In the wake of the shootings this week at Virginia Tech, I think what Dr. Russ Federman, director of counseling at the University of Virginia, said on NPR’s All Things Considered this afternoon is worth repeating here. He was responding to interviewer Michele Norris, who had asked him, in retrospect, what lesson can we learn about how to handle students whose behaviour raises red flags for other students, administrators or teachers.
Federman replied: “The lesson is that we pay closer attention to student behaviour, the lesson is that we get as much involved as we can, at the same time being mindful of students’ rights. And that leaves us with a grey area.”
He commented further on that grey area:
“I think we would like to think that violence and tragedy is avoidable. We would like to think that we get up each day and we go out into the world and we experience a day of safety and relative stability. And if things go haywire, we’d like to find ways of preventing that in the future, such that if we can prevent it in the future, we can feel less anxious about life. But I think the reality is that human behaviour is not always predictable. And the ways in which we can control an individual’s behaviour, when they have their own legal rights as adults, is limited.”
When I heard this, I thought not only of the massive desire to understand and predict (and possibly control) deviant, violent human behaviour — such as we are seeing in the media and in our own personal conversations and thoughts about the Virginia Tech killings now (why did he do it? what prompted it? could teachers, administrators, parents, the system etc., have prevented it? and so on)* — but also of the desire to understand and predict nature, to avoid natural disasters, and, underlying both of these urges, the desire to find an explanation for anything “bad” that happens not only in our own lives but in everyone else’s life (but especially in our own). We tend not to look for explanations for “good” things that happen: “I lived another day! How could that be? What was I doing to cause that?” or “I didn’t have a car wreck on the way home. Wonder why?” It sounds ridiculous because we don’t generally think that way.
I’d like to underscore Dr. Federman’s implication that violence and tragedy are not avoidable, and neither are natural disasters, freakish accidents, illness and injury, birth defects, and simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time. We can prevent and avoid these things some times, by being cautious, by being careful (and care-full), by thinking and planning, even by seeking to prevent them and applying ourselves to the task. And maybe that’s what makes us think that it’s possible to completely avoid violence, tragedy, and so on. But it’s not possible. And, as psychologist Alfred Adler said, “The chief danger in life is that you may take too many precautions.” I’m not an Adler fan but I agree with the quote. We can work so hard at protecting ourselves and those we love against anything potentially injurious that we end up not so much living life as watching it pass by from inside our snug, protective shell.
We can’t avoid or prevent “bad” things from happening because there is randomness. There is coincidence. There is genetics. There is luck, and fate. There is cause and effect in layers so complex that we don’t understand it, even when we think we do — we can posit this based on systems of cause and effect that weren’t understood 100, 50, 10 years ago and which are better understood now (leeches? venesection? sun revolves around Earth? — although millions of Americans still believe this), but even for something as simple-seeming as the effect of food on health, there are all kinds of conflicting ’cause and effect’ hypotheses.
And we can never really feel less anxious about life, because it always ends the same way, and we are always aware that we are tending towards that end, that one wrong move could be our last move. Even if that move is simply taking a luxury boat cruise. Or driving through a Boston tunnel. Or being born of parents with AIDS in Africa. Or going to German class at your college one spring morning.
(* I’m not speaking here of the questing for answers by those actually involved in or personally affected by the shooting spree. That seems to me part of the process of grief.)