When a local tragedy becomes national news, as in the Virginia Tech massacre, America responds first with compassion and then with courage. It’s the way we work. News teams descend upon ground zero and begin to narrate the story. We pry them for every detail. Who did it? How? Where? Why?
Our obsession with the latest bit of news is not morbid curiosity, like useless rubbernecking at the site of a highway crash. No. It’s our way of tapping into and sharing someone else’s misfortune. From our couches and our cars, we mourn for others who are mourning.
That’s compassion, and it’s a good thing.
Then, we roll up our sleeves and get to work — determined to never, ever allow anything like this to happen again, we set our attention upon fixing the problem once and for all. We review structures and revamp laws.
We could call this American hands-on courage, and it too, I think, is a good thing.
At least it’s well-intentioned.
In the upcoming weeks, when the shock waves emanating from the rolling hills of Virginia begin to taper off, we will see a national conversation about school security, gun laws, psychiatric medicine and immigration policy unfold around us. Politicians at every level will propose bills that promise to keep our children safe or safer. Universities will roll out their revised programs for freshman orientation weekend. Police forces will outline new and improved first-response strategies.
But will it make any difference? Will any of these practical solutions get to the heart of the problem? I don’t think so, because in this case, the heart of the problem is the human heart itself.
The Virginia Tech gunman, Cho Seung-Hui, was a man whose heart and mind had rotted from within.
We can be sure it didn’t happen overnight. For whatever set of complicated reasons, life — his own and everyone else’s — lost all meaning. It had no sense. It had no value. In fact, for Cho, life became an anti-value; it got in the way of relief.
Raised in America since he was eight-years-old, Cho Seung-Hui was almost as American as the next guy. His parents owned a home and a business. His sister went to Princeton. He would soon be a college grad.
For now, we can only speculate about what may have been the cause of a life gone wrong. Cho Seung-Hui’s writings reveal a heart full of hate, anger and violence. The characters in his plays were victims of abuse. They hated authority and they wanted revenge. So did Cho.
Unfortunately, while Cho Seung-Hui may have been a loner, I don’t think he was alone in his loneliness.
I’ve worked in a university campus ministry. I know there are a countless number of young men and women whose hearts and minds — at least bits and pieces of them — are rotting from within, just like Cho’s. They look desperately and silently for love, to love and to be loved. Carrying emotional baggage from home and with no compelling guides in their newfound world of absolute freedom, they end up looking for happiness in all the wrong places.
The prevailing culture on most college campuses looks a bit like MTV. It’s the world of hooking up, one-night stands, beer funnels and the search for the perfect group of friends. For some, and for a time, this satisfies. And when it doesn’t…? Well, most bounce back. They grow and mature.
But as we’ve seen, some don’t. For whatever reason, there are an increasing number of young people who are missing the internal mechanisms to deal rationally with life’s pains. Of these sad cases we usually don’t hear much at all. Even in their pain, they manage to hold things together. They keep up appearances. They struggle on. And all the time they wonder why they are so different. They wonder why life is losing meaning. Eventually, they look for an out.
Of course, this bleak scenario of meaninglessness isn’t just a college thing; it’s a human thing. What’s gone wrong and what’s the answer?
This I know for sure: better security, more laws and revamped structures are not going to get to the heart of the problem.
The only way to deal with the heart is on a one-to-one basis. The work begins in the home and it continues in every human contact that follows — at work, school and the local gym.
The good news is all of us can make a difference. Are we aware of the suffering around us? Are we willing to reach beyond our comfort level and be love for the loveless? If we have found why life is worth living, are we willing to share that good news with others?
That sounds like a national conversation worth having.
God Bless, Father Jonathan
P.S. On Friday I will post some of your responses to this article. I look forward to hearing from you.• E-mail Father Jonathan