Monday, April 16, 2007

Scattered thoughts of pain

We’re all at the mercy of thieves and murderers. We walk about our lives, but there’s really no defending ourselves; at any random moment, we could be killed by the chaotic actions of somebody with a gun. That’s a lesson on mortality we never really accept but is true nonetheless.

I’ve always believed universities to be a special, unique, hidden chunk of civilization. It’s where social movements, from the Reformation that started in 1517 to the major social evolution that took place in the 1960s. Universities have produced the best and brightest ideas and people of civilization, and universities have maintained, protected, and rebirthed the great ideas of our culture. It is where our great leaps in science, in religion, in ideas, begin. Universities are a place for youth, for hope. Universities are for people willing to devote their lives to ideas. Universities are places of progress, of openness, of free speech, of discourse, dialogue, conversation. But whatever ideal role universities may hold in civilization, it still exists within this messy civilization. In Paradise Lost, Lucifer and the demons discover and utilize gunpowder. Milton wasn’t far off.

We should always respond to violence with horror. Bloodshed should always make us cringe. When we stop wincing at the suffering humans inflict on each other, we lose something of our humanity. And when that violence becomes so clearly senseless, when the chaotic random chancy nature of violence comes so close, so desperately close…there aren’t even words for these feelings.

All the debating and moral wrestling of last week over Imus, rappers, and words seems so silly now. Nobody was hurt. Now, when we shift our attention to the real, horrific blood and bones of death and violence and suffering, concern over words seems futile. It still matters; for many of us, most of us, almost all of us, words are the stuff by which we live. We devote our attention to sports; we blog about amusement; we dissect syntax and word choice. It’s all worth something, I believe, but let’s always know that it means less than other things.

There’s a lazy inefficiency to a campus. There’s nothing in the world like a college campus. And to have it marred by such massive violence just causes a deep ache. And many of us that spend much time on campuses recognize that there but by the grace of God goes us.

I just can’t imagine the pain being experienced by the friends and families of the murdered students at Va. Tech. For right now, I’m not sure I want to imagine it; for right now, that limitation to my imagination is suiting me fine. I can’t stomach the loss of all these young people, blithely going to class, bored or indifferent or on fire for learning, whatever it may be, cut down. Removed from human affairs. Their presences suddenly and violently obliterated. We hope, of course, that they are somewhere else, that their souls have life beyond this veil of tears. We hope that those souls weren’t permanently destroyed. And we weep for those classmates, those teachers, those colleagues, those friends, those parents and brothers and sisters. There are all sorts of ritual phrases that people utter in these times. But ritual words, while often hollow, are often full to bursting with emotions.

But this stuff still matters. This devotion to ideas, this study of human affairs, this quest for understanding of humanity and the cosmos, this devotion to language, it still matters. In the face of this tragedy, a tragedy occurring in the very cradle of ideas, we have to remember that. To make sense of this, to prevent this, to know what this means, still matters. That young students can be brutally killed even in these places where words are studied and science advances and everything is open to civil, honest, rational debate, scars. Universities, the bastions of reason and inquiry, are made up of the people, not the buildings. And those people, flesh and blood and bone, are subject to the slings and arrows that all people of flesh and blood and bone are subject to.

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