Two weeks ago I was tying myself up in knots over the Virginia Tech massacres. What would I have done in that situation? After thinking long and hard, the only thing I could come up with was this: whip your keys at his eyes. Follow that up with your coffee cup (this was an early morning class. Every university student there would have had coffee). Then throw your chair, and then jump him. At the very least you’ve thrown off his aim for a few seconds and bought some time. Would it have worked? I have no idea. And chances are I would have frozen and not done any of those things anyway. But at least, I figured, having thought it through, I’d be more prepared.
About a week before the Virginia Tech massacre another terrorist shooting at a school was making the talk shows. This one, at New Jersey’s Burlington Township High School, was just a drill. And the perpetrators? Crazy Christians, just like the earlier drill in Michigan where Christian homeschoolers took a school hostage. I asked my kids if they had ever had the urge to go and shoot up our local school, and they said no, so I guess we’re not a threat.
But what really alarmed me, aside from the politically correct and utterly ridiculous scenario they were depicting, was that the drill revolved around the “duck and cover” strategy. No tips on how to fight back, if it is necessary, were offered.
This week, as I have continued to mull over the scenario with various friends, one raised a more fundamental issue. “The problem,” he said, “is not that we need to learn self-defense. It’s that we have to learn to look after ourselves period.”
Our society, he said, likes to pass the buck. But if you die of smoking after inhaling three packs a day for forty years, is it really the tobacco company’s fault? Similarly, if you’re obese, the problem does not lie with McDonald’s or Frito Lay. It lies with you. No one forced you to inhale that burger or that entire bag of chips. You chose to do so.
Nevertheless, we tend to blame others when something bad happens to us. Why do so many kids drop out of school? Because teachers aren’t paid enough, because parents aren’t involved enough, because the curriculum is too hard, because the curriculum isn’t hard enough, take your pick. Rarely does anyone say, “because some kids are lazy”.
Why is parenting so hard today? Because the media is too violent, because we have to work so hard to get by that we have no time for the kids, because the schools don’t help. Why doesn’t anyone say, “because some parents are self-absorbed”? We don’t want to say this because we’re not comfortable making value judgments anymore. That would be intolerant. So we look for some explanation other than individual failings.
The natural corollary of this argument, though, is that if nothing is ever our fault, nothing can ever be our responsibility, either. I’ve been reading the Anne of Green Gables series to my girls lately, and I love the picture of community spirit Lucy Maud Montgomery painted in her novels from a century ago. Her Anne and friends formed a society to clean up Avonlea’s streets, plant flowers and trees, and beautify public buildings. Today we cry, “Somebody has to do something about this!” as we point our fingers at everyone else but ourselves.
Is life unfair for some people? Of course it is. But waiting for others to make it fair for you isn’t really solving a problem. It’s just delaying a solution. So that’s what we should teach our kids: you are responsible for yourself. You’re responsible to stay healthy. You’re responsible to work hard and learn so you can support yourself later. You’re responsible to make good decisions. You’re responsible, as far as is possible, to protect yourself. It’s your life. Live it. Don’t wait for someone else to.
And once we have taken responsibility for our own lives, we’re in the position to take a more proactive role in making our society better, too. In Virginia, the other students knew Cho was a problem. The professors knew he was a problem. The justice system and mental health system knew he was a problem. Even his family knew he was a problem. But everybody waited for someone else to claim that problem, and nobody ever did. That, I think, is another lesson to learn. If something around you is a problem, make it your problem. When everyone abdicates responsibility, then no one takes it. Instead of acting like adults, we become like children. And that, I think, is very scary.