He was texting his three-year-old daughter’s day care center.
Immediate reactions, including my own, supposed that the shooter was somehow mentally ill, or stressed out from a grueling career, or maybe fed up with systemic disrespect – the impoliteness of an in-theater text being the “straw that broke the camel’s back” in some sad parallel to Michael Douglas’ William Foster in Falling Down.
In any case the shooter was obviously crazy – as they always are.
Or are they?
I jump at the chance to explain away a tragedy like this, saying that something went wrong in the shooter’s brain in order to create space between myself and such horror; there simply must be categorical differences at play.
But I’ll be the first to confess that sometimes there aren’t many.
Cut me off on the freeway, bump into my cart at Costco, or cough in my face at the gym and my reflexes jump to fight, not flight – and what I decide to do with the impulse isn’t always pretty.
Maybe I walk around cursing others under my breath, yelling in my car at idiots on the road, or committing little acts of murder in my mind.
But sometimes I look at the driver cutting me off and say “looks like he’s got a pie in the oven.”
That’s what I learned from a lady named Kathy; whenever someone glared at her or flipped her off for driving slowly, she would wave and say “they must have a pie in the oven.”
I found that this neutralizes the entire situation.
I suppose that the initial biological “fight” response is involuntary and there isn’t much we can do about it. What we do next, however, is up to our level of ability to control ourselves and to love others in spite of themselves.
If a truck swerved to hit a puddle of water and drenched you while you were waiting for the bus, you might get physically angry. The moment you look up and notice that the truck was dodging a child in the street, however, your change in perspective sets off processes that calm your body down.
When people are being selfish and hurtful, my wife likes to imagine what they must have looked like as children – because every human was a kid once and it’s tough to stay angry with kids for long (and it’s really funny/surprisingly easy to picture selfish people as toddlers). This is her pie-in-the-oven trick.
Maybe the man who fired his pistol in the theater wasn’t different than me. Maybe he had the same biological reaction as I often do and started seeing his fellow human in a way with which I’m all too familiar. Maybe he just walked down our path a bit further and carried the fight response to its ultimate conclusion?