Two days after the massacre of children in Uvalde, Texas, and 12 days after the racist mass killing in Buffalo, Chenxing Han, a chaplain and teacher, told a Buddhist parable.
A man is shot with a poisoned arrow, Ms. Han recounted as she drove a group of high school seniors to visit a Thai temple in Massachusetts.
The arrow piercing his flesh, the man demands answers. What kind of arrow is it? Who shot the arrow? What kind of poison is it? What feathers are on the arrow, a peacock’s or a hawk’s?
But all these questions miss the point, the Buddha tells his disciple. What is important is pulling out that poison arrow, and tending to the wound.
“We need to be moved by the pain of all of the suffering. But it is important that we are not paralyzed by it,” Ms. Han said. “It makes us value life because we understand life is very precious, life is very brief, it can be extinguished in a single instant.”
Recent days have revealed an arrow lodged deep in the heart of America. It was exposed in the slaughter of 19 elementary school children and two teachers in Uvalde, and when a gunman steeped in white supremacist ideology killed 10 people at a Buffalo supermarket. The United States is a nation that has learned to live with mass shooting after mass shooting.
And there are other arrows that have become subsumed into everyday life. More than one million people have died from Covid, a once unimaginable figure. The virus is now the third-leading cause of death, even with the availability of vaccines in one of the most medically advanced countries in the world. An increase in drug deaths, combined with Covid, has led overall life expectancy in America to decline to a degree not seen since World War II. Police killings of unarmed Black men continue long past vows for reform.
The mountain of calamities, and the paralysis over how to overcome it, points to a nation struggling over some fundamental questions: Has our tolerance as a country for such horror grown, dusting off after one event before moving on to the next? How much value do we place in a single human life?
Is there not a toll that is too high?
After Uvalde, many Americans are reaching deep to seek answers. Rabbi Mychal B. Springer, the manager of clinical pastoral education at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital, has found herself returning to an ancient Jewish writing in the Mishnah, which says that when God began creating, God created a single person.
“The teaching is, each person is so precious that the whole world is contained in that person, and we have to honor that person completely and fully,” she said. “If a single person dies, the whole world dies, and if a single person is saved, then the whole world is saved.”
We can only value life if we are willing to truly grieve, to truly face the reality of suffering, she said. She quoted a scripture of lament, the opening line of Psalm 13: “How long, O Lord?”
“It’s not that we don’t care. We’ve reached the limit of how much we can cry and hurt,” she said. “And yet we have to. We have to value each life as a whole world, and be willing to cry for what it means that that whole world has been lost.”
Instead of grieving together and taking collective action, though, each crisis now seems to send the country deeper into division and fighting over what to do in response.
Human brains grieve the death of a loved one differently from the deaths of people we don’t know, and in crisis, grief is not our only feeling, said Mary-Frances O’Connor, associate professor of clinical psychology and psychiatry at the University of Arizona, who studies the relationship between the brain and grief.
“You can’t underestimate the need for belonging,” she said. When something terrible happens, people want to connect with their “in-group,” she said, where they feel they belong, which can push people further into partisan camps.
In recent decades Americans have been living in a time of decreased belonging, as confidence in religious organizations, community groups and institutions broadly is diminishing. Valuing life and working for healing means going outside of one’s self, and one’s own group, she said.
“This will require collective action,” she said. “And part of the problem is we are very divided right now.”
The question of the preciousness of life emerges in some of the country’s most intense debates, such as over abortion. Millions of Americans believe the overturning of Roe v. Wade would elevate the value of life. Others believe it would dismiss the value of the lives of women.
American culture often prizes individual liberty above collective needs. But ultimately humans are born to care about others and to not turn away, said the Rev. Dr. Cynthia Bourgeault, an Episcopal priest and teacher of mystical theology. She reflected on the myriad crises as clouds took over the spring day in Maine.
“Human beings are born for meaning,” she said. “We have very, very large souls. We are born for generosity, we are born for compassion.”
What is standing in the way of a proper valuation of life, she said, is “our very, very disordered relationship with death.”
In the United States, denial of death has reached an extreme form, she said, where many focus on themselves to avoid the fear of death.
That fear cuts through “all tendrils of conscience, and common good, and capacity to act together,” she said, “because in the final analysis we have become animals saving our own skin, the way we seem to save our own skin is repression and dissociation.”
The United States is an outlier in the level of gun violence it tolerates. The rate and severity of mass shootings is without parallel in the world outside conflict zones.
America has “a love affair with violence,” said Phillis Isabella Sheppard. She leads the James Lawson Institute for the Research and Study of Nonviolent Movements at Vanderbilt University, named for the Rev. James M. Lawson Jr., the civil rights leader who was expelled from the university in 1960 for his role in lunch counter sit-ins.
Violence is almost a normal part of life in the United States, she said, and valuing life takes consistently asking how am I committed to nonviolence today? It also means giving some things up, she said — many people think of themselves as nonviolent, but consume violence in entertainment.
“The question that should scare us is, what will it take to make us collectively bring about this change?” she said.
“Maybe this is our life’s work,” she said. “Maybe this is our work as humans.”
When Tracy K. Smith, the former poet laureate of the United States, first heard of the shootings in Buffalo and Uvalde, her immediate reaction was anger and rage against “these monstrous people.” It is easy to sink into that feeling, she said, and we are even encouraged to, to think that these are “wild outliers.”
“But when I slow down I realize there is something alive in our culture that has harmed those people,” she said. “Whatever that something is, it is harming all of us, we are all vulnerable to it, it wields some sort of influence upon us, no matter who we are.”
At Harvard University’s graduation on Thursday, she read a poem. It was a reflection on history, the violence that we live with, and what the age requires, she said. In her version of the poem she thought of her children, she said, but it was also a wish for her students. So many had dealt with so much in recent years, being sick, caring for family members.
“I want you to survive,” she said. “I want your bodies to be inviolable. I want the earth to be inviolable.”
“It is a wish, or a prayer.”