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Four: (Ad)Vantage Point
(TW) Gun Violence
For years it’s plagued me: why did the five of us who witnessed the shooting have such different perspectives on what had just played out in front of us at the same exact time. The color of a car is a true and certain thing, the color of a man’s pants, the hand with which he holds a gun—these are facts. Facts don’t change. And yet, five of us who aren’t given to lying or elaborating and who deeply care about truth and justice, reported the cars as different colors or different makes, the color of his pants varied slightly, the hand with which he held the gun was different to some of us. How many shots? How long did he stand there after the last shot? Were there two guns or just one? We all had different answers to those questions.
No matter how hard I try, though, I cannot remember a different version of the incident. The car is always a Bronco, always with a thin red stripe, the small car in the alley is always a teal four door car, maybe a Mazda. The man is always bald with slightly dark skin, holding the gun with his right hand. The officer is always on the ground, bleeding, hugging the curb beside his open car door. I cannot see a different story. But my friends and coworkers saw a different one. In their story, the thin strip is black, the small car is a Honda, the color is green, the gun is in the left hand. We all swore by our stories every single time we were asked for our statements, but they can’t all be true, can they?
A year before the shooting I witnessed took place, another shooting took place.
Shootings happen all the time, but something started happening within the past decade: we now have cell-phone footage and social media. The footage of the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO circulated on social media like all bad news does—quickly.
This footage was some of the first to circulate so quickly accompanied by words like: “Don’t look away.” And “Watch this to see the truth.” I am not impervious to peer-pressure and wanted the truth, so I watched and what I saw changed me forever. In some ways rightfully. In other ways, deeply harmfully.
In the human body we have two eyeballs. Just two. But within humans we carry through our body what Bessel van der Kolk calls, “the score.” We carry within us the stories told and untold, the truths and lies, accusations and fears, delights and despairs, wounds and scars, and the marks of living in a world broken by sin and not yet made whole. While we view the world visually through our two eyeballs, we’re processing that information with a brain that bears a score of the story we’ve lived, we feel the weight of that information in our throats, our guts, our physical hearts, our temples, and our feet.
This morning1 at 4:44am the air-conditioning unit in our home kicked on and the gust of cool air blew down from a vent onto a piece of art leaning against the wall in our kitchen—which shares a wall with our bedroom. The artwork and frame tumbled off the shelf, onto our kitchen counter, making a loud and sudden noise. We woke startled. My husband ran into the kitchen, saw the frame, set it on the counter and came back to bed telling me what happened. We were fine. No one was breaking into our home. No one shot anything. No one was threatening us. Yet I could feel my pulse pounding in my throat at a rapid rate, my heart rate rising so I could flee the threat my body was warning me was coming.
I know what to do now when that happens and I began to practice mindful breathing and redirecting my mind away from the possibilities of what it could have been to what it actually was: nothing.
What happens in the physical world affects the human body mentally, emotionally, spiritually, physically, and intellectually. However, what we feel when it’s happening is what often drives what follows.
We’re not all equipped with breathing techniques or good therapy, and sometimes even if we are, our body still takes over. This isn’t a case of “the devil made me do it.” This is actually God’s very good design for the human body, there to help us flee or fight the danger coming at us. It’s the hormone that elevates in mothers like a gentle and quiet friend of mine who just had a baby. This week she told me, “Before the baby I’d always ask my husband to kill spiders. Now? You’d better believe I’m pounding that spider so fast it doesn’t have a chance.” Her body with her God-given instincts, drives her to action without hardly any thought or emotion, just reaction. This is God’s design for all humans.
But when trauma happens, our brains rewire and our bodies revolt. All sin done by humans against other humans in the world is a result of the first sin. It is sin that was ungrieved or resolved or unforgiven or unrepented. It is a fractured shalom. Someone doesn’t set out to rape and murder and pillage. Somewhere in their life, somewhere along the way, something happened to them, even the smallest infraction somewhere, it remained unhealed and what remains unhealed festers, and what festers grows infected, and what grows infected spreads, until it takes over the human body. This happens most of the time without us even knowing it.
Think of this: when I was eleven years old another girl made fun of my appearance. Until that time I never felt self-conscious about this particular part of my body and since that time, hardly a day goes by that I haven’t thought of it. Her bullying created a fault-line in my wholeness and I have never been the same.
We all, every one of us, have these fault-lines in our being. They’re about our appearance, our skin color, our muscular build, our family, our work, or any number of possible attributes. These are the things we go to counseling for and the reasons we find ourselves addicted to something: approval or work or seeking love or a numbing agent. We’re all trying to heal that fault-line, even if we aren’t even aware it exists.
So we bring these cracked and bleeding selves into the world, doing our best to seem normal and feel whole, but those persistent cracks are still there. And the longer they go unhealed, the more we damage and break others around us—even unknowingly or unintentionally.
When I watched a shooting take place right in front of me, a fault-line was created. It changed me in irrevocable ways, mostly bad but some, seemingly good. It brought me to a startling awareness of how dangerous it is to be a police-officer. It made me have empathy for the story the shooter had lived (I later found out he was the product of a very broken home, the foster system, gang violence, and more). It helped me to have empathy for humans who see this kind of trauma regularly in their neighborhoods. It awakened me to racial tensions in my own neighborhood. It startled me into seeing my own privilege. It gave me a heightened awareness to the reality of gun violence.
But, as all trauma does to all humans, it also broke me down. I was changed. I could not go back to my innocence or naivety or the belief that I was generally safe. My body now shared in the brokenness of the shooter’s lived trauma and the victim’s new normal. We are, even though I have never met either man in person, connected forever by what happened in those 15 seconds.
This is the way trauma works. Romans 5:1 says that “through one man sin entered the world and then spread to all men.” It began with one man and one woman, and traveled like the root system of the Quaking Aspens that cover the Rocky Mountains. There are acres and acres and acres of spindly white Aspens with golden leaves, drawing tourists from all over the world in the autumn, all connected and growing by one massively connected root system.
So when I watch the video of what happened in Ferguson, MO, I don’t watch it as a blank slate, a tabula rasa. I watch it with the shared trauma of my story and that informs what I see. My four co-workers and I saw the same exact story play out in front of us in those 15 seconds, all of us remember the details slightly differently. Why? I don’t know exactly. Maybe there is a variation in how we see color differences and what looks teal to one looks green to another and blue to the other. Even though the fact of the car color doesn’t change, the feeling of it does, and so the memory of it does. This is what trauma can do to us too. The facts don’t change but the feeling of it does, ever so slightly; the reading of the story does, ever so minutely, and so the story changes, just a tad bit. Just enough. It still feels and seems and even IS irrevocably true, but it also might not be exactly true as we remember it.
We often hear cliches like, “Feelings aren’t facts” and yet they are. Feelings are real things and they are telling us real things. They’re telling us we’re afraid or we’re happy or we’re not safe or we’re being threatened or we’re hopeful or we’re not being believed or we don’t believe. Those aren’t untrue things necessarily, even if someone else says they are. If they feel true to us in the moment, there’s a reason for that. And I think the reason for that is because God wants to heal the fault-line that was created.
That feeling that feels absolutely true is trying to show us something about God’s intention for man’s wholeness. We weren’t made to carry the wounds and scars and brokenness of one man’s sin for all of eternity. We were made to dwell in wholeness with God, walk with him, be with him, see him fully, and his desire for that is unchanged.
Every time another video surfaces of an officer involved shooting, every time a school shooting happens, as a collective whole, we humans heave with the injustice we’re carrying from the past videos or we’re so tired of it all, we just close the browser and move on. Or, my Black friends tell me, they heave with the generations of racial injustice and trauma they carry with them and cannot watch one more video of a modern day lynching. Or, perhaps we’re a police officer or married to one or the child of one or the parent of one, and we want them to come home that night, to protect their life from danger, no matter the cost. Whoever we are, we see those videos with our story wrapped up tightly within the root system of our brains and nerves. We cannot undo our story from our response.
And the only way we can begin to heal is if we begin to grieve.
And grief comes in stages and not all of us will grieve at the same pace or in the same way.
The story will look different to all of us because we are all living different stories.
The most sensible illustration for why we need gun reform. TW.
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This is the fourth installation in a long form piece I wrote about gun violence. The gun violence I was witness to was not a school shooting, and yet it irrevocably informed and reformed my views on guns, gun violence, racial conflict, the real risks of policing, gentrification, assault rifles, and gun ownership. I am telling you my story, but here is another story:
“There are 20 million AR-style weapons in circulation in the US, according to the NSSF.”2
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I originally wrote this long form piece four years ago and it was the summer when I wrote it. We still have our heat on up here in northern New York ;)