Last weekend, my son Corby and I travelled to Pennsylvania to visit my dad. He’s ninety-two now, and recently decided to stop an expensive medication for his chronic leukemia. He’s tired, just waiting for the end. The number of appointments he’s missed with the Grim Reaper is astounding, and we’re all sensing now that he’ll be keeping one in the not too distant future.
I enjoyed having time on the trip to talk deeply with Corby, who has a degree in fashion design. After four years of what I call “wandering,” he finally landed a job in a small design firm last year. But, like so many Millennials, he’s not satisfied with his long-term prospects. His sister Squeaky and I just assumed he’d go into design; I taught him how to hand-sew at age seven, and that’s when he made his first original outfit for a Barbie doll.
Corby described the fascination he had with fashion in his youth as being “pure,” unadulterated by the burdens of capitalist commerce. Yes, he designs garments now, but spends too much time micromanaging their production in China and negotiating back and forth with clients. It isn’t exactly what he signed up for, but most of us had to confront this issue at one point or another.
Corby’s “wandering” happened right around the time things went south for me. What I knew is that his youthful passion had dimmed. This past week, another youth contingent with a passion came to my attention: the students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida, who are raising their voices about gun control. They are passionate for action without realizing how deeply that word connects to the circumstances they endured.
Passion’s Latin root is the Latin noun passio, a suffering or an enduring. I wrote about this almost exactly four years ago, in an essay about suffering, resistance, and change (See Archive, Feb 21, 2014). I wrote about my surprise that passion and patience have the same Latin root. It’s also related to the Greek roost pathos, suffering, or calamity, and penthos, grief, or sorrow. I reiterate here that, in my younger years, I never understood the significance of the “Passion of the Christ,” precisely because I misunderstood the deeper meaning of the word. No one taught us in med school that patients meant sufferers.
I applaud and support all efforts to stop or restrict access to semi-automatic weapons, but am old enough to know not to hold my breath. Four years ago, I wrote about something a life coach gave me, an “equation” written as: Suffering = Change X Resistance. The suffering in Florida and elsewhere includes resistance to change. Look at that equation in a strictly mathematical sense. Make resistance to gun control a zero, and the result can be no suffering. In real life though, you can’t tweak the math. If change becomes zero, the suffering still persists.
Finger pointing and blame tropes still take precedence. The immediate aftermath—slapping an instant death penalty on a very damaged teenager whose behavioral aberrations were hiding in plain sight—still inhabits current headlines. When innocents die, we smell blood, we must have vengeance. It’s not our habit to contextualize things.
We forget that vengeance is related to vindicate in a roundabout way that has to do with a sense of authority. The Latin verb vindico, the root of both, means to punish a wrong, but also to demand, and to place in a free condition. How freeing it would be to get rid of these useless weapons, a goal the students in Florida are starting to demand! How wonderful it would be to place more emphasis on finding ways to free children like Nikolas Cruz from the conditions that damaged him so, regardless of how impossible that seems.
No, these solutions are too difficult, they involve change, and we resist. My daughter Squeaky is a teacher and has no interest whatsoever in having guns in her school. One of the most intense conversations I had with her was after the Newtown shooting here in 2012. She was a college senior then, barely out of her teens herself, and was doing her stint as a student teacher. She described the drills— so foreign to my experience!— and we cried as we imagined it could happen to her.
Squeaky will be leaving Guam soon, having enjoyed the relative freedom of teaching Chamorro students who lack the means to obtain lethal weapons. In addition, their culture is different; people know what their kids are up to. Island living, with physical closeness and its consequent limits on personal liberty, makes it highly improbable that such massacres will occur. She’s not yet sure where she’ll be, but a remote Pacific island is not in the mix. She’ll worry, as will I, as we watch this mess play out. I hope that, when she returns, she’ll bring her passion for teaching with her. And Corby’s passion may have dimmed, but it’s not yet extinguished. I hope the kids in Florida won’t lose theirs either.