Despair, School Shootings, Kierkegaard, and Hope as a Solution


Over the last few days, there’s been a lot of events that have made people despair. Tragedies in Seattle and Oregon have followed other recent prominent acts of violence. That’s not to mention the girls in Nigeria.

Of course, these tragedies that impact so many of us are being promoted by the media. The fact is that every single day there are sex slaves and abducted women on this planet. Sometimes they get rescued or helped. Many times, they do not. North Korea alone shows how routine evil can be.

We don’t need a school shooting to show us that human beings in rich and privileged societies can do awful things to other human beings, even their own countrymen. We knew that from the Holocaust, and unfortunately from even earlier.

Very smart and compassionate people ask, “What line will we have to cross to have this stop?”

This is a human question. It is an understandable one. But it makes a deeply flawed assumption.

Soren Kierkegaard, the Danish religious and existentialist philosopher, makes an argument repeatedly for people to choose despair. He views this as the basis of ethical life.

I couldn’t disagree more.

For Kierkegaard, the crucial insight that he believes that people have to learn is that despair is inevitable. Whether we live life hedonistically and selfishly, or morally and with self-sacrifice, pain will always come.

Kierkegaard’s philosophy is complicated, of course, and I am only giving an overview for these purposes, but certainly this idea is being echoed today.

In all of my experiences with people, I have seen that despair on its own never leads to action.

People endure horrible tragedies and they break or bend. Some people go through horrific events, on the other hand, and remain who they are.

What leads to action is hope. An increase in the “imaginable horizon”, as I put it in the chapters of my book on aiding others, Skillful Means, that I have written and put online.

We have to have hope that people can be better.

Then we have to put that hope into action.

We have to teach people that it is possible for adolescents to be different. We have to disarm the cynical idea that it’s just something adolescents do to pick up a gun.

We have to teach Americans to abandon the racial and class fears that lead them to want to turn their homes into an armory.

We have to teach adolescents that they can get through the challenges of high school and life. We have to teach them that they can express their anger in ways that not only won’t hurt anyone else but can help them. We have to teach them that they are not alone in anger, fear and despair.

We have to teach our children to stand up against bullies, and to stand up on others’ behalf. We have to teach a culture of heroism. Some of my proudest moments are when many dear friends of mine and I stood up against homophobic bullying in high school.

We have to teach instructors, administrators and even students how to identify when someone is broken and damaged.

We even have to change policy such that schools that intervene against and punish children for bullying don’t have to punish the victim too, as happens all too often under the logic that “They were both fighting, it was both of their faults”. We have to change policy such that schools, administrators and teachers don’t fear legal retaliation for daring to say anything bad about our little darlings.

We have to teach people how to get past many of the politics of privilege that lead many children to snap in such a way that they feel that they are entitled to bring down many other people with them, the same politics of privilege that robs us of our ability to punish bullies, the same militaristic politics of privilege that teaches our children that it is a fair way of resolving conflicts to pick up a gun and slaughter the enemy.

Whenever we ask, “How can something horrible keep happening?”, we can always answer, “Because people don’t believe in a better way”.

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