Teetering on the edge

I understand the seductive allure of guns. When I was in high school in LaJunta Colorado, I bought a 22 rifle. I’m not sure why this was allowed in a Mennonite pacifist home, but perhaps it was because we had just moved out to the wild wild west from Ohio. I respect my parents for giving me this grave responsibility. For the most part I did target shooting of cans and bottles. Peering through the scope, I could see the target clearly. When I was setting the scope with a friend’s father, I shot a bottle swinging on a rope at 100 feet. Turns out I was a crack shot with a gun.

One day, I went into the dusty dry field to the West of our house. There were lots of beautiful little green and yellow birds in the few trees of an arroyo. I shot them. Lots of them. Maybe 20 or more. I just remember doing it and thinking how beautiful they were, but nothing more. And then, bam…another one bites the dust. They littered the ground like a confetti. I went back to the house and told my sister, in a bragging tone that I had just shot all these little birds. I was so proud of myself!

She looked at me.

Horror on her face.

And said only one word.




I did not have an answer.


I will never forget that look, or how I felt about her questioning look. I had that sinking pit in my stomach from realizing I had just made a mistake that I could not take back. I had committed a senseless act of violence without thought. My memory of that moment is one of shock…and horror at myself, and what I had done. Without her knowing it, just by being herself, and revealing her true feelings to me, she put a new target in my sights that has ruled my life since: the question why? I can’t say for sure, but I do not believe I ever shot that gun again.

A few decades later, as I was in graduate school studying composition, my brother asked me a similarly potent question: what does composing bring to the world? The hidden agenda behind the question was: if it doesn’t bring something good to the world, what use is it and WHY do it? Again, I did not have an answer. But I started looking for one! I am eternally grateful to both siblings for their part in these existential crises about how I want to move through the world, and about taking responsibility for my actions. I never stop asking the question: why? My siblings were the precipitants of searching for purpose and meaning in my life. And bit by bit I found it.

In the endless analysis of another mass shooting this week, John Cohen, counter-terroist analyst at Homeland Security until recently, said that one pattern these shooters is that they come from dysfunctional families and are “in search for some sense of meaning” and  “they are looking for something to give their lives cause.” You can listen to the story here. Without purpose, and a convergence of events that tip them over the boiling point, they snap, and shooting lots of people gives their life meaning. In the larger discussion this point went largely un-developed by Steve Inskeep, but I believe it is a key to understanding our cultural situation. Perhaps our consumer culture does not create a context in which to easily find meaning. Easily acquired guns are a seductive force in the name of power, and meaning in a meaningless existence without a true source of internal power.

I understand the seductive allure of guns. I also understand the power of knowing I have purpose, and feeling like life has meaning to me. I encourage all of us to protect our youth, not by buying bullet proof blankets, but by nurturing in them a larger sense of purpose, and how they fit into that purpose.  Let’s ask them questions about meaning, AND PAY ATTENTION TO THE ANSWERS. Let’s notice what is important to them, and share what is important to us. A young life whose quest for purpose and meaning is nurtured and fed by big brothers and sisters asking the right questions at the right time, is one less tension ready to snap when challenges arise. We can help each other with our purposes by reflecting what we value in each each other, in all of our interactions. I understand the seductive allure of guns. I also understand the captivating purpose of meaning. Let’s go there.