What I’ll Teach My Son After Las Vegas

I don’t want to write about the mass slaughter in Las Vegas this week. To be honest, I almost didn’t write this post. There seems to be so little to say that hasn’t already been said many times before.

These stories are so drearily familiar that the specific details hardly matter. All you have to do is change the date, the place, and the body count. I’ve pretty much ceased to believe that America has the will to do anything about them, other than a few days of headlines and then a collective shrug of resignation. We barely even notice them anymore unless they set a new record for the death toll, as this one did, and I’m sure it won’t be long before that record is broken again.

We all know the media response by heart. If the shooter is Muslim or brown, right-wing pundits will roar about border walls, mass deportations, internment camps. If the shooter is white, he’ll be labeled a lone wolf, law enforcement will hasten to reassure us it wasn’t terrorism, family members will be wheeled out to testify about how shocked they are, and right-wing politicians will speak about the need for better mental health services, a line of dialogue that lasts until the moment the cameras are switched off.

I realize that, by writing this way, I run the risk of contributing to the climate of apathy. But I don’t believe I have anything to say that could be more persuasive than the mere unvarnished facts. If the fact of mass bloodshed and death in the streets doesn’t drive Americans to action – if it doesn’t make us rise up in a great wave demanding meaningful gun control, just as every civilized place in the world has done – then I know of no other way to make the threat plain, above and beyond the thing itself.

What I do struggle with is what I’m going to tell my son. This was brought to my attention earlier this week, when a friend asked me how it’s possible to raise a child in a world with evils like this. He’s not old enough to ask the question yet, but he will be. And when the time comes, it will help to have an answer prepared for him.

I don’t believe that childhood innocence should be preserved at all costs. As part of my universal utilitarian moral philosophy, I hold that our outlook has to be built on a clear-eyed recognition of the way the world really is, both the good and the bad. That applies to children as well as adults. It doesn’t do anyone any good to pretend that the world is something it’s not.

But at the same time, I don’t believe in traumatizing children or teaching them despair by dwelling on the worst of humanity. There’s a fine line to walk between sorrowful clarity and corrosive nihilism. We should teach our children about the evils of life, but in a way that’s tempered with the recognition that there’s always another side to the story.

With that in mind, here’s what I want to say.

The world is a far better place than it once was, and it’s getting better all the time. I still believe that, in spite of these last few years. There are fewer wars than ever. Fewer people are hungry. We know how to cure diseases we couldn’t treat before. We have more material goods, more clothes and toys and stuff, than anyone in history.

But a better world isn’t a perfect world. Bad things can happen to good people, and life isn’t always happy or fair. We’ve done a good job of fixing some of the problems that people used to suffer from, but we have a lot left to learn about ourselves and what makes us happy.

Sometimes, people don’t learn what to do when they’re sad or hurting or have some problem they don’t know how to solve. They get angry at something or someone, they don’t know how to let that feeling out in a helpful or positive way, and they hold it tightly inside them until it explodes. Sometimes that anger makes them do things that don’t make sense, like hurting other people, even people who have nothing to do with why they’re angry.

I also want to tell my son that these sad days remind us why it’s important to treat each other with love and kindness. It’s important for him to be a good person, because for things to get better, the world needs all the goodness it can get. When other people let sadness and anger make them cruel, we have to be the examples to teach them and to show them a better way.

And whatever we teach our children, I think it’s equally important to remember what we can learn from them. Each of these tragedies adds to our accumulation of mental scar tissue, making us callous and cynical. To some extent, that’s a necessary defense mechanism. If you let every tragedy you heard about wound you as deeply as the first, you’d go insane from the weight of it all. For the sake of our own mental health, sometimes we have to disconnect. But you can’t let yourself fall into believing that there’s no hope and the world will never change.

The gift that children give us is the ability to see the world through fresh eyes: to be confused by things that don’t make sense, to be unhappy at the sight of people suffering for no good reason. Too many of us grownups have come to accept this as the way things will always be. It may be that an innocent “Why?” question is just what we need to shuck off that hardened shell of resignation and find the will to keep fighting, to keep pushing for change.

Maybe it won’t be our generation that stops gun violence. But if we refuse to surrender to apathy, if we keep the torch of our moral outrage alive, that may be the best tool we can hand down to the generation that finally will.

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