April 2, 2014, a Ft. Hood soldier took a gun and began firing, changing some lives forever. Then, he turned that gun on himself. And once again, as a society, we begin a frantic search for why. The temptation to seek an answer for that question even reached my office in North Carolina when a client arrived for a session and asked me about it. It has begun as it does anytime tragedy strikes – the effort to fill in the blanks of the story with an explanation. As humans, we need understanding and this drives our behaviors in many ways, from spending millions of dollars on research, to the spewing of hate and rhetoric across the internet.
Filling in the blanks. It starts in grade school – with worksheets and benign topics. Fill in the _________ with the correct word. I personally found it satisfying when I could fill in all the blanks with sensible answers. It reduced my 3rd grade anxiety. But now, decades later, the blanks are bigger – responses not coming as easily. When tragedies such as the Ft. Hood shooting happen, the temptation to ‘fill in’ the grown-up ‘blanks’ of why is enormous. Filling in the “grown up” blanks makes us feel less vulnerable in a tentative world.
Required is a tenacity to withstand the ambiguity of not knowing.
With technology, we’re able to witness an uprising on social media and a constant stream of op-eds and news clips – all providing ready-made responses so that we can fill in the blank with whatever seems to resonate with us. As humans we want answers. Understanding frequently brings a reduction in angst, a peace. So we search and we’re prey to instant answers. The predator of a primal need to know overwhelms the masses. We forego logic in order to gain quick resolve. The problem is that the immediacy of just any quick response becomes our reality and a substitute for more accurate explanations.
I admit my temptation to stalk the “comments” section of social media to see what the world was offering in order to explain why this man would spray his pain across the lives of so many. It wasn’t surprising to see that past presidents, our nation’s current president, and scores of military leadership and medical professionals were all to blame for this soldier’s choice. That was a little too much for me to handle. I quickly disengaged from the ‘blank-fillers’ and returned to what I’ve learned works best for me – using my faith-base to be okay with not knowing what would drive his behavior. Looking within myself rather than to the world made the search more doable, more concrete.
Tapping into our own soul’s capacity for response to the human condition makes the search for peace realistic.
First, I allowed myself to grieve. I grieved the loss of a certainty that might bring us all peace. I grieved the loss of hope that most things military won’t get much better any time soon. Then, I rested. I rested in knowing that I believe God has a plan much broader than we can imagine. I rested in the compassion I could feel for that soldier’s spouse. Or the compassion I feel for those who lost a loved one in Texas that day. My compassion allowed me to refocus my attention to the young soldier on my own calendar that came to see me recently and shed tears because life hasn’t yet answered a call for personal peace from past hurts that still haunt. This soldier and I agreed to meet again next week to build a tolerance for not yet knowing how that answer will come. And this young warrior is placing trust in me to stand strong against the winds of uncertainty. When I allow myself to bathe in not knowing, I can imagine the Ft. Hood soldier all the way back to childhood where the seed of burden may have already been planted or maybe not. I imagine him facing his own uncertainty as he works to fit into and live graciously in his own skin. Maybe his hippocampus (the brain structure that initially holds trauma and burden until further processed) developed efficiently over years, maybe not. He may or may not have suffered vulnerabilities to brain injury and trauma from whatever childhood he originally launched, only to be thrust into the full-throttle expectation of emotion suppression and dogmatic training required to help him survive as a soldier. The medical team treating him may have been on the brink of making an accurate diagnosis leading to the most successful course of treatment in coming months – or maybe the dots weren’t connecting as they needed for that medical certainty to exist. So many “maybe or maybe nots” in this story. I could go on, though somewhere in my own development, I came across blanks I could not fill and guessing always brought more anxiety for me than not knowing. And like anyone, I had to learn how to better soothe the anxiousness that precludes cynicism and generalized resentment.
And so I made a decision to resist filling the blanks with rhetoric or hate.
I had to become comfortable with the _________. If I fill in the blanks incorrectly (with the ink of dogmatic thinking) I risk the inability to erase and correct as needed. What disservice or even harm am I doing to another person and to my own opportunity for growth if I allow this to happen? In my profession of behavioral healthcare a tolerance for ambiguity is fertile soil. If I resist filling in the blanks with what I want the answer to be, I get to hold out for something that makes even more sense. When life makes sense I feel safer in the world. It brings me peace. For now, my peace comes in how I choose to cope with the _____. For me, that means sometimes creating my own _____ and filling it with prayer, education, listening, compassion, and hope. Sometimes, it means sitting right in the middle of the ______, in silence, freeing myself of political rhetoric, anxious rumination, and wondering. I believe sometimes it may serve a greater purpose to become comfortable with the ______, at least for a while. If you recognize that you’re caught in the frantic search for why, and filling in the blanks for this tragedy includes anyone else but that soldier with his gun, I urge you to resist aimless blame and step away from the blanks of the story about a Ft. Hood soldier and begin creating the blanks for your own story, where your chances of filling them in with peace may surely increase.