Important question: Is my offering acceptable?
As a behavioral health clinician and an associate executive for Gulf Bend Center, a community mental health organization, I have observed, with heartfelt concern, the events in Newtown, Conn. I have also watched, with keen interest, reactions from across the country. As expected, there have been knee-jerk reactions. Who do we blame? Where do we point the finger? Who do we lock up? As anticipated, passionate discussions have been renewed about gun control, mental illness and violence in the media, movie industry and video games. We are forced to come to terms with the stark reality that Newtown does not stand alone. Newtown is just the latest victim of what has become a list of dozens of mass killings in our country. In just the past five years, I count 16 of them. Each time, as a country, we have polled public opinion about why this is happening, what to do about it and who to hold accountable.
This time, however, something is different. One opinion has shifted. When asked whether we consider this recent killing to be an isolated act by a troubled individual or a broader problem in our society, for the first time more people believe this one to be an indication of a problem with our culture rather than just a hideous, isolated act by an individual. If we are finally ready to accept that we have a tear in the fabric of our culture, then the paradigm immediately shifts, and all the questions change. If we focus on our culture, then we are no longer talking about them but about all of us. The question is no longer about who is responsible but about what is my responsibility. It is less about what happened and more about what now. It is no longer just about what to do but also how to do it. If this is more about our culture than specific individuals, we all play an active role in how to make things better. My attitude, my behavior and my choices play as much of a role in weaving the fabric of our society as any and everyone else. My perspective becomes totally different when I consider that the future of our society is being determined by how and what I am doing and not just by the outliers.
We are all in this together, and the health of our society depends on how each of us is doing and how we interact. With today's technology, we are able to stay connected with each other in every way imaginable. But are we really engaged with one another, face to face, heart to heart, soul to soul? How well do I know my neighbor? Do I consider the stranger across town my neighbor as well? When I come face to face with someone different, do I react in fear and avoidance or compassion and interest? Am I willing to learn something when I don't understand, or do I become irritated and wish they would go away? Am I willing to talk less about mental illness and more about mental health? Am I willing to speak out about matters that trouble me, or do I just tolerate it with a few mumbles under my breath? These are the important questions because the answers define the impact I have on the culture in my family, my town, my country and my world.
Cultural change doesn't happen quickly. There are no quick-fix solutions of any substance. If Newtown shines a spotlight not just on Connecticut, but on our whole society, then the solutions become generational. What I do today will have its most significant impact two or three generations from now. The decision I make this hour will not be graded by how it effects me, but how it effects my children's children. It takes vision, foresight, patience and courage to heal a culture. Our decisions have to be what is good for a society and probably will not be realized until you and I are no longer alive.
If this is true, then positive cultural change begins with a goal to be true to ourselves and become the best person possible. My goal is to be the best Lane Johnson I can be. And that task begins with being neighborly. In the words of Robert Frost, "I am no longer concerned with good and evil. What concerns me is whether my offering will be acceptable."
Lane Johnson, M.Div., LPC is the associate executive director of clinical programs at Gulf Bend Center. Readers with questions or comments may contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.