual used a gun to try to make a statement about his rejection. In a twisted attempt to gain attention, he shot and killed three students and injured five others.
These events took place in two buildings, the MSU Union and Berkey Hall, where I had jobs and took classes. The event hit very close to home.
Of course this perpetrator was employing a very twisted logic, but he was also employing a gun that he shouldn’t have had access to because of a previous firearm offense.
But it’s not difficult to see how someone in our society gets the impression that guns can solve problems. From classic Westerns to current popular films, many of our heroes wield guns. They are depicted as saviors or avenging angels, men whom nothing can stop because they are armed. To someone who is unbalanced to begin with, this can be a dangerous message: if I have a weapon, nothing can stop me, noone can hurt me.
Or, in the most warped version of this belief, I can stop may pain by wounding someone else.
In this still-new year, there have been more mass shooting than there have been days. With every one of these tragic events, we mourn the dead and ask “why?” Thoughts and prayers are offered, and our hearts go out to the victims and their families.
But are thoughts, prayers and grief the proper tools for addressing gun violence? Most of us can’t help but pray when such random violence occurs. But outrage is an even more appropriate reaction. Policy and change are the more effective response.
We have tools at our disposal for addressing this issue. The time-honored tools of peaceful protest, letter-writing campaigns and simply demanding that our representatives be accountable to everyday citizens rather than only the gun lobby can be powerful.
I’m always moved when I see the families of gun violence victims mobilizing for better laws. If they can do this in the midst of crippling grief, we can surely follow their lead.
Often the first step to solving a problem is putting yourself in someone else’s shoes. The child who is acting up may simply need attention. The co-worker who is causing strife might be hurting inside. The violent offender may have himself been the victim of violence in his early life.
But he or she should not have such easy access to the means of hurting others.
When we make ourselves vulnerable by adopting another’s viewpoint, we gain the strength to effect change. When we decide our fellow humans have suffered enough, we are motivated to demand reforms. Compassion and courage are tools always at our disposal. They always suit the task, if only we will use them.