A prayer for America

Newtown, Connecticut, December 14 2012. Another terribly ill and angry person with an armoury of guns. Another day in America. Even from the relative safety of the other side of the Atlantic, I am still all too capable of imagining a man spraying bullets into my daughter’s primary one class, killing every single child and their beautiful young teacher. An old high school friend wrote on Facebook about her fear that it could be her children’s school next. It could be any school in America. As a mother, that kind of fear doesn’t bear thinking about.As an American, albeit one who has been outside looking in for eighteen years and a bit, I do think about it. Like most Americans, I wonder why these shootings happen with such frequency. I wonder why a country which prides itself so intensely on its democratic freedoms and the rights it guarantees its citizens, and which holds up its dreams and ethics like beacons for the rest of the world to aspire to, tolerates these horrific events.  I wonder how we can finance seemingly endless wars to combat extremism elsewhere in the world but foster it so unquestioningly within our own communities.

The almost total lack of gun control is the most obvious part of the problem; I have no problem nailing my colours to that mast. No citizen should be able to walk into a store and buy weapons designed for war. Designed for, to use a scary little euphemism, ‘clearance work’. How can anyone feel safe or free knowing that their neighbours are in possession of such things? I despair for my American friends who understand this, and also for those who don’t.

But I also think guns are symptoms of a bigger and thornier issue: power. There is something in the American cultural discourse which is obsessed with power: horsepower, buying power, media power, electronic power, firepower. The trouble is, in the most powerful nation on earth, there are an awful lot of powerless people. Six and seven year old children, yes, but the powerless also include people with mental health problems and long term health conditions, who don’t receive decent care because it doesn’t exist or because they have no insurance to pay for it. The powerless include people who are unemployed or on very low incomes, caught in the poverty trap. The powerless include soldiers who have been chewed up and spat out by war and left alone to piece themselves back together. The powerless include those who, due to the circumstances of birth or bad luck, will only ever be able to look on and wish they had what others have.

That kind of inequality is the real killer, and is even more entrenched and pervasive in America than guns and those who use them. Those with power care very little for those without. Too many people in power don’t listen to cries for help. So some of those who feel a lot more powerless than they actually are lose faith in democratic means of effecting change and begin to arm themselves. The gun lobby preys on this loss of faith; in the name of American freedom, it inspires people to prepare for the breakdown of American democracy.

So many people have offered prayers for those who died in Newtown and all the other places where mass shootings have occurred. It is a genuine expression of solidarity and of sympathy. But I wonder- and by this I mean no insult to my friends who are believers- if whether this turn to prayer also a search for power. Maybe people pray because they feel they have no other meaningful power to change things for the better.

The solutions to these problems lie down here on earth. One day they might be found in rational discussion and genuine commitment to understanding people who scare us or whose views our different from ours. They might be found in giving a genuine helping hand to people who are ill and angry and disillusioned. They might be found in accepting that the Founding Fathers were not thinking of semi-automatic handguns when they wrote the Second Amendment. They might be found in sharing out the power a little bit more. They might also be found in stepping outside the entrenched debates and the nets of power, and trying to look at things from a broader perspective.

So after Newtown, I will offer only a single prayer for America. It’s to no god in particular, and it’s not even in my own words. It was written by Robert Burns, the Scottish poet who understood a lot more than I do about power:

O wad some Pow’r the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!


On the Back of a Turtle

 One of my favourite anthropologists, Clifford Geertz, once wrote:
There is an Indian story–at least I heard it as an Indian story –about an Englishman who, having been told that the world rested on a platform which rested on the back of an elephant which rested in turn on the back of a turtle, asked (perhaps he was an ethnographer; it is the way they behave), what did the turtle rest on? Another turtle. And that turtle? “Ah, Sahib, after that it is turtles all the way down.”
Right now I can’t help but think that the turtles are getting restless. After all, who could blame them? The load on their backs gets heavier and thornier by the minute.  And so I have to wonder: what happens if they decide to pack it in completely and swim off into space. The poor old elephant won’t stand a chance. Neither will we.
I have almost completely stopped watching the news. Like my grandmother Lucy, I am prone to fits of depression over global events I can’t control. These days of natural disasters and nuclear meltdowns, financial crises, wars and fuel prices could easily send me running for the Prozac. I have to ration my intake of news to ten minutes a day, or a bit of radio time driving home from work.  But it’s enough.
The thing that strikes me is that we treat all of these events as separate things- but really they’re all part of the same old stack of turtles, each one precariously balanced on the back of the other.  Take any single reptile out, the whole caboodle threatens to come crashing down.
So what do we do about these turtles, then? For me, it’s about trying to find the balance in my own life here on this wobbly old pile. It’s about lifestyles. I have more or less rejected the ambition and material aspirations I had when I was much younger, and set my sights on more modest goals: to cook good meals and sit down with my family for tea most nights, to raise happy children, to find time for creativity, to be able to laugh a little- or better, a lot-each day.  Last week I planted vegetables and decided to move my savings from a certain bank (much in the news of late for its role in the global financial meltdown) to my credit union. Both things felt good. I heard the turtles give a little sigh of relief.