Last Updated:Friday - 09/24/2010
May 10, 1999
Signs of an empty society
Fifteen dead in a Colorado high school shooting. One dead, one wounded in Taber, Alta. These are but the latest in a string of high school shooting incidents over the last two years, most of them in the U.S.
Some might explain this as one tragic incident, followed by a string of copycat shootings. Tohere is some truth to this, but we need to look deeper.
These high school shootings cannot be isolated from a culture of violence which sees bombs dropped on Iraq and Yugoslavia, more than 100,000 abortions a year in Canada, and the first signs of widespread euthanasia and infanticide. There is a continuum of violence in Western societies, a continuum Pope John Paul has labelled the culture of death.
There is also a continuum between normality and pathology in society's psychological well-being. The high school shooters may be on or past the margins of normality. But they are not freaks disconnected from the prevailing trends of the world around them.
It's important that we have school guidance counsellors to catch those going over the edge and to sound alarm bells when some teens are ready to explode. But even a boatload of guidance counsellors will not heal the underlying sickness in society.
Twenty years ago, historian Christopher Lasch characterized Western society as narcissistic. People in our culture alternate between self-absorption and a sense of omnipotence, on one hand, and feelings of emptiness and inauthenticity on the other.
All of us, to a greater or lesser degree, feel we should be able to control the universe and we become despondent when those feelings are not born out. It is almost beyond our capability to grasp life's most important paradox - that suffering and gratitude can co-exist. "We demand too much of life, too little of ourselves," Lasch wrote.
Personal maturity involves the acceptance of limits. Moral limits and limits to our material possession, for sure. But more deeply, limits to the self. We are not and cannot be self-sufficient. There is something greater than us which requires our devoted attention.
On this basis, some might conclude that the solution is to get everybody back to church on Sunday. That's too facile. The U.S. has the highest level of church attendance in the Western world as well as the highest level of violence.
More basically, our culture has sold us a bill of goods. We are told repeatedly - especially through the media - that we can and should have it all. Our sense of omnipotence - which used to be tempered by shorter life expectancy and a lower standard of living, even if the parents didn't impose moral discipline - today sometimes meets little resistance early in life.
Further, the medium of TV itself - irrespective of its banal content - restricts a person's ability to develop an interior life where one can engage in conversation with oneself (or with God). Simply put, watch too much TV and you'll be an empty person.
Combine the two - omnipotence and emptiness - in the already confusing period of adolescence and you have a recipe for disaster.
The healing of this disease is a massive project and an essentially spiritual one. Healing can be found only by a personal and societal response to the Transcendent - a recognizing that we are creatures and that only God is omnipotent. For each person, this is a massive project, the work of a lifetime. For a society, it is a task beyond comprehension. Our hope lies in the fact that with God all things are possible.
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