My girlfriends and I sat in a circle in the finished basement family room at my friend Gail’s house on a summer day just weeks before ninth grade began. Each one of us outdid the one before in relating a scary tale. Gail began her story, and suddenly in mid-sentence she stopped, took a sharp breath, and her eyes grew round as she stared over my left shoulder. Her sudden silence and wide eyes caused me to scream and jump right out of my chair. Her fabrication made my fear no less real.
That is what it feels like this week, another week of ghost stories, another week of shooting, this time near Texas A&M University. Five people were shot and three killed, including the gunman and a constable, who had knocked on the door to serve an eviction notice. What are we so afraid of?
How many more shootings will occur before we cannot tolerate the violence? When will we rise together instead of pushing apart to find a peaceful solution? When will we replace rhetoric and politics with compassion and safety for everyone? When will we ban assault weapons for civilian use? When will we finally say that the collateral damage rendered in the push to support the right to bear arms, the thousands of people who die each year by gunshot, is more precious and more important than the personal freedom to bear arms?
I’d rather deal with ghosts than the specter of human hatred and fear that drives people to want to kill others. And it isn’t just psychotic people, though maybe believing that makes it easier to swallow. There is something growing like a weed in our society. It grows unwieldy and strong on hatred, divisiveness, the quest for individual freedoms, and survivalist instinct. Instead of calling for everyone to disarm and preserve human life, more people are arming up and declaring their intentions to shoot and kill.
I feel like our whole sense of community and the greater good has been replaced by individual freedoms and the desire to do whatever anyone wants to do, no matter that it might harm others. Text while driving? Why not? Shoot someone just for walking through a neighborhood? Why not? Plan and execute a mass shooting to show utter disregard for humanity? Why not? Decide ignorance of another culture is reason enough to shoot and kill others to show one’s hatred and fear? Why not? Can’t pay your rent and take it out on the people who happen to be in your way when you decide to express your anger and frustration with a gun? Why not?
I am so saddened by the tragedies of the past few weeks. But I know it is the ghost stories that are fueling this particular brand of fear. The fear that whites will lose their position of power and wealth, as if we all had it to begin with and are more deserving and entitled than the rest of the world; the fear that America will grow more diverse as more people from different cultures and religions move here; the fear that gay unions and independent, self-actualized women will ruin marriage as we know it; and the fear that middle class Americans are quickly losing economic ground.
I was afraid of more than just ghosts as a child. I was also terrified of the dark; spiders; strangers; fire; cigarettes (Ma smoked); certain foods like condiments, beer (Ma drank), and seafood; and new situations. These were all manifestations of the real situation that was the basis of my fears – living in an unstable home with an alcoholic mother.
That’s how it is today. People’s fear is manifested in the form of minorities, terrorists, criminals, and gay couples. What everyone is really afraid of is that we are all losing ground and our lives don’t feel stable or safe. Who do we blame?
The truth is that corporations, people in the eyes of some politicians, are telling ghost stories while sending jobs overseas and pocketing profits and bonuses. The truth is we were always diverse, and we need to acknowledge that fact and stop pretending some people are better and more deserving than others. The truth is that minorities in America, whether they are black, Sikh, Muslim, Hispanic, Asian, Native American, women, or gay, want the same things that the majority (meaning those wielding power and position in our society) wants – the pursuit of happiness, the right to live their lives, and the right to embrace cultural aspects of their heredity, for example, the way Irish-Americans celebrate St. Paddy’s Day, in relative safety. The truth is the institution of marriage is fast becoming irrelevant in this society where women are sexually objectified and men are just “baby daddy.” We’ve lost the sense of love and family that grows between two people who face the world as one and who help each other weather the storms life brings us. We fail to recognize that gay couples are trying to preserve and participate in this institution, not destroy it. They may be its best hope.
Politicians tell ghost stories, too, or they repeat ones they’ve heard. They make people feel desperate and scared, and they like it that way. If you are afraid of ghosts, you won’t have time to look at what they are really doing, like the Republicans (I’m a proud liberal) who hope to take away your stable retirement income and the health care that you have paid into since you started working. They pretend you won’t be part of the group losing these entitlements, but you will be, and they hope you won’t notice because they’ve made you afraid of the “others,” the ghosts who are unknown and unseen but that you begin to surmise who they are based on who looks or acts differently than you.
There are reasons to be afraid. Life is hard and bad things happen to good and bad people. Not many people live a life without sadness and struggle. But we need to be afraid of the right things, the things that can really hurt us, and take the right action, the one that does least harm.
As a child I had ways of dealing with my imagined fears – I sprayed spiders with hairspray or ran screaming from the room. I slept with the covers over my head. I avoided strangers and strange places. I repeatedly washed my hands if I came in contact with the foods or cigarettes to which I had such a strong aversion. I had panic attacks that stole my breath and dizzied me. I paced the floor and imagined different and better times. But none of those things fixed the thing that really frightened me – Ma’s alcoholism and all the bad things that came with it: the arguments between my parents; Ma threatening to leave or to commit suicide; and my sense that I was not worthy of a mother who loved me enough to want to stay. I was but a child and couldn’t have fixed it anyway nor did I understand that Ma had her own fears that overwhelmed.
And that’s what we need to understand about everyone today. We each have our own fears, real or imagined, that we must contend with. How can we do that without harming others? How can we do that with respect and recognition that we are individuals in this collective we call America, and we all have a right to be here, no matter how we got here in the first place or where we came from or how we identify ethnically, religiously, and culturally.
We held a pretend séance when I was around ten. I led the parents and younger siblings into the neighbor’s basement and offered them chairs. Then I stood in the back, my face stern, and my arms crossed over my chest. When no one was looking, I pulled the fishing lines attached to objects to make them levitate. My neighbor David was the medium, and he sported a golden turban as he summoned the ghosts. My brother Rocco hid under a tarp and spoke through a length of garden hose to make his voice sound otherworldly. In our imaginative play we exorcised the spirits with an audience applauding our effort.
I wish we could exorcise the ghosts that plague us today and be rid of some of our imaginary fears, the ones that motivate some people to arm up with the intent to shoot and kill. Maybe then we could face the things we really need to be afraid of and find a way for everyone to live in safety.