The End of the World, and Other Equally Improbable Things

As REM used to sing, “It’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine.”

I’d be okay if the world as we knew it ended today. For clarity, I could do without the earthquakes and tidal waves and the Yellowstone caldera erupting in a tower of molten rock and fire. I’m also fond of the people on the planet – most of them, at least – and the wild critters that we’ve seen fit to leave alone. But if the rest of the world ended today – the human-made parts that, in a spasm of fear and misunderstanding we have crafted to create an ecological, humanitarian and economic crisis, I’d be fine.

Maybe what the Mayan’s intended for the 21st of December 2012 was that the world was going to start anew, and not merely end.

But that’s not going to happen either. It’s equally unlikely that the world will turn some critical page in its history today as it will come to a crashing halt. And let’s face it; it’s not the world that needs a reboot; it’s just us. You and me and the rest of the seven billion of us who are making a catastrophic mess of things.

Maybe the world has already ended and we haven’t noticed? Maybe we’ve living in a slow-motion end of time that the Mayan calendar-makers couldn’t possibly have foreseen.

I think very little is going to come to an end today, and very little will start over. Humankind is too distracted to press the restart button; we’re caught up in our own small, insular experience of the world, busy texting each other pictures of our cats, or playing the latest Xbox 360 game, to notice that things could really use a do-over. Those distractions keep us from both the pain and the joy of life on this planet; we’re slowly weaving a cocoon around ourselves.

So the end time will come to pass today without significant incident. And that’s too bad, because we need a serious kick in the pants if we’re going to end the world we live in, and start building a new one.

The root of the sickness

“The time to address gun control laws in the United States was Thursday.” This statement, made to a CBC reporter when he asked a question of a Newtown, Connecticut resident yesterday, will almost certainly dominate the debate over the most recent mass shooting in America in the coming days. And while I think this conversation is vital, there is a deeper, more radical question that must be asked.

The predictable and often repeated debate over gun control in that country will once again be replayed in the wake the death of 27 people on Friday, December 15. On one side of that debate will be advocates for gun control arguing that without the easy access to guns, madmen like the one who killed innocent children and their teachers on Friday in a Connecticut school would not be able to take as many lives. On the other will be the zealots from the National Rifle Association and other industry funded “right to bear arms” groups saying that possessing firearms is protected by the US constitution and that Americans should preserve that privilege in order to defend themselves. Never mind that in any one of the twenty mass shootings in the US in 2012 nobody has successfully defended themselves and their fellow citizens with their own weapon.

This debate is bound to reach a fevered pitch in the US, and elsewhere, in the wake of the most recent school shooting. I predict it will reach its apogee just before Christmas, and then, as it always has, will fade from our minds, replaced by more mundane concerns, and by the holiday season.

And if that happens, twenty young children, some as young as five years old, will have been gunned down by a madman in vain. There can be no sense made from such violence; there can be the impetus drawn from such malice to cure what ills us as a society and has, this year alone, claimed sixty-eight lives in mass-shootings (The FBI defines a mass-shooting as one where there are four fatalities, not including the gun man) and 543 since 1982.

If you use the Brady Campaign to End Gun Violence’s statistics, the story is even bleaker. They report that since 2005 there have been 431 incidents where more than one person has been shot at a time in the US alone.

The gun law debate aside, we must address another question: what is it about the human condition that makes the sickest among us want to pick up a pair of handguns, walk into a school, shoot your own mother and then proceed to kill her students? What makes someone want to walk into a crowded theatre and randomly shoot strangers?

There is a profound illness that underlies these acts of random violence and has made them the norm, not just in the United States, but here in Canada, in Europe and elsewhere. Psychopathy – the mental illness that renders a person unable to feel empathy for others – must surely be part of the root of this predilection of mass violence. But there must be more.

If our communities are like giant, interactive living organisms, these people who emerge to cause such unspeakable violence are the symptoms of a vast illness that permeates our being. At the root of this illness there is a lack of value for the sacredness of human life, and a fundamental failure to grasp the interconnectedness of all living beings. Every day as a society we cause great violence to one another and the world around us. These gunmen are simply the most obvious – and most disturbing – outward manifestation of our illness.

There is an anger and a fear that lies just beneath the surface of humanity that every now and again finds an outlet through these psychopaths and sociopaths and just-plain deeply disturbed individuals. We live in a way where our desires can never be satisfied, because what we want – more – is never enough. We seek our fulfillment from without – from things, from other people – and not from our own peace and well-being, and that frustration simmers below the surface of our everyday lives like a cancer waiting to metastasise.

When that illness finds the perfect host to express its rage – the utter lack of caring for the holiness of all life, of humanity, of the pure unbridled potential of a child – it can have disastrous results. The combination of a society without an understanding of our interconnectedness, and a mentally ill person with easy access of guns and you get Colorado, Columbine, Connecticut and too many other examples of list, or even make sense of.

We can, and we must, (but likely won’t) address gun control, not just in the United States, but everywhere that firearms are so easily available. But as a society we must also consider the underlying illness that makes it possible for sick individuals to fester up like a lesion and destroy lives so wontedly. Until we view all life as sacred, until we see ourselves not just as individuals who are isolated from one another but as a part of all life, we can justify perpetuating great violence against each other, and against the earth and its creatures. We are not separate, and when we harm our so-called enemies, and when we rip into the earth and poison it, we are slowly killing ourselves too.

The death of so many children and those who loved them and were sworn to their care yesterday is just another deeply painful example of why we must seek to find peace in our own hearts, and teach that peace to one another and our children. It’s for the sake of our future as a species that we must bring an end to this terrible suffering that we have created.