I was walking around the Cyclocross Nationals venue with my husband, Richard Sachs, and we remarked that it looked like one of those giant slums in India. Mud everywhere churned underfoot. Tents, some blown over. A general look of poverty and monsoon effects. But nothing could be further from the slum reality. People spent thousands of dollars to experience this deprivation and visual ugliness. They travelled across the country, flying and driving and all for this. A mud-slung venue in a frozen prairie. (the mud is from a warm rainy night, now the front has moved out and the cold arctic air has moved in.) People want to pit themselves against others in their sport and see how they rank up. And that makes me wonder about this whole competition thing. As a species, it seems we must always be competing and engaging in that summation of competition; giving out awards. The best this, the largest that, the fastest, the slowest. I used to work in video production and I once jokingly said to my camera man that production companies could just make up an award and give it to themselves in plaque form so they could hang it on their waiting room wall, thereby giving themselves the look of credentials. He said, “Don’t think they don’t do that.”
Way back when, in cave man days, we needed to compete to survive. That, like so many of our patterns, has stayed with us, even though the necessity for it has largely disappeared.
Today, we compete to help define who we are as a substitute for actual survival. Pretty harmless behavior until competition becomes our sole definition of who we are. I was struck by that actualization as I watched Lance Armstrong’s interview with Oprah. He had to win, or to put it another way; he had to beat other people. That seems like such a lonely way to live your life.
Trained to look at the bigger picture and to deconstruct what seems to be apparent; I am pushed to apply these ideas to the massacre of children. As a forty plus year resident of Connecticut who only recently moved to Massachusetts, I still feel like a Connecticut-er, and the killings in Sandy Hook affected me in a familial way. These were my people, my state. Any news of people being slaughtered will shock and tear but these were my babies. That is how it feels.
Beyond the grief, then anger, comes a desire to make sense of it all. Make sense of our society, our nation. Why, I ask myself, are we like this? Why do we need to have guns, and more basically, why is ‘personal freedom’ so pervasively core to our priorities in this country?
Religious freedom (which, ironically, became intolerance to anything differing from the new religious practice) is the historically taught cornerstone for the establishment of many settlements in the colony of America. But the idea of a place to go away from King and class restrictions had to have been appealing to many of this country’s first settlers. And then there were the amazing natural resources of this country. People came here for opportunity. This is how most, if not all human societies start. One culture usurps another and then works out how it will establish itself and grow. As it matures, it faces and addresses the growing pains of being a society.
The United States, as a nation, is a young society. I think of us as adolescents. We are not children anymore, but we are not adults either. We still think our personal freedoms are more important than what is good for our society as a whole. Like adolescents, we are the center of our universe. Our wants and needs are the most important thing to us. This is not a bad thing, it is the way things grow. Before you can look beyond yourself to establishing your place in the world at large, you must first figure out who you are. That is the role of adolescence.
In the United States, we are figuring out who we are. And like individual adolescents, our black and white ideas are being challenged. Some of us need to feel we are free by being able to own guns, and others of us need to feel free by feeling safe from people owning guns. Whose freedom is the right one? That’s what we are wrestling with now. I have no doubt that, as a society, we will grow and mature like all successful societies have. And that means limiting personal freedoms for the general good of the society as a whole.
After all, if a society cannot keep its children safe from itself, then it has failed its primary purpose—that of perpetuating itself. All successful societies have realized this at some point, and it is at that point that personal freedom has grown up and become collective good.