Sunday, December 16, 2012

Newtown, Our Town

This week, a difficult encounter with a student in a course I taught this term plus the disastrous news from Newtown, Conn. made it hard for me to concentrate on my writing.

I am an art historian, I do research and teach students the history of modernism and the avant-garde. But I am also an educator, which makes me an officer of the intermediary realm between home and society for our nation's young people. In my short career of teaching, I have regularly encountered students who are mentally ill, and who need more urgent help than what I can provide. Within the infrastructure of the university, I have to refer them to other professionals for help. Even when I successfully send a student off to more qualified providers, I never stop thinking about them. I always wonder if they end up stepping out of their predicament.

Gun control would be a very good idea indeed, but not enough. It is imperative that we reflect on the rise of adolescent mental illness, the social marginalization of suffering individuals left to cultivate their destructive fantasies in a private theater whose curtain only opens when it is too late.

As an academic, my immediate social and professional milieus consist mainly of educated middle-class white people. It is striking to me how rarely parents discuss problems and/or difficulties of their adolescent children. I have the impression that people delight in cataloging the adorable gestures, speeches and talents of their toddlers. I rarely hear people discuss the anorexia of their teenage daughter, the drug troubles of their teenage son. At the same, I know for a fact that these problems are as real as the success stories of families.

Troubled adolescents are a lot less charming than angelic toddlers. In the wake of the Newtown disaster, we are still more interested in heart-warming anecdotes concerning the victims than in the dark despair of the killer, whose anger against life itself caused him to carry out a series of highly symbolic acts of destruction. It is no accident that this act was carried out during Advent and Hanukkah, when the rest of the world rejoiced, just as spring time is high time for suicide. To kill one's own mother is the ultimate act of denying life: one assaults life by killing the one person who gave one life. After the killing of the mother, all others became possible: innocent children became the target precisely because they symbolized life at its purest, most untarnished. True to this act of pure rage and destructiveness, the killer didn't spare himself; in fact, the whole shooting had been one massive, explosive suicide in which other innocent lives are included merely to aggrandize his descent.

From a theological point of view, we have less to worry about the innocent victims, who are no doubt in heaven, than we have to be concerned with the killer and others like him. To overcome my depression, I re-watched Archbishop Desmond Tutu's commencement speech at Gonzaga University, in which he talked about God's reliance on young people's passion as the means to do His work. It may be that in biblical times, young people were valued and given opportunities to work and apply their passion. Today, we don't value young people other than in their capacity as consumers. The capitalist market promises all kinds of happiness to adolescents other than the kinds that strengthen them, guide them toward productive and meaningful relationships with humanity. But young people will always remain passionate. If their passion is not directed to good things, it can go elsewhere.

With all the talk about angels, perhaps it's time to talk about fallen ones too.


Jacqueline Schmitt said...

Joyce -- this is eloquent and brilliant. You describe with painful clarity the conversation we must have -- in church, in academia, in the everyday society where people raise children, send them to school and in which some of those children live tortured and torturing lives.

gale said...

I think you just identified why my class on humanitarianism (usually made up of young activists) is always a delight in spite of the grim stories of oppression and violence that we read about each week. It's because the students have found their passion, their calling, in some kind of humanitarian work: they volunteer, they work with various social service agencies or missionary/development groups, and, more importantly, they have faith in their work - even those who aren't religious. Sometimes, I think about them as naive, and I think about how the class will serve to disillusion them about their missions and all of the hangups with activism itself. But then, when we read the last book of the semester - which ends with a stirring paragraph about how humanitarians are realists who nonetheless have profound hope that drives them, my students receive a kind of benediction: the struggle is worth it.

You're right that young people are treated as consumers (as we've discussed). I think that the rising interest in humanitarianism (the frenzy over the Kony 2012, for example) shows that they are seeking for something meaningful - a way that they can contribute and give back and belong to a community that values them for what they can give rather than what they can buy.

Joyce Cheng said...

Jackie, there is a good sermon from St. Paul the Redeemer in Chicago (Eric B's old church) from the new rector about the crisis of manhood. Young men who fail to apply their passions and energies to socially productive activities are using violence to obtain their "man-card." At the same time, I believe that we still need to talk about the meaninglessness of life. I fault Christianity for sometimes taking for granted that life is always a pure good. It might be - and what a topic to be had for Christmas season. But if life is a good, then we need to develop a more compelling discourse about why it is the case.

Joyce Cheng said...

To Gale: I totally agree. We sometimes roll our eyes too fast at young people. As elders, we are very quick to curb their enthusiasm. It's moments like this that remind us that there has always been a place in the world for youthful idealism. Corinne once said to me that the disbelief in evil is necessary in youth for the future development of a moral sense. I think the main difference is between naivety ("the world is a place where all dreams come true") and idealism ("the world OUGHT to be a place where all dreams come true"). The "ought" is the key, I think, because it's what obliges and commits us to bettering the world.