She’s 18. She’s both smart and deep, which is no common marriage in one human being, especially not in someone so young. But, here she is, so I ask her what her peers are saying.
She sighs. Shrugs. “Mostly just noticing and admitting how messed up the world is,” she says. “Trying to explain it, but you can’t explain it.”
Somehow I find her answer encouraging. To fix a problem, you have to admit a problem. And the world is really messed up. And you can’t explain it.
Oh, we try. Ambiguity is so cruelly uncomfortable, we’ll do anything to explain it away.
The word “pathetic,” in modern distortions of devolving parlance, is a put-down. A derision. “Our defense was pathetic,” a football fan might bemoan. “You’re pathetic,” an angry wife might say to her unfaithful husband.
But “pathetic,” in its literal meaning, comes from the Greek word pathos.
To enter the pathos is to surrender to all that is tragic, absurd, lost, despairing, meaningless. The word “pathetic” is not a derision; it’s an observation. For example, in the spring, after a windstorm, when I see a pink, pin-feathered sparrow blown from the nest into my yard, chirping for a mother and father who will never come, waiting for starvation or the neighborhood cat, whichever comes first, I rightly call the doomed bird’s chirps “pathetic.” Pathetic - like how I was pathetic when, at age 5, I broke my grandmother’s knickknack and tried to mend it with Scotch tape before she got home so she wouldn’t be disappointed in me.
Pathetic is a word used to describe understandable, in some cases dear, but nonetheless futile attempts to dodge the pathos.
That said: Watching and listening to us (and “us” includes me) in the aftermath of the spree killing at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., leaves me shaking my head. Many of our reactions and words are … pathetic.
Things like this happen because the media is at fault for publishing the names of spree killers. Oh, dear one. Breathe deeply. Clear your head. Imagine a paranoid schizophrenic. He’s pondering and planning a spree killing. But then, he says to himself: “Damn! I was gonna do that, but now that they’ve stopped publishing our names and photos. It just isn’t worth it.”
Things like this happen because they’ve taken religion and prayer out of schools. Oh, dear one. Breathe deeply. Clear your head. Think of the prayers that surely swelled out of the bowels of Auschwitz. Dachau. Treblinka. Would you agree with me that, while those prayers were vital to the pilgrims who prayed them, the prayers did nothing to make the pilgrims less vulnerable to evil? Or, think of Jesus, praying in the Garden of Gethsemane. He asks God, point blank, to get him off the hook. The prayer doesn’t spare him. The most urgent, faithful religious practice does not protect us from suffering. Prayer is not a talisman. “The rain falls on the just and the unjust, the same.”
Adam Lanza was diagnosed with Asperger syndrome. I have never seen, read or heard about a diagnostic, let alone causal relationship between Asperger syndrome and violence.
It’s those video games! Oh, dear one. Think of all the times my generation watched Elmer Fudd blow Daffy Duck’s bill off with a shotgun. I grew up on horror movies. My sons, 21 and 19, love “Call of Duty.” Perhaps an indulgent (aka waste of) their time, but, why am I confident they are not being shaped into murderers?
There has always been evil. Always been darkness. Suffering. Always been mentally ill people. But spree killing is a pathology unique to our time. And we’re kidding ourselves if we think any of the “explanations” explain. Something else is going on. I wish I knew what it was. I don’t.
Mostly I’m just noticing and admitting how messed up the world is. There’s no reason my 10-year-old is alive and 20 children in Connecticut are dead.
I think of Stephen King’s closing words in Chapter 1 of “Cycle of the Werewolf”:
Something inhuman has come to Tarker’s Mills, as unseen as the full moon riding the night sky high above. It is the Werewolf, and there is no more reason for its coming now than there would be for the arrival of cancer, or a psychotic with murder on his mind, or a killer tornado.
I think of the end of John Carpenter’s “Halloween,” when a weeping Jamie Lee Curtis asks Donald Pleasence, “Was … was that the Boogey Man?”
“Yes,” says Pleasence, thoughtfully. “I believe it was.”
• • •
Steven Kalas is a behavioral health consultant and counselor at Las Vegas Psychiatry and the author of “Human Matters: Wise and Witty Counsel on Relationships, Parenting, Grief and Doing the Right Thing” (Stephens Press). Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.