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We Need to Start Asking the Big Questions

by on February 19, 2018 5:00 AM

This time it is 17. That’s the latest number of innocent people killed in a mass shooting. It happened last week in Florida. A troubled young man entered the public high school from which he had been expelled last year and proceeded to shoot and kill 17 people, including 14 students and three staff members. Fourteen more were wounded. Yet another set of family members and friends forever impacted by unspeakable acts of violence.

Don’t insult my intelligence saying that this tragedy, and others like it, are a result of a lack of gun control.

Don’t insult my intelligence and say that guns don’t play a factor.

The solution to how we as a society – as a community – address that which creates a scenario in which a teenager takes a gun to school or church or a movie theatre to shoot and kill random people goes way beyond the gun debate.

This debate should be moved beyond the often disrespectful and hate-filled shouting match over gun control and should be moved to a bigger question.

We need to start asking the big questions.

In 2005, student members of the Hillel organization at Northwestern University inadvertently started what has become known as Ask Big Questions. In an attempt to encourage students to attend Yom Kippur services, rather than put up a sign advertising the time and place, they put up a banner that said “What will you do better this year?” The banner not only drove people to their event, it launched an initiative to have people connect through conversation and interaction. Ask Big Questions has now expanded to 47 college campuses.

What is now known as the Ask Big Questions project is feeding connection. A new question is posed for discussion and it launches conversation. People put down their phones and looked away from their laptops and started talking to each other. Ask Big Questions is now a nationwide movement to get people talking about that which we value, care and think about in this fast-paced, digitally-connected but personally-disconnected world.

The questions aren’t topic or issue specific. Organizers found that posing a specific question (i.e. Should guns be illegal?) only forces people into their own corners to attack and defend. By asking open ended and safe questions like “Who is in your community?” people talk, share and are less likely to label and point fingers.

Ironically, the question for March is “How do we connect?”

Our disconnection to each other seems at least the same if not more of a causation in school shootings than guns.

Consider the recent research on loneliness. An increasing number of us are reporting that we feel lonely.   Being lonely is different than being alone. Many of those who report being lonely also report that they are surrounded by friends and family. According to one study, about 30 percent of us feel rejected and isolated and without someone to turn to despite what some claim is our most “connected” time in human history. 

It is estimated that up to 80 percent of adolescents report being lonely often. Throw in bullying, family issues, peer and other social pressures, drug use, changes in play and time spent in activity and the outdoors, economic issues, violence in media, murder depicted in video games and the sturm und drang of adolescence and – voilà - a perfect storm of adolescent rage. Disconnection and rage. Rage caused by disconnection.

There is no doubt that the availability of guns make it easier for that rage to turn into what we saw in Florida last week. There is also no doubt that unless we start addressing the disconnection that causes the rage, these empty souls will turn to other means.

On the day before the Florida tragedy, a grandmother in Washington called the authorities on her grandson because she found evidence of a plan to blow up his classmates with homemade bombs. In his journal, he outlined specific details of his plan and wrote “I can't wait to walk into that class and blow all those (expletive) away."

Guns or no guns, finding out how and why a young person becomes so filled with rage and disconnection from others should be where we direct our efforts. The gun debate as the sole focus only distracts us from that.

When we were in high school, my now husband took his gun to school on the bus so he could fix it in metal shop. We didn’t have school shootings then. Today, kindergarteners are suspended from school  for chewing their sandwiches into the shape of a gun at lunch and school shootings seem to make the news every day. Something else is going on. What are we missing?    

We are missing connection.


Patty Kleban is an instructor at Penn State, mother of three and a community volunteer. She is a Penn State Alumna. Readers of State College Magazine voted her Best Writer of 2010 and 2012. She and her family live in Patton Township. Her views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State.
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