In Defense of Silence Over Gunmen

We live in a universe in which it is possible, and even probable, that innocents will be murdered. Our home is intolerable. We — inhabitants and products of this universe — cannot be satisfied with the universe, and are thus at odds with reality. We rebel in body and soul against our very mode of being, a mode made maddeningly clear to us in Newtown, Connecticut. We are beings-in-a-universe-where-children-die.

Our experience of the shooting expressed this. We were outraged, stunned, disbelieving, numbed, and grieved. We were all of us displaced, if only for a moment, cloaked in the terrifying thought that if this is reality, I want nothing to do with it. If this is my home, I’d rather be homeless. If this is the human experience, I respectfully return my ticket.

This mystery must be contemplated. But we are frightened — perhaps more than ever — to contemplate the strange fact that we are innately dissatisfied with reality. These are thoughts for Dostoyevsky, not for modern Americans. The whole goal of the American life is to surround ourselves with comfort so as to avoid the experience of suffering. We have a list of needs to fulfill. We need a job, wealth, health, drinks, a sex life, material possessions, a good church, a decent ideology, and — perhaps — a family. If we have our needs fulfilled, we’ll be at home in the universe. We’ll be happy. If we’re not, we can always enlarge the list. We can add spiritual wellbeing, sense of purpose, self-actualization, reputation or a strong sense of ethics.

The problem with the Newtown shooting is that it whispers behind all our successes that even now and forever-always, you cannot be satisfied with this world. You live in a death-infested sphere. Even if from this day forward all was comfort and peace, there is still blood on the ground that cannot be bleached. The absurdity of the universe, in that such a home promises that we can never be at home, naturally demands 1 of 3 responses.

1. Kill yourself. No matter what you do, you cannot be satisfied with a universe in which innocents are slaughtered. The logical conclusion is to take your exit from existence, to give the universe the finger and leave. But killing your self does not always require your physical death. You can destroy within yourself the natural human response to tragedy — to care — and harden your heart. Drink it away, smoke it away, throw yourself into pleasure or mindless work — find a way to degrade the self into a being that can be comfortable with the death of children. There are many ways to kill the self. The most common way is to formulate something of the following expression: “This is just the way it is. The cosmos sucks and there’s nothing more to say about. Move on.” This denies our experience of suffering — which screams for an answer and longs for resolution — and thus amounts to a methodical slaying of that part of the human person which demands an answer.

2. Live against the absurdity. Each and every day comprehend the fact that there is something you cannot possibly comprehend, a devastating truth no science can explain — that you are displaced in the universe — and accept it. Live in irony. The universe is absurd, there is no explaining why a product of the universe rebels his very mode of being-in-the-universe, determining the only way he knows of existence as an unsatisfactory form of existence. So make your own meaning. Live and oppose the universe for no other reason than that you cannot possibly accept it. Work tirelessly to end the slaughter of innocents, knowing that you’ll fail.

3. Make the leap of faith. Every sphere of life requires a leap of faith. The secular scientist must make the leap of faith that that which he observes repeating itself will always repeat itself. The lover must make the leap of faith that his beloved returns his love. Every man must make a leap of faith in order to declare that anyone else is having the same experience of existence that he is — for he cannot truly know.

Similarly, the man who contemplates the fact that the universe is intolerable contains within himself the capacity to declare that the universe is not, in fact, his ultimate home. He may look at the absurdity and declare that, since the human person is innately dissatisfied with the universe, the human person cannot be merely a product of the universe. Because he — not-merely-a-product-of-the-universe — has no way of getting out of the universe, he affirms with Robert Frost “a doubt / Whether ’tis in us to arise with day / And save ourselves unaided.” He is in need of a savior, and may in faith affirm that that savior must be a being who transcends the universe — God.

He’ll work tirelessly to end the slaughter of innocents, not because he believes he’ll succeed, but because he has taken upon himself the duty of faith, to live as someone in the world, but not of the world, belonging instead to a world in which such evil has no sway. Of course, the leap is the most difficult action of all.

But we are busy running from these three options, because our immediate response to tragedy has been to talk. I understand that there is a need to talk. The experience of evil leaves a sickening void, and man and nature abhor a vacuum, especially one so terrible. So we discuss. We analyze. We have a “national conversation”. We talk about why this is the result of God not being allowed in public schools (whatever the hell that means). We talk about about gun control. We talk about gun rights. Over at the Friendly Atheist — and I do appreciate the writing there, don’t get me wrong — we’ve had a steady stream of why religious explanations of the Newtown shooting fail, why reckoning with tragedy does not require faith, pleas to stop using the word evil in our discussion, as the idea of evil is a product of religion, and on and on. We religious talk about the will of God for comfort, as if evil — the absence of good — possibly be the will of God who is Goodness. I fear that talk has become — in this great Media Age — our primary method of avoiding action.  I know it is mine. We spew our  “thoughts” onto Facebook statuses as if we have drunk the cup of evil to its dregs and come up with an 140 character response. We have made the darkest absurdity to ever trample the human race a launching pad for political debate, our most pathetic absurdity. We are using death as an opportunity to bitch at others, not intentionally, but because the alternative — silence — is terrifying.

Silence is the only state of being in which man can contemplate mystery. Only in silence does man have the quality of simply being, neither projecting himself onto others, nor caring about his public image, nor trafficking in abstract expressions, nor removing himself to the political sphere, the God-debate sphere, or the attention-seeking sphere. Only in silence is man present to himself as a being-in-the-universe, for it is the state of receptivity. Only in silence does man refrain from shunting the reality of the Newtown shootings to some sphere in which he can deal with it. In silence, man cannot “deal” with the Newton shootings, and thus he must face the absurdity and make his choice: To kill himself, live against the absurdity, or to make the leap of faith.

Keep silence for the dead then. Pray for their souls, which requires not a word. Make a decision. The conversations should happen, but not at the expense of confrontation with reality. I apologize for all the tragedies which I have refused to contemplate, in favor of joining a “national conversation”.

Requiem aeternam dona eis Domine,
et lux perpetuae luceat eis.
Requiescant in pace.

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  • Amber

    Amazing. God bless you, Mark.

    • Amber


  • Vision_From_Afar

    Given the title, I thought you were going to add to the call of “anonymity” for those who perpetrate these acts (which I wholly support).

    That aside, I have issue with your “3 Options”. Option 1 is entirely logical, and happens far more often in our media-drenched, sound-byte driven society than I care to contemplate (as I think we agree on this).

    Option 2 and 3, however, don’t seem all that different. Both options have contemplated the frailty of being and the futility of a single person’s effort to stem the tide of empty violence (as opposed to state- or religiously-driven violence). Option 3 has simply additionally consoled themselves with an “over-the rainbow” mentality.

    I don’t really care for either option, since 2 is likely to be weighed down by the sheer weight of the burden they accept, eventually getting burnt out. Option 3, at it’s endgame, will (when faced with that same weight over time) begin to further reject this world, coming dangerously close to Option 1, leading to the painfully ignorant and offensive messages we’ve seen in this crisis (“Lucky kids get to be with Jesus this Christmas”, etc.).

    Leaving this world behind and looking only to the one that follows is exactly the worst kind of “death” Option 1 hints at.

    I don’t really have a good answer for this, though. I wish I did.

    • Marc Barnes

      For sure. Frankly, I do not know his name, but I’m working in my prayers to remember the children’s.

      I agree with you as far as option 2 goes. Lived to its fullness, it’ll probably end in option 1. But nevertheless, it is an option. We can get our stoicism on for a time. The end-result of Option 3 seems to depend on how much of what you say is true. Being a human who has chosen Option 3, I can affirm that there isn’t much of an over-the-rainbow mentality as one might think. The leap of faith, in the case of the Christian, does not explain away suffering, but points to a God who suffers. The Christian does not live in a world in which suffering is explained by a future-pie-in-the-sky. He lives in a world in which his suffering is united to a fight-against-all-sin-and-suffering, and thus has purpose. If this is experienced as reality — with the veil torn back and the sun shining — then the Christian is not leaving the world so much as he is truly experiencing it. Only a fool who sees suffering and death as anything but the reason we have a God who negated himself and the very Absurdity of the world that Christ’s cross is stabbed through could ever say something like “Lucky kids get to be with Jesus this Christmas”, and in the name of Christ I apologize for them.

      My friend actually wrote something that might be of use to this conversation:

      • Vision_From_Afar

        Mayhap it’s because I’m a wee bit cynical, I’ve just so rarely encountered those who can live Option 3 to it’s fullest as you describe. I guess we’ll just have to agree that the power of human will (and faith) is all that keeps anyone out of Option 1.

        • Marc Barnes

          I agree. And I don’t think you’re cynical. Welcome to the Church. We all suck.

  • Alexander S Anderson

    I’m so glad you wrote this. I grow so weary of people’s political and public reactions…

  • Ben @ Two Catholic Men

    “To kill himself, live against the absurdity, or to make the
    leap of faith” in an interesting trilemma. This reminded me of Lewis’s Trilemma of Jesus as either “Lunatic, Liar, or Lord”,

    Lunatic – To kill himself
    Liar – Live against the absurdity
    Lord – Make the leap of faith.

  • Lauren Gulde

    thank you.

  • Obliged_Cornball

    “This is just the way it is. The cosmos sucks and there’s nothing more to say about. Move on.”

    This, whether you’d like to admit it or not, is an answer. It does not “slay the part of the person that demands an answer” (lol). It *is* an answer – just not the answer people want to hear. So you might accuse it of slaying our hopes for an emotionally-fulfilling answer. But that’s not an issue – because I’ve yet to see any rational guarantee that truth must be emotionally satisfying. Sometimes we find out things to be true that contradict all our wants for those things to be otherwise. But it is not “degrading” to accept this – it is the mark of a courageous person, that they should not deceive themselves for emotional comfort. Our demand that answers conform to our feelings is immature. So mourn Response 1 as “suicide” all you want – an honest seeker of truth must at least take it seriously.

    • Marc Barnes

      How can the answer be that there is no answer? Doesn’t this defy the principle of non-contradiction? And surely, if we accept this, we must admit that we can have no confidence in our ability to seek and know truth. Don’t be so sure that this isn’t the answer people want to hear. There is a great relief and a glorious invitation to apathy heralded by the words “there is no answer, and that’s the answer,” and it is no courage to dwell in this contradiction. At least, not from my angle.

      • Obliged_Cornball

        You must have very little confidence in me if you expect that I’d so carelessly disregard elementary rules of logic. My argument was that Option 1 is an answer. I hold that it is an answer because it does explain why we suffer – because the cosmos is indifferent to our well-being, there is no guarantee that it will satisfy our emotional needs all of the time. You might contest that suffering requires a *final* cause as well as an *efficient* cause, but I think that assumption is unwarranted. Seeing “purpose” in something that even you yourself define as inherently purposeless seems to me the true PNC violation.

        I also hold that providing a coherent explanation as to why something happens is different than presenting an emotionally-satisfying explanation. The two are certainly not mutually-exclusive, but they need not always occur together. To demand both in all cases is to dive into dangerously relativistic waters, as feelings are not reliable judges of knowledge. Seeking and knowing truth remains possible if you make this distinction, but you have to accept that the truth might not make you happy.

        As far as what people want to hear, I can only speak from personal experience. I’m obviously not thrilled to believe that the cosmos is truly indifferent to our suffering, but it seems a reasonable assumption from the human condition. Maybe someone will use it as an excuse to not do anything about it, but I don’t see why they should. If being is a struggle against an indifferent cosmos, then I take it for granted that I’m going to have to fight for fulfillment.

    • Travis Carroll

      So would you logically conclude that emotion is nothing more than the padding in the jacket of rationality; and since a jacket has no rational need of padding, that it is disposable? If all of this you hold true, might I also infer that you have personally disposed of your padding in favor of a more “realistic” jacket? Or do you swim in the dregs with the rest of us in our naive sentimentality?

      This type of thinking falls rank and file with the growing scientism of the last century. You really have no reason to object to the killings of Auschwitz in the name of science other than to say “a little padding here will make others more likely to wear my jacket.”

      • Obliged_Cornball

        Scientism? I don’t recall making any reference to anything scientific in my post, so this is an odd accusation to levy at me. In any case, I was *trying* to do philosophy, though perhaps I am as bad at it as you seem to think I am.

        As far as the relationship between emotion and rationality, I think emotion can choose which rational questions we attempt to answer. However, I do not think it should be involved in the *process* of giving an answer. We may have emotional motivations for thinking about suffering (it hurts), but we can’t expect that the answer will make the hurt go away. Otherwise, if we hold emotion to be the arbiter of what is rational, why do rationality at all?

  • Q

    Even if you get to Heaven, it wouldn’t erase the death and suffering of this world. Even if all the people in Heaven have their memories wiped and the Earth is destroyed, the eternal fact that violence did happen would remain.

    And the flipside of Heaven is of course, the belief of eternal suffering in Hell. No, this is no solution.

    I actually disagree with your entire premise. I think it is because we know the earth is our home, that violence bothers us. If we didn’t really belong in this world, what would it matter? And it’s especially because it happened in America, the home of the majority of English-speaking people on the internet, that it’s effected people so deeply. The fact is, people are being shot all over the world, constantly. But most of the time, we ignore it and get on with our own lives. Which to the people who knew the victims, would seem monstrous.

    I don’t think believing there is some perfect, stainless world elsewhere will fix anything. We need to understand this world better, we need to look at the culture the murderer was part of, we need practical solutions. None of that will bring the children back, but that is the horror of death, that it’s irreversable.

    • matthew

      Thank you for demonstrating Option #1. Cheers.

  • Matthew_Roth

    Option 2 is from Camus, I believe, and is quite unsatisfactory to me.
    I much prefer being a Catholic.

  • Dave G.

    The talk wouldn’t be half as bad if it didn’t always – and I mean always – involve making sure that the conclusion is it’s everyone else’s fault. How many people have lamented how terrible our nation is (as if this never happened before the last few decades), or how warped our culture is – but do we stop to think what part WE play in the problems? Probably not. In fact, I’ve not seen anyone step up and say ‘I must admit, I think these problems also contribute to the modern crisis, and here’s where I’ve been part of the mischief.’ Nope. It’s those policies that those people support, it’s the culture, but not the cultural parts I like, it’s the sign of the times, but I’m happily outside of that. It goes along with the national motto that ‘America Sucks! And it’s everyone [else's] fault!’ Talking may not be bad, though anyone who has counseled grieving families knows that silence is often the best statement. But for all our education, information highways and access to knowledge, we’ve only honed the age old ability to make sure it’s everyone else’s fault that there’s problems, which means there’s not much of a chance for us to find any solutions – if there are any to be found.

  • Lisa

    Yet here we are, having another conversation ;)

  • danny

    this is smashing we never forget

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  • June-Marie

    Forgive me, but there seems to me to be fourth, far simpler, option: work tirelessly to change the gun laws in the USA.In fact, this seems to my mind to be the ONLY option under the circumstances.

    I don’t understand people who protest against abortion clinics on the grounds that abortion is murder, and then can’t be bothered to protest against gun merchants who are clearly aiding and abetting murder.

    Myself, I don’t accept that abortion, early abortion, is murder. But I’m absolutely certain that the slaying of these innocents was.

    There is no mystery about a nutter who kills little children in cold blood. And there is no mystery about what enabled the murders to take place.

    The pro-life movement argues that not protesting abortion is aiding and abetting murder.

    To me it makes far more sense, and is far more honest, to argue that not doing everything possible to restrict and finally outlaw casual ownership of guns in the USA

    is to become complicit in every gun-caused murder in the country.

    And certainly, it is pure hypocrisy to target the abortion clinics and not the gun supporters.

  • lockandkeys1

    We locking to big staf in this
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