by Gila Hayes

When backlash from mass killings results in useless, restrictive laws, it is easy to think the causes are too big for any individual to affect, so we do nothing and continue to suffer decay of the freedom America has enjoyed for so long. The problem is not too big, nor will it ever be solved without individual change. So long as we human beings possess free will, the ability to choose our own thoughts and actions, to choose between good and bad, we each continue to affect our world.

I’ve been mulling the gulf between individual activism and big-picture change ever since the Pittsburgh synagogue murders when the news media bombarded us with the name and picture of the killer along with reports about how many guns he owned, his political leanings, and comments from his neighbors, who had seen him around his home, but didn’t interact with him. The news portrayed an isolated, angry man who communicated through hate-filled opinions posted on an extreme social media site.

The comparisons between this bitter, disassociated man and conservative, gun owning Americans inevitably began almost immediately, as is common after all mass shootings. That man’s insanity was unfathomable, so a fearful public focused not on his mental state but on the surface attributes like the guns he owned and his opposition to immigration. In the process, eclipsed were millions of day-to-day positive interactions between gun owners and clerks at grocery stores, the janitor at work, the mail carrier, the utility meter reader and co-workers who, in a best-case scenario, should consider their armed citizen associates the person they trust and look to when things get rough.

So, we have to ask ourselves: are we that rock-solid safe harbor to those around us? Sometimes, yes; but sometimes, no. So today, I’d like to challenge each Network family member to become that trusted rock in your community. That starts with treating others with respect and consideration–even when the snippy little voice inside us says they don’t deserve it.

Here’s the thing: we can’t fully control big problems like mass killer attacks. We can and must address the knee-jerk response that paints all gun owners as potential mass killers. That’s a big task that starts with small changes. We have to ask, what can I, as just one individual, control? Only my own thoughts and behavior: what I do, what I think, what I say. At the core, what each person, as an individual, can influence is whether or not he or she will be a decent human.

Sounds easy, but it’s hard to do when we’re regularly bombarded by angry and self-serving voices. The instinctive response is to react in the same, offensive ways. As humans, we’re still genetically encoded with survival instincts that kick in when non-deadly insults and challenges to our perceived control make us do and say stupid, defensive things that are entirely unwarranted. We have to be smarter than our inner caveman.

While a pledge every morning to “be nice” might be a good starting place, just trying to behave more nicely quickly leads to smarmy, self-virtuous “look at me being good” displays. Instead of talking about being kind, we need a core-level change that makes us better human beings and better neighbors and that starts internally, with how we think.

For me, that ideal is encapsulated in the apostle Paul’s words in Philippians 4:8: “Whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just...if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.” I know, though, that not everyone will be able to adopt and internalize that advice, so I’ve been looking for other words to express that ideal. It turns out that a lot of different philosophical outlooks have expressed the ideal of being a decent human being through a lot of different words. Consider these–

  1. Buddhism’s Eightfold Path, focuses on right doing, right thinking and acting upon what is right.

  2. Benjamin Franklin, who was a deist, but endorsed no religion, strove to live by his 12 Principles, including:
    1. Silence (“Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself”);
    2. Sincerity (“Use no hurtful deceit; think innocently and justly, and, if you speak, speak accordingly”)
    3. Justice (“Wrong none by doing injuries or omitting the benefits that are your duty”).

  3. And finally, here’s even a very big paraphrase of Dave Eggers words from a 2000 Harvard Advocate interview: invest more energy into doing good than criticizing the absence of it in others.

If I started this line of thought by acknowledging that the admonitions of the apostle Paul won’t speak to everyone, I’ll close it by observing that to put it mildly, the writer Dave Eggers isn’t for everyone, either, but the principle is the same as the foundational tenets of Buddhism, Christianity, and the life rules Ben Franklin embraced.

There are a hundred ways to express it: Be a decent human being. We each must exemplify the solid, trustworthy citizen that your neighbors trust and look up to.

This is the season of trite holiday greetings and we’re already being bombarded with Merry Christmases, Happy Holidays, Season’s Greetings, and many more throw-away phrases. I’d like to see us as the armed citizens community take it a lot further–be decent human beings, bite back that impatient gesture, the irritated comment, and illustrate to those around us that we’re the solution, not the problem.

To read more of this month's journal, please click here.