Michael Jackson, Humor Guru Emeritus

On September 16, 2013, our nation watched in horror as news of  yet another mass shooting unfolded.

This time it occurred in a secure military facility in Washington, DC, at the Navy Yard. Now living in the DC area, I was glued to the radio for the minute-by-minute updates provided by local and national news. As the news came in I was seeing images of parts of Southeast DC, where I spend time on the weekends watching the Washington Nationals baseball team, whose stadium is mere walking distance from the Navy Yard. The nation’s collective mind, heart and prayers were with those in the throes of grief that morning.

It was an all-too-familiar sentiment during that day, as many of us remembered the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary (only nine months prior). At the end of the day in DC, 13 people were dead, and across the nation the debate about gun control had already begun. It were as though once the concerns about other possible shooters were wrapped up that night in DC, the national media had also wrapped up its allotted grieving time. In fact, on Friday of that week, the local Washington Post commuter paper The Express published an article explaining why the nation as a whole had already moved past the shooting.

In response to these events, I could not help but think that we as a society have a greater responsibility than merely feeling bad and revisiting the conversation about gun legislation. At a memorial service for the victims, President Obama himself stated that we cannot accept “that this is somehow the new normal.” With this concept, I think we all agree, but I also do not think that merely increasing restrictions on purchasing guns solves our problem.  Rather, I think we have on our hands a full-fledged societal problem, and rooting out the problem is far more important than treating its symptoms.

The facts of this shooting reveal that the suspect obtained the weapons involved legally, possessed his credential to the Navy yard validly and lacked support for his problems completely. Questions surrounding the investigation included why his credential was not revoked and why the system did not catch his mental illness.

The first question I asked was, what happened in his childhood and in his family life that less than adequately supported his development? Where were his mother and father during his battle with mental illness, or what happened such that they did not want to be involved? From these questions I am not insinuating that all family situations are equal or that there are not issues beyond the control or expertise of parents. I merely suggest that all too often these questions are never asked and these real problems never addressed.

Quite simply, the primary problem that ought to be addressed is the degradation of the family unit. This is not to say that there do not exist remnants of family life, but for the most part the core has been removed and replaced with technological distractions that, in some cases, have become caregiver and educator of the youngest family members.  And yet, the parental education of children to include moral and spiritual with academic is of such importance that “it is almost impossible to provide an adequate substitute” (Catechism of the Catholic Church 2221).

Likely, few would disagree with the influence that one’s family has on an individual’s holistic development. Others posit that an individual’s development should be attributed more to external environment than to family.

Those who think that one’s external environment is the driving force in holistic development make both a valid and sound argument.  The schools we attend, the friends we make and the activities in which we engage critically affect our formation.

However, when the family unit functions as a family unit, the decisions regarding that very external environment actually become family decisions. By this I do not mean that parents necessarily make all of the decisions; rather, they engage their children in the decisions as a means of formation.

On a recent drive, I listened to renowned Catholic speaker Matthew Kelly detail examples of the engaging conversations that occur within the family setting. Relating one anecdote, he spoke about a young teenage girl who is interested in going to a party with a young man her age. Her father informs her that he and her mother are not comfortable with this potential situation. However, rather than “shutting down” his daughter, the father suggests alternatives that quickly help his young daughter understand the love that he has for her. He explains how, if she is truly interested in this young man, she might invite him over for dinner to meet the rest of the family in lieu of attending the party.

Perhaps (as most teenage girls would likely respond) she would scoff at the notion, but at a minimum she has experienced an encounter in which her father has placed her self-worth at the forefront of the discussion.

Such formative interactions with children begin even in their earliest years. Just consider the case of a young boy who approaches his father, who is reading in his armchair. The boy approaches with his blocks or some other toys and focuses all of his interest in those. Yet, he still wants to be in his father’s presence.

At first glance there does not seem to be much to this encounter between father and son. In fact, there are no words exchanged and perhaps no direct recognition of one another. Yet, in this scenario we can see the impressionability of a young child, who seeks his father because it is in his nature and in his biology to do so. He imitates him, and it is therefore no surprise that men develop many of the same character traits as their fathers, for better or worse. If these filial relationships are lacking, children no doubt are at risk for developing social, mental and cognitive complications. Rarely do these complications amount to the conditions out of which one commits such heinous acts, but they do result in insidious behavior that may foreshadow and indicate other societal issues.

At the heart of strong, active family life is the child’s development of a sense of self-worth; this point cannot be stressed enough. Within the context of a loving family, children learn that their value as son or daughter is not attributable to their works or deeds. They learn that they have intrinsic value from their existence as a one of God’s beautiful creatures.

The ways through which children attain this necessary knowledge are far from elaborate. Sometimes they come in the seemingly trivial exchanges.

When mom and dad tell them, “I love you unconditionally,” children learn of their self-worth.

When mom and dad stop to explain the small and large aspects of life to them, children  learn of their self-worth.

Without question though, it is from the visible respect that a mother and father show to each other in the presence of their children that the children learn of their self-worth. This facet of the integral human development of children teaches the children to value themselves such that they come to expect the most from themselves and from those with whom they interact and form genuine friendship and relationship. And in these experiences they learn not to settle for less than that which enhances their self-worth.

At this point, my description of some essential elements of family life has been ostensibly idealized. There has been no mention of single-parent families, foster children or the impoverished. We have a number of programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) that serve to take care of basic material necessities, but few programs are aimed toward helping those most in need to experience genuine family life. As a result, society faces the greater problem of having children progress to adulthood only to become parents ill-equipped to provide any sort of context of family life in which to educate their children, care for them or help address cognitive development issues. These untreated and unaddressed issues from childhood, as I have already addressed, could be the subtle beginnings of someone who turns to violent, erratic behavior, like that of the Navy Yard shooter.

Frankly, there is no adequate substitute for mothers and fathers, for brothers and sister and for the interaction and communication within one’s family that brings one from childhood to adulthood. At present, we as a nation are sick, and we are blind to our own illness. We continue to medicate symptoms by altering gun laws here and there and by increasing security, but we fail to treat the problem—we fail to address the degradation of the family unit. No amount of legislation can strengthen the crumbling edifice of family life, marred by the unbridled desire for the instant, the newest and most especially, the “me” attitude of life.

Once we in our own families, communities and nation begin to fight this problem instead of its symptoms we might be surprised at what else improves.

Michael Jackson works as a Data Assurance Associate for PricewaterhouseCoopers, the leading professional services firm. Incidentally, his day job relates in no way to either degree he received while at Notre Dame. He has mastered both the Metrobus system and beltway traffic—two necessities as a DC suburbanite.