Like most Americans, I was disturbed by the recent church massacre in Texas. It wasn’t the crime that disturbed me, however. To be completely honest, I was most disturbed by how little sadness the incident provoked. I know I’m not alone in this sentiment. Like many Americans – perhaps most – I’ve been desensitized by the seemingly endless waves of mass killings battering this country.
We’ve become numb to the suffering, accustomed to the headlines, and we know the media narratives and Facebook spats that will ensue well before they materialize. Liberals will blame guns and demand policy changes which usually would’ve done nothing to prevent the attack in question. Conservatives will blame “mental illness”, without offering any meaningful reforms to treat the mentally ill, and even suggest that more guns are the answer. To some degree, neither side is wrong. Clearly, something more does have to be done to prevent mentally unstable individuals from obtaining firearms. More critically, disturbed individuals must be diagnosed, documented and treated to reduce the likelihood of violent behavior in the first place. Such concrete steps will have to be taken, as complicated, expensive, unpopular and imperfect as they’ll be.
The more I reflect on this mass shooter phenomenon, however, the more insufficient policy changes appear. Policy changes address symptoms. They do little to address root causes of a disease.
The root of our disease is cultural, not political, and must be acknowledged if we’re to have any hope of addressing it.
The words that best seem to capture our cultural rot are degeneracy and alienation.
Spiritually, we’ve degenerated dramatically over the past six decades. We’ve abandoned the transcendent and the subsequent ability to maintain objective morality. We’d rather watch football on Sunday than go to church. “God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we, the murderers of all murderers, comfort ourselves?”, Nietzsche’s madman presciently implored. Our more cerebral postmoderns adopt a lifeless scientific materialism, incapable of ascribing any meaning to life, while average commoners fill the spiritual void with bread and circus. Unsurprisingly, the moral void has allowed deviant pornography as well as obscene TV shows, movies, and videogames to proliferate, warping the minds of millions. Skyrocketing rates of divorce, illegitimacy and the dissolution of the nuclear family are but one casualty. Moral relativism and a suffocating atmosphere of nihilism are postmodernity’s ultimate gifts to humanity.
Materialism must also be faulted. Wise men from the ancients to Oswald Spengler understood that wealth led to comfort, comfort to decadence, and decadence to decline. Capitalism generated unprecedented wealth and comforts for Americans – and it may well become our undoing. We are obese, weak, and effeminate. We are addicted to spending, debt, and consumption. We have allowed usury to run wild. We are far more interested in the latest iPhone than the latest papal encyclical – much less volunteering at the closest nursing home. Everything is commodified, disposable, expendable. Pope Francis connected this economic reality directly to the culture of death. It is a spiritual catastrophe. Socialism is not the answer, but what MLK called “a revolution of values” most certainly is.
As an educator I could go on about the decline of liberal education, preferencing technocratic, hairbrained educational schemes that fail time and time again over the immortal Western Canon. I could talk about our young people being hopelessly addicted to their smartphones and social media, effectively rendered zombies. But I digress. None of these insights are new or original. I list them because they merit repetition and serious reflection. The choir needs to be preached to just as much as the congregation.
Ultimately, alienation is the crisis which leads to so much misery and violence – and we’ve reach as point as a society in which some degree of alienation is the norm. How do we confront a crisis so abstract?
Anthropologist and filmmaker, Sebastian Junger, has given much thought to this question. I highly recommend his interview with Tim Ferriss and his latest book, Tribe. Junger identifies alienation as the dominant crisis devouring the West. Peering through the lens of anthropology, he argues that our alienation stems from the abandonment of the practices that were integral to humanity for the vast majority of its existence. Rites of passage for both young men and women, tribal identity, hunting, combat, tradition, large families, clearly defined gender roles, spirituality – such customs are literally ingrained into our DNA – and we’ve jettisoned them all on the march to modernity.
Is it any wonder that depression, anxiety, insomnia, addiction and a host of other psychological maladies plague most Americans? We live in defiance of our very nature. Junger thus contends that we have to find ways to reconnect to our ancestral predispositions. On an individual level this could entail things like practicing Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, hunting, camping, getting to know all of your neighbors, serving in the State Guard, having a large family, volunteering in your community. On a national scale, he argues for the implementation of a national service requirement, similar to that of Israel or many EU countries. This forges a sense of community – the primary facilitator of mental health and social cohesion – and entails joint sacrifice and buy-in to one’s society.
As Catholics we know that Junger’s remedy is only part of the potential solution. If we’re to eradicate the type of nihilism that fuels mass shootings, we have to confront the spiritual vacuum and rebuild Christian civilization. This can only be done from the ground up, on the backs of many saints, martyrs and pious families. The only place to start is the mirror. To use a Jordan Petersonism, “sort yourself out.” How can we restore Western Civilization or raise pious children if we can’t even control our own appetites, conquer our vices, and lead by example?
Put another way, when a newspaper asked its readers “what’s wrong with the world?”, G.K. Chesterton responded with two words – “I am.”
May we all strive to achieve the same degree of cognizance and humility in relation to our frailty and treachery. And may we all harness the evil of events like Sutherland Springs to motivate us to better serve our families, parishes and communities.