A Time For Silence

It’s all beyond me—how can I reply to you?  I put my hand over my mouth.”  – Job 40: 4

Sometimes nothing can be said.  Not everything can be put into words.  Language often trivializes what we’re trying to express, because our lexicon is completely inadequate to the occasion.  To say the universe is vast is not the same as feeling overwhelmed by its enormity, shuddering beneath the stars because we can’t think of what to say.

Those moments when we’re speechless may be when we’re the most authentically human.  Life is beyond our ability to explain, after all.  Our consciousness has limits, and we have experiences that surpass understanding.  Speechlessness is simply a reminder of who we are.  We work hard at creating the more limited worlds where we live our daily lives, with routines and norms and expectations, but we’re immersed in the unexplainable, which manages to break through now and then.

The massacre at Newtown, Connecticut is one of those times.  There is no way to satisfactorily explain the execution of twenty first graders, all between six to seven years old, shot by an assault rifle from close range.  We’re sadly used to suicides, homicides, war casualties, drug violence, and even sons who kill their mothers.  We have found ways to incorporate them into our internal understanding of the world.  But slaughtering two classrooms of cowering toddlers in a bucolic Connecticut town is different.  The normal explanations don’t apply.

We’ll hear a great deal about mental disturbance.  The assumption is that irrationality doesn’t exist, except as a form of illness; senseless atrocities must be the product of diseased minds.  Although inaccurate—most mentally ill people never hurt someone else, and the vast majority of murderers aren’t insane—the bromide creates psychological distance between ourselves and the perpetrator.  Most of us don’t go around shooting children, and anyone who does is obviously deranged, meaning not like us.

Others will talk about a world going to hell in a hand-basket, as America sinks into a moral abyss, along with crumbling traditions, and deteriorating families, and shrinking churches.  The assumption is that extreme brutality is evidence of social decay, as if such acts never occurred in the good, old days.  However, as the Christmas story reminds us, the killing of innocents is as old as the Bible.  The behavior of Adam Lanza cannot be accounted for by a divorced mother who loved guns, or violent video games, or hip hop culture.

There are even those who will blame it on Satan.  The end times are supposed to show an increased amount of craziness like this, as evil increases it’s hold on the world.  The assumption is that the problem is outside of ourselves, as we fight an external foe, who infiltrates our ranks and causes us to do unspeakable things.  We’ll ask what “possessed” the young man to do what he did, as if his acts weren’t deeply human.

Lots of rationalizations will be offered, as we struggle to fit such absurd cruelty into our ordered universe, but none of them really work.  We’ll still be shocked by the next occurrence, because life doesn’t always make sense.  Random destruction occurs, like bolts from the blue, and people can behave in unpredictable, imbalanced, and malicious ways.  The reasonableness of our daily world is a human creation and conceit.

There are events that defy our imagination, and it’s important to acknowledge that fact, to cover our mouths, to let ourselves shudder, without explaining away the unimaginable.  There is always a terrifying silence at the core of the senseless.  Speechlessness, for a time, is appropriate.

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About Bucky Dann

I teach religion, sociology, and psychology at Southwestern Community College in the Smoky Mountains. I have worked in the United Methodist ministry and in the substance abuse field. I possess a Masters of Divinity, a Masters of Philosophy, and a PhD in the sociology of knowledge.

One Response to “A Time For Silence”

  1. words cannot explain fully this act of unspeakable violence, and one’s mind cannot comprehend how a person could do what that young man did, it is beyond comprehension…

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