Suffering and Rational Thought

11 years and three months ago, I started looking up again, at a night sky that, for the first time in probably 75 years, wasn’t riddled with the blinking lights of airplanes. Satellites still slid by, above the effect of the mess on earth. As readers know, I’ve been looking up ever since and increasingly my stargazing, the thing that lifts me up above the suffering intrinsic to existence, has become my anchor on earth.

Even ships at anchor can get swamped, and this evening, absorbing the news from Newtown, and thinking of the 27 dead, especially the 18 children, I have been shaken. Like so many others. Picking my daughter up from school today was profoundly sad, as like most parents I could viscerally imagine one day simply not having anyone waiting for me there. It could happen. For the parents of 18 kids in Newtown, it did today. The unthinkable sometimes simply happens. A new name enters into a growing public lexicon. Columbine. Virginia Tech. Aurora. Newtown. What will be next?

Last night, I spent about 2 hours outside observing the Geminid meteors. I saw about 20 of them. Each one took my breath away. When you see a meteor streak to the sky, it is in an exhilerating beauty. It’s often just a sliding line of light, a very simple image, but when you catch sight of one, it is a wild ride. Your spirit rises as your mind comprehends what you are seeing, and then, just as you get used to this new definition of beauty, it ends abruptly. And when it ends you wish dearly it had streaked on just a little longer. Sometimes you can see a vapor trail behind the meteor, which fluoresces for a few moments like a ghost before fading forever.

I keep coming back to those meteors, today, as a way to try to figure out the sadness of Newtown in me.

My Bicycle Astronomy project, writ large, is about science education. I want to show people the night sky and uplift their minds, acquaint them with real, not simulated, beauty, and give them some basic building blocks from which they can start to assemble a realistic understanding of the universal contexts of their lives. It’s not a spiritual mission, though I know that real beauty, and the understaning of how it is structured, can definitely uplift spirits. I wish I could somehow uplift the shattered spirits in Newtown this evening.

Tonight my daughter went to a birthday party. Most of her friends didn’t know what happened today, so they could enjoy the evening without the crushing reminder of the suffering that, like dark matter to the universe, makes up much of human life. I was home alone with the news feed, and how I wish I could have been in a house full of rowdy children. But I tried to figure out the astronomer’s response, the response of the rational mind.

Someone tweeted that today is indeed not the day to discuss policy solutions like gun control or an overhaul of our mental health system, yesterday was, and I think that puts it quite well. Twitter discussion around the #guncontrolnow shows yet again the polarization of the American polity. Guns don’t kill, people do. Laws won’t stop people from getting guns. These are unhelpful and untruthful abstractions.

The rationale mind will look at what happened in Newtown today and try to come up with an effective policy to help insure this won’t happen again. Sadly, probably the easiest answer politically is to fortify our schools (and many urban schools already are). This would be sad, as we can’t fortify every public space, like movie theaters, offices, OTB parlors, without effectively militarizing our whole country. No, guns and mental health is what we should talk about.

I support the right to bear arms. But the rational thinker does not need to see things in black and white. It isn’t all guns or no guns. The questions the scientist will ask are: What can we do to lessen the likelihood that a mentally ill person will have access to guns? What can we do to ensure that mentally ill people will have enough oversight and care to lessen the chance of a rampage? And yes, the rational thinker will also ask: what can we do to protect our most vulnerable brothers and sisters in the event that our other policies fail to stop a rampage?

The scientist will not argue on the basis of ideology or dogma, nor will she perceive the issue as all or nothing. In addition, there is information, data, to consider. What do rampages have in common and what strategies exist to lessen their likelihood or limit the destruction? What do the experts say? What does the science show? And yes, rational thinking even extends to that seemingly taboo subject in this country of what seems to work in other nations with other laws. Facts are facts, and nations with stricter gun control have fewer massacres. The rational mind will want to know why, and what we can do better.

As a gun owner, as a father, as a scientist, as an American, as a rational human being, I beg my fellow Americans to start considering these questions. Surely we can prioritize the goal of reducing the number of young lives abruptly cut short, like a meteor that just dissappears, with such a seemingly beautiful path ahead of it.

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4 thoughts on “Suffering and Rational Thought

  1. Doug, I agree whole heartedly. Something else to think about… we recently had two young people taken from us on our community due to a high speed driver. So what do we do? Stricter laws around driving? Shouldn’t we pass stricter laws against people texting and driving? What happen to common sense when drivers are reading their iPads while they are driving to work? These are things I worry more about than stricter gun laws. When my daughters (your nieces) are out driving, I’m not worried about them getting shot, but I am afraid of what inattentive, irresponsible driver will take chances with their technical devices and could take their lives in a split second. I think we could live in fear all of the time, but I, for one, prefer to live in a positive light and pray that my family will be safe without going to extremes over terrible incidents as the one that the people in Newtown, and this nation, experienced yesterday. We will pray for all of them, and for all of us.

    • Alan,
      By any rational risk assessment, getting in a car is one of the most dangerous things you could do. It boggles my mind how casually we take driving in light of how truly dangerous it is. Last year there were about 10,000 homicides (most committed with guns) in the US, but over 40,000 automobile deaths. Worldwide, a million people a year are killed by cars. Imagine that a new brand of breakfast cereal killed 40,000 people every year in the US. How quickly would people abandon it, or demand the government ban it? But the automobile is a special case…we take it as an intrinsic part of our lives and we have set up our entire nation around them, so much so that they seem a necessity. So if cars are simply a natural fact of life, then automobile deaths as a natural part of life, like lightning strikes, sabre-tooth tiger attacks, and disease. (It is not lost on me that some people feel that way about guns, and so are similarly accepting of gun deaths as the price of liberty.) Having moved most of my daily transportation needs to a bicycle, and having compared both forms of transportation in terms of risk, environmental impact, public health(exercise or lack thereof), and cost, I think cars are nuts. I hope to someday live without one. I hope to live to see the US embrace alternative tranportation and get less car crazy. Trains are expensive infrastructure but so are roads, and if a person can travel from every corner of a small country like Slovakia to every other corner by train, tram and bus, then it’s possible here. We have choices. In light of how dangerous cars are, yeah, smart legislation banning commenting on wordpress blogs while driving seem supremely logical. 🙂

  2. My constitutional law professor use to tell us that freedom of speech does NOT give one the right to stand up in a crowed movie theater and yell “fire”! There are rational limits to EVERY right – including gun ownership.
    You do not suffer alone.
    Pete Saracino

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