Mass Shootings and the Ethic of the Open Heart

James Knoll IV, MD


December 20, 2012

In This Article

The Ethic of the Open Heart

How might we as a society enhance the value of one's effort to bare his own burden (with the assistance of qualified others), understand it, and transform it from "vinegar into honey"?[59] We think far too shallowly about these events. We concern ourselves with metal detectors, security systems, "profiles," preventing "the mentally ill" from obtaining firearms. This is shallow, facile thinking. It is time that we thought deeper, in order to cultivate a respect for how to teach compassion, nonviolence, and personal responsibility in individual minds. Then we'll be going beneath the surface of this problem which has repeated itself by now a sufficient number of times to teach us.

It is my contention that these recent tragedies invite us to take a more substantive, meaningful look at how we view psychological suffering and violence as a species. In essence, it is a call to face ourselves with an open and fearless heart. Can we begin to acknowledge the role of the mind and the vital need to train the mind such that we leave behind the savage ways of doing unto the other that which we cannot stand within ourselves? The fearless and open heart searches for happiness, yet is willing to let go of pain, frustration, and that which it cannot get or avoid. An open and fearless heart seeks to take responsibility for its own anger. It does so by learning how not to externalize blame, being willing to examine itself, and cultivating responsibility. In the final analysis, regardless of "what social or biological factors are involved, ultimately we must take responsibility for our anger."[58]

I would like to conclude with a plea that, in the wake of an unfathomable tragic event, we make thoughtful, wise decisions that do not lose sight of the big picture. This is perilously easy to do, and forensic types like me are all too familiar with the adage that egregious cases often stimulate rash, ill-conceived laws. My plea is for us to keep sight of our duty to life, which brings me back to the ethic of the fearless, open heart. An open heart means freedom and the mature ownership and control of our own thoughts, feelings, and actions. The steps to freedom lie within each individual, not in others or outer circumstances. It may be that this is not a lesson that is widely taught in schools these days. Everyone wants freedom, yet it is tolerable "only when there is a common restraint on it. The restraint is called ‘responsibility' and is defined as a virtue."[2]

Here is our opportunity to walk the path of the fearless heart. It is the case that we may use these indescribably horrendous events to "either wake ourselves up or to put ourselves to sleep."[59] Yes, they represent the unacceptable to the absolute degree, but we must not turn away -- only towards, never away.[60] In closing, I should mention that David Kaczynski, whose poem I opened with, is an example of walking the path of the open and fearless heart. He did not turn away from the unfathomable fallout connected with his brother Theodore. Rather, he turned inward and found the courage to open his heart and help others. In doing so, he fully accepted responsibility. Responsibility has different meanings. Here, it is used to mean "the ability to respond with a variety of constructive choices" rather than react out of anger.[2] Responsibility is an acquired skill that is cultivated by training the mind. And I say again: The open, fearless heart searches for joy. It weeps with compassion for itself and others.

When the individual is in conflict within himself he must inevitably create conflict without, and only he can bring about peace within himself and so in the world, for he is the world.[61]

     -J. Krishmamurti