“Will you drape yourself over me, or should I drape myself over you?”, a teenage girl asked her friend as they walked the halls between classes at their high school in New Jersey. She reported her statement to a group of teens who gathered with me shortly after the Parkland, Florida shooting on Valentine’s Day, 2018. The two friends were outwardly kidding with each other, but at a deeper level they were serious. Because they were scared. A shooter could come into their school, and they were wrestling with the calculus of which one of them would be willing to sacrifice herself for her friend. At one level, theirs was an inconceivable dilemma; but at another level their heightened sense of vulnerability drove them to that awful place.
We are all scared — of Covid, climate change, polarization, what Putin might do next in Ukraine. And our fear, which is both collective and individual, has ratcheted up considerably in the wake of killings in Buffalo and Uvalde. As a culture, we live with chronic undifferentiated fear, which spikes when we are confronted with yet another horror.
The visceral response to fear is to get rid of it, or at least to control it. Which inevitably, at least in the United States, prompts people to buy more guns. To root out the danger. To wipe out the fear.
Guns are used for hunting and for sport, but the surge in gun ownership is primarily about protection. Guns are a key instrument in one’s “self defense plan” as a gun instructor I know described it. The intent of having a gun at home is to threaten, ward off or stop the the intruder. Which, the thinking goes, is safer than trying to decide who drapes their body over someone else.
From where I sit, guns that are intended for self-defense are fear transfer machines. The fear of an intruder or an attacker is met with the fear of the person defending family or property with a gun; and the firing of a firearm literally shoots the fear into someone else. And wounds or kills. At the very least, it removes the threat. Problem solved; the fear is vanquished.
For the moment.
But the fear will emerge again. It always does. And when fear is met with fear, a toxic cycle is created that is difficult to challenge, much less change. Fear doesn’t destroy fear. Instead, the fear metastasizes. Whenever gun policies are suggested, which seek to curb who might have access to guns, or restrict, if not prohibit, the manufacture of certain guns (ghost guns and certain assault weapons), another level of fear kicks in among many gun owners: that there is a movement afoot to take away guns from law abiding citizens, thus taking aim at the second amendment. Which, for many, is how writ.
We live in a culture that is enveloped in fear. We would all do well to acknowledge that reality. In my experience — and from my faith, the only thing that can take on fear with any effectiveness, is hospitality, which is an expression of love. Not sentimental or romantic love, but love which is an act of the will. A love which seeks to have blessing bestowed on everyone, including — no, especially, on those people we otherwise don’t want to have blessed or receive hospitality. The people who have hurt us or who threaten us or who drive us crazy. The people we wish would just go away.
Love doesn’t destroy fear, or get rid of it. But love can help us move through fear. Even transcend it. To a degree that we can drape others with this ineffable blessing and hope. It is empowering — for those who give and those who receive it.
Love is a life-giving weapon that is easy to learn but often har to use. Especially in times cloaked in fear.