Photo by Kevin Foley Photography on Flickr.
My first reaction upon hearing of Friday’s tragic school shooting was, of course, as the mother of a 1st grader. Immediately, images of my own smiling son and his equally adorable classmates popped in my head. My heart broke for the parents who, just a few hours earlier, had dropped similar children off at school, never to see them again.
As I waited for a profile of the shooting suspect to emerge, I fought back the the stereotypes that were already creeping into my mind. Would he be in his early twenties – a loner with few friends – and have a history of mental illness. Would his neighbors later say they never knew him well, but they always thought he was a little weird and kept their distance. By midnight last night, my mental profile became a reality, and I grappled with the question that Americans across the country were asking: How could this happen?
I wonder if we have become so disconnected from one another, so afraid of sounding judgmental or afraid of litigation, that we’ve gone on mute when it comes to asking questions about someone else’s behavior. Have we normalized everything so much that when we notice someone acting different – nervous, cagey, or withdrawn – that we just chalk it up to “socially awkward” and keep it moving? It’s no secret that the age at which mental illness really manifests itself in boys is around the early twenties. Yet, as the mother of a 15 year old boy, I wonder if any fellow parent, especially in this new neighborhood where I don’t know my son’s friend’s parents very well, would ever feel comfortable approaching me to ask some tough questions about my son should they notice a change in his behavior. Would they come to my door to ask me, “does he need help?” Or would they say to him: “do you need help?” Would that be overstepping boundaries? Judging? Categorizing? Most likely. But is silence a better alternative?
I think we live in a time where, when it comes to people’s “business”, it’s easier to just not ask questions. I have an acquaintance who, a few weeks ago, found herself in an extreme argument with her boyfriend after a long night of partying. He inexplicably hauled off and punched her in the face. The blow was so hard she was afraid her jaw was dislocated. S at 2:00 a.m., she drove herself to the Georgetown Hospital Emergency Room. I sympathetically listened to her story, and asked how she managed to avoid filing a police report at the ER. Her answer shocked me. She said nobody asked. Not one nurse, not one doctor, not the technician who administered her CAT scan – nobody asked if someone had hit her, or if she was afraid. This left me reeling. How can a young woman show up alone in an ER at 2:00 a.m., reeking of alcohol with a dislocated jaw, and not be asked if she had been harmed by someone? Did the staff forget to ask? Or subconsciously, did they just not want to know? It was easier to treat her and get her out of there than open a box that would prove to hold a complicated and dangerous situation.
This may sound cliché, but I remember a time when parents, doctors, teachers and neighborhood fixture types were not afraid to talk about behaviors they witnessed in their communities. And of course, this is a slippery slope; uninformed speculation can have disastrous consequences. But silence has consequences too. As a community that increasingly chooses less personal, less intuitive digital communications over face time, I think we we need to evaluate how, when, and to whom we speak up when we feel something isn’t right. Biology gives us instinct for a reason. Maybe it’s time to search for a way to stop suppressing it.
Post by Cyd McKenna.