Isla Vista – Rethinking the Unthinkable

The recent Isla Vista shooting has thrown our country back into a very familiar pattern. After the initial shock and remorse felt across the nation, we quickly moved straight into politicizing the event. These types of shootings are now so commonplace that people practically jump to their political arguments before even having a moment of silence for those who have lost their lives and their families.

Liberals immediately renew their argument for gun control. Conservatives insist that the right to bear whatever types of arms they desire outweighs the loss of lives. Some paranoid libertarians even insist that these shootings are staged by the government in order to take our guns away.

Some focus on the structure of our mental health system and argue that we need to do more to give unstable people the help they need, in the hopes of forestalling such heinous acts of violence. Still others claim that this particular shooting was due to a culture which promotes misogyny. It is clear that Elliot Rodger did, indeed, exhibit a toxic combination of both mental illness and a misogynistic attitude.

But while many of these emotional policy arguments can be justified from their respective angles, they fail to address a key underlying issue that can’t be solved by any lawmaker or law. With a tragedy this severe, sometimes a little time needs to pass before we can look at the situation from a less emotional and more objective angle and see the obvious — a problem which is far more difficult to uproot: America has a major fear of death.

Now, before you judge me for being harsh or inconsiderate, please hear me out. I feel pain as much as anyone. In November 1999, I was the victim of a car crash caused by a drunk driver that left me permanently paralyzed from the waist down. On top of that, complications from my injury have required me to be completely immobilized in hospital beds at times, at one point for the better part of a year. While this is obviously not the same as being killed in a shooting or being a family member of one of the victims, I do have a lot of experience with suffering, and my heart gets crushed every time another shooting happens. No one should have to endure that type of suffering.

When tragedies like the one in Isla Vista happen, rather than digesting the extreme pain that comes with losing innocent lives, we tend to immediately project that discomfort onto the people who don’t think like us. They are to blame, not us. It’s the conservatives. No, it’s the liberals. And every time another mass shooting happens, we become a little more desensitized to it, because we never actually accept the fact that we are all partly responsible. We are responsible because we have created a jaded ethos around the whole idea of death. People frequently ask why this particular type of gun violence is so common in America, but not elsewhere. What we fail to realize is that we are tacitly contributing to the problem through our collective panic.

We as a culture are so uncomfortable with death, especially with the idea of innocent people close to us dying “too soon,” that we create the conditions that fuel more mass shootings. We are obsessed with the idea that death is an end, that death is eternal darkness, that death is painful and to be avoided at all costs, that death is the great void. We cling to the belief that no person should have to succumb to it before they’ve had the opportunity to live for as long as their bodies can sustain them.

For most of us, this subtle paranoia lingers in imperceptible ways in our day-to-day lives. But when you add up the sum total of the fear of death in our society, it creates a very powerful force in the collective conscience guiding our behaviors.

Our terror of death gives those who are mentally unstable and wish to take revenge against others a powerful incentive to do so. Elliot Rodger wanted nothing more than to finally be seen as an alpha male before taking his own life, and he couldn’t think of a better way to do so than to exploit our fears by acting out what most people would consider unconscionable.

So how do we neutralize this fear? After my spinal cord injury, I turned to Zen philosophy and meditation as a way of coping with my own challenges and my brush with death. Through years of practice, I was able to shed the suffering that I was experiencing and see myself not through the lens of my victimhood, but simply as someone who is awake in the present moment. The notion of “Why me?” gave way to “Why not me?” With enough practice of Zen meditation, I even began to feel gratitude for the challenges I had faced. Gratitude for no longer being able to walk; no longer able to feel my bowels and bladder; no longer able to have normal sexual intercourse. Would I like to have those things back? Of course! But working with their absence has given me a gateway into a type of awareness that was previously unavailable to me because I had to look my fears and suffering straight in the eye and deal with them. This process has been so life-affirming to me that I started a mentoring business called Zen Warrior Training™, where I work with my clients to help them to develop the skills and awareness needed to master themselves.

Speaking to an audience in Ojai, California in August of 1955, spiritual writer and philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti helped raise one possibility of how to deal with the subject of death.

“If you know death already, then there is nothing to be frightened of. But do you know death? That is, can you while living put an end to this everlasting struggle to find in the impermanent something that will continue? Can you know the unknowable, that which we call death, while living? Can you put aside all the descriptions in books, or which your unconscious desire for comfort dictates and taste or experience that state, which must be extraordinary, now? If that state can be experienced now, then living and dying are the same… It is only when the mind ceases to think in terms of its own continuity that the unknowable comes into being.”

Krishnamurti proposes a solution to the problem of our fear of death that one doesn’t typically hear – knowing death while still living. He is not the only philosopher or spiritual teacher who has spoken of such things. The Buddha taught that what we experience as our “self” is merely an illusion, and that we are, in fact, dying in every moment, only to be reborn over and over in a similar illusion. To grasp this illusion – not conceptually, but experientially – he said, was the key to true freedom, and the cessation of suffering. If we accept this view as being legitimate, it certainly does not alleviate the pain caused by innocent people being murdered. But what it can do is give us some insight into the root of the problem and how to deal with it, which is fundamentally a personal issue, not a political one.

We all wish that we could have our perspectives heard by those in power and that they would carve out laws which would keep us from further harm. When our voices go unheard, it only increases the feelings of anger and powerlessness, no matter what side of the aisle you are on. Unfortunately, that is exactly what contributes to more violence. It is exactly what gives people like Elliot Rodger, who himself felt powerless, delusions of power.

The fear of death is so ingrained into our individual minds and collective conscience that we should expect to see mentally unstable people continue to prey on those fears in the future. But if we as individuals can look at how our fears are contributing to the problem and take steps to neutralize those fears, then perhaps we will take away much of the motivation to kill.