— Calvin Luther Martin, PhD
I write this while news sources frantically piece together the circumstances of a school shooting in Florida. At least 17 people, students and teachers, killed. At least 14 wounded. The death toll will likely rise as the critically injured succumb to wounds.
Kids shot and killed by another kid in school. It’s no longer surprising. It seems to happen weekly. Something’s wrong.
I don’t have answers. I’m not going to preach “gun control” or probe the role of social media, video games, and the Internet. Not here, not now. I can’t do a damn thing about guns, social media, video games, or the Internet, and neither can you. Not do I care to.
What I can do is this. I’m an adult. I am not about to abdicate my role as an adult. These are very troubled kids doing these shootings. What we know is that they always vent their deranged thinking on social media and generally among acquaintances. Well before they show up on campus and begin blazing away, they typically post images and messages of themselves as a kind of avenging superhero about to annihilate the vermin around them. (The vermin they refer to are their classmates, by the way.)
This is where I am offering my services. My services as a former university professor who has written numerous books on the philosophy of history, this being merely another way of saying the “philosophy of human behavior and thinking.” (One of my books was titled “The Way of the Human Being.” Another, “The Great Forgetting.”) I think I can get through to some of these kids. At least I’m willing to try.
What I propose is this. If you or your kids know of another kid who fits the above profile, somehow get the message to me and I will do my damndest to meet with this person and begin a one-on-one crash course on humanness—his own and that of the vermin he wishes to rip apart with bullets.
You see, I have taught (pro bono) at two state prisons. Some of the men were murderers who had lots of hate. I think I got through to some of them. I treated them with respect and listened to them. Then there’s this: Not long ago (I’m going to be deliberately vague) I was contacted by a friend, an adult, who told me about a young man of her acquaintance whom she considered extraordinarily intelligent and, at the same time, alarmingly angry. In his intelligence (I’m not being facetious, for he was indeed highly intelligent and well read), he was seething with anger about society in general. My friend worried that he might turn into a public “shooter” at some point. She asked me to meet with him.
I did. We had several meetings. Clearly he was bright. A high school dropout—more truthfully, booted out— he had spent several years in prison already, where he devoured books on physics, cosmology, human evolution, and so forth. I mean quality books. So we sat together on my patio and discussed quantum reality, cosmology (the physics of the universe), the key milestones of human evolution, the limitations of philosophy, and what anthropology teaches us about ourselves. With a smattering of literature and poetry thrown in. He was elated! He had never before met someone who could hold his own with him in these fields.
He hugged me after one of our meetings. I gave him some good stuff to read. I complimented him on his intellect and his thirst for knowledge and understanding. (He had a troubled, tempestuous childhood. This seems to be a common denominator among these angry young men.)
I like to imagine that I saved him from doing something horrific. Or at a minimum that I was able to share his thoughtworld for awhile and steer his fertile mind into worthwhile dimensions of “being” and away from a slow burning rage. For this is what knowledge does for me: It humanizes me. It gives me compassion.
I, too, was an angry youth. I was nearly tossed out of college for being anti-social and angry. No, I never contemplated hurting people. Yes, I despised many people around me. This was before I encountered Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass.” Reading Whitman was like reading the word of God.
I grew up on the King James Bible. My father was a sanctimonious evangelical Christian. A minister, in fact, who water-boarded his five children with the Bible. Daily. He was, as well, brutal and in some respects depraved—a matter I don’t wish to go into. Of course no one outside the family knew this. It was a family secret. To the rest of the community, he was the Rev. Dr. Martin. (All of his three doctorates were phony.)
The best thing in my life was to put 3000 miles myself and this monster, when I went to college in Southern California. It was here that the volcanic rage spilled over. I was a smart, sensitive kid—and dark. (So were my siblings.) This became evident to school administrators in my first semester.
I needed help. I got it. Hallelujah! (I’m not a Christian. I am whatever Walt Whitman and Thoreau were.)
I owe my healing to many sources. These include the writings of the Nature philosophers Loren Eiseley and Thoreau, and the poetry of Mary Oliver, Rilke, Wallace Stevens, and the 14th-century Persian mystic, Hafiz. (I call it poetry. More accurately it’s philosophy.) It also includes several books generally considered children’s books. This is a misnomer; they are more than so-called juvenile literature. They are brilliant and profound, and I continue to read them over and over to this day.
I have three books by my bedside, and only three. I read from one of them every night when I go to bed. Over and over. The message of each is deep and wise, and worth contemplating endlessly. They are “The Wind in the Willows” (Kenneth Grahame), “The Chronicles of Narnia” (C.S. Lewis), and “The Secret Garden” (Frances Hodgson Burnett). Each is a story of healing, of a kind of redemption.
My wife, Jean, healed me. She continues to, despite my blowing up the marriage. (This is why I was drawn to this sweet, gentle girl in college. There was no darkness in her.) Nina Pierpont continues where Jean left off. I take it a day at a time.
I’m a flawed man. I suppose this is why I like flawed people.
I like flaws and am most comfortable around those who have them. I, myself, am made up entirely of flaws, stitched together with good intentions — Author unknown.
My view, now, is that knowledge should make us human. I don’t care about knowledge that makes money or knowledge that generates fame. Just knowledge that makes us more human—more compassionate, more empathic. “I see myself in prison shaped like another man,” wrote Whitman. The words electrified me. Elsewhere he would declare: “I am the man. I suffered. I was there.”
Or this by Rainer Maria Rilke:
Whoever weeps now anywhere out in the world,
weeps without cause in the world,
weeps for me.
Whoever laughs now anywhere out in the world,
laughs without cause in the world,
laughs at me.
Whoever walks now anywhere out in the world,
walks without cause in the world,
walks toward me.
Whoever dies now anywhere out in the world,
dies without cause in the world:
looks at me.
— Rilke, “Solemn Hour” (trans. Edward Snow)
All the ingredients
To turn your life into a nightmare—
Don’t mix them!
You have all the genius
To build a swing in your backyard
Like a hell of a lot more fun.
Let’s start laughing, drawing blueprints,
Gathering our talented friends.
I will help you
With my divine lyre and drum.
Will sing a thousand words
You can take into your hands,
Like golden saws,
Strong silk rope.
You carry all the ingredients
To turn your existence into joy,
Mix them, mix
— Hafiz (rendered by Ladinsky), 14th-century Persian (Sufi) poet.
You see where I’m coming from. If you know someone you’re worried about, someone who seems to harbor such anger, let me know. I may be able to help. At least I would try. You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org or 518-481-3880 (leave a message).