09 January 2011

Long-Term Investments

I woke up this morning feeling sad about yesterday’s shootings in Tucson. I don’t know Representative Giffords or any of the other victims, but the fact that one of the murder victims was a nine-year-old girl makes my heart ache. I thought about what her last moments must have been like, and tried to imagine what her parents might be going through today, and how they might manage to make it through all of their tomorrows.

I wondered at what point this shooter thought it acceptable to point his gun at each human and pull the trigger. John Wilkes Booth didn’t fire indiscriminately at as many theater-goers as he could kill. Does that make him a more honorable assassin? I don’t think so. A killer is a killer is a killer.

Some rhetoric and blame is being directed at Sarah Palin and her use of hunting language in reference to multiple politicians that she’d rather see replaced. I don’t think that’s exactly fair, although I do think she could offer some real leadership here, by perhaps admitting that her word choice was poor in calling certain people targets. Or perhaps publicly owning up to the fact that putting a fellow American’s face in crosshairs is really quite inappropriate. Aren’t our enemies al-Qaeda and the Taliban?

The Constitution does guarantee Free Speech, and it even allows us to say Stupid Things, Offensive Things, and Things We Might Regret. It allows me to blather on this blog of mine, too. I think what’s not being said, though, is that with this right to Free Speech comes responsibility. I have a responsibility to remember that what I say – and how I say it – might be misinterpreted. And to recognize that some of those listening might not be capable of understanding that there is a difference between the literal and the figurative. And as such, especially if my audience were the entire country, I might want to remember that I should choose my words carefully, so that they actually do express what it is I am trying to say.

My heart goes out, too, to the family of this shooter. As a teacher and a parent, I am focused on long-term investments, and I don’t mean the financial kind. I don’t always know if some of my lessons get across to my students. I’m talking about the big picture points, like the Golden Rule, responsibility for yourself and others, and an obligation to really, really comprehend that everyone else out there is human, and has wishes and desires and emotions just like you and I do. We don’t get to grade one another’s progress on these human objectives with a rubric a teacher might use: No attempt made, Recognition of the concept, Approaching, Proficient, Mastery.

Communication is made easier all the time via technology – but to what ends do we use it? Does the fact that you can “like” Prayers for Representative Giffords on Facebook do much besides make you feel better? What else can we do to make this world a little safer? Does a genuine smile for a stranger matter? How about a wave that gives a skateboarder the go-ahead to pass in front of your vehicle? Allowing someone else to grab that close parking spot? An “atta-boy” to someone who needs and deserves it? And maybe even just acknowledging those with whom we share this ever more crowded planet?

I was in line at the grocery store a few months ago, and a man in front of me turned to face me and gave me a genuine compliment. I was surprised – pleasantly – and thanked him. He appeared to have no ulterior motive other than wanting to say something nice to me. After his transaction was complete, the cashier told me that this man gives everyone he comes into contact with a compliment every time he’s gone through her line. Compliment Man, as I’d like to think of this super hero, is making a deliberate choice to find some good in everyone. And that is a beautiful mitzvah. What might happen if we each chose to tread a little more lightly, to drive a little more kindly, to be a bit more friendly?

I don’t know if things like these make a difference. The returns on them are not guaranteed, but they don’t cost us much. Maybe, just maybe, reaching out might cause someone who is thinking about pointing a gun at another to think again, and put that weapon back in its holster without firing. Or maybe reaching out will prevent that person from ever getting to the point of considering drawing that weapon. We’ll never really know. What is the value of a human life? You might say that it depends on the human, but these small deposits into our long-term investments in humanity are worth the risk, don’t you think?

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