B. Shira Levine
Navigating new wilderness

To despair is to desist

In gun-obsessed America, we are always at risk. But we must keep our spirits up and our hearts strong. (phone pic 2021)

Hopelessness in the face of injustice is not something we can simply roll over and accept. To quote my favorite passage from Pirke Avot – traditional to read this time of year on long Shabbat afternoons: “You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it (2:21).”  I find this echoed in the statements of Congressman John Lewis z”l, who represented the district I’ve lived in for the past 15 years: “When you see something that is not right, not fair, not just, you have to speak up. You have to say something; you have to do something.”  

But it feels like there is nothing left to say or do.  Looking at Wikipedia’s “List of mass shootings in the US,” getting shot dead in a public place is a near-daily occurrence in our country these days.  

The grocery store should be a safe place. (phone pic by me 2021)

Most recently among this long list of tragedies were: 19 dead at an elementary school at the hands of an 18-year-old disturbed narcissist who had to wait until his 18th birthday to buy an assault rifle after his sister wouldn’t buy him one, and 10 dead in a grocery store in Buffalo at the hands of an 18-year-old white supremacist who targeted Black people, again with an assault rifle legally owned. Both gunmen were wearing body armor, making it practically impossible for any posted security to stop them (let alone an armed teacher who has no time to become a shooting expert, nor paid well enough to assume that additional labor and/or hazard). There have been multiple mass shootings in schools and grocery stores, two of the most ordinary places that almost everyone visits regularly at some point in their lives.

School should be a safe place. (phone pic by me 2022)

Other ways to get killed by gunfire: attending a graduation party, going to a restaurant, startling your husband in bed, horsing around in a car, playing around in your house, in revenge for something your relatives did, sitting in the car in front of your husband who felt the need to hold a gun while allegedly sleeping in the back, at home after drinking and arguing with your husband, or attending a country music festival

In going about our daily lives in America, nowhere is safe from the threat of gun violence. Except, perhaps, the auditorium in which Trump’s speech recently took place at the NRA convention in Houston – no guns allowed there (it’s too hard to resist pointing out this stuff even when I know that the people responsible for them do not care at all about logic or logical consistency). 

We’ve all heard this before, and lots of us have written this before (in my case here, here, and here). What’s left? And – as friends and I commiserate – why bother? Nothing seems to make a difference.  No compelling evidence offers the potential for change anytime soon. I am under no delusion that this will get better in my lifetime; I expect it to get much worse, in fact – the Supreme Court is likely about to issue yet another decision removing state restrictions. Those of us who support women’s reproductive rights may be particularly chagrined when “states aren’t allowed to ask why you need a deadly weapon” occurs on the heels of the Court’s anticipated overturning of Roe v. Wade on the grounds that “states maintain absolute rights over a woman’s own body.”

Selective textualism and originalism in constitutional theory; and as many have pointed out, selective tolerance of the extinguishing of life.  A powerful minority is so intolerant of the removal of a clump of cells from the bodies of women who do not wish to carry a pregnancy to term that they are competing with one another to ban it the most aggressively, even incorporating vigilanteism.  Meanwhile, the same powerful minority of people is apparently unperturbed by images of child corpses in classrooms (overwhelmingly at the hands of men), considering them an acceptable societal cost of the “freedom” to own whatever instrument of violence they please. In Uvalde, a teenager was unable to obtain a gun until he turned 18 (he tried, but his sister wouldn’t buy him one), so he bought one as soon as he did – the weapon he chose was so capable of mass casualties as to give him the upper hand over 19 police officers, who left him alone for 40 minutes in a classroom with young children.  Some will engage in whatever rhetoric, propaganda, or mental acrobatics to avoid the obvious, giving China low-hanging fruit to call us out on the global stage for the human rights implications of mass shootings. 

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My kids are rising first and third graders, and I decided to tell them about these shootings (after asking them whether their teachers had spoken about it – they hadn’t), mostly because I didn’t want them to hear about it from somewhere else. When I shared the news of the Buffalo shooting with my children, I tried to use it as a teaching moment about white privilege, also pointing out that the shooter wanted to kill Jews too but targeted Black people even though he hated both groups, in part because it is not always obvious that someone is Jewish by looking at them.  When I shared the news of the school shooting with my children this week, I tried to use it as a teaching moment about gun control, and told them that this was a teenager who had a gun that he shouldn’t have been able to buy, but the laws are bad. 

But when people can be shot in schools and grocery stores, how can I tell my children with a straight face that they shouldn’t be afraid?  Jewish private schools like the ones my children attend–where my husband also teaches–tend to have even more security than public schools because we are a target.  But my six-year-old son matter-of-factly rejected arguments about school safety measures and frankly, had the better end of the argument. While Jewish schools are perhaps less likely to be successfully targeted by mentally deranged opportunists like the Robb Elementary shooter, anti-Semitic manifesto writers like the Buffalo shooter could probably find their way in if they tried hard enough, to my son’s point.

Given the high percentage of mass shootings that are in some way hate crimes, my kids attending a Jewish school increases their risk by some margin, so it’s hard to feel too comforted.   My eight-year-old daughter’s first response was that she wanted to join the (Israeli) army but was too scared to hold a gun herself. Then she pivoted to “why didn’t they do drills like we do?”  In response to that, I told her that they did do drills, and maybe some kids survived because of the drills. Once I was confident she could handle it, I even mentioned that playing dead and staying very quiet is one way to survive if you can’t run away. I wanted her to know that, just in case, which itself felt really messed up.

When these avoidable tragedies occur, I am usually compelled to do some symbolic thing to align with those I believe are on the side of justice, but in a world where anyone can post on social media about anything, this doesn’t feel like enough, particularly where gun-control advocates are getting absolutely clobbered.  Many of those who are aligned in principle with increased gun restrictions are showing signs of battle-weariness. I am hearing more and more talking points like “protesting doesn’t do anything” (not true) or “restrictions wouldn’t work” (also wrong). 

Feeling deep hopelessness and despair connected directly to world events even when we personally are not victims has become a more common occurrence in general–perhaps inevitable given the internet and the 24-hour news cycle (as Al Gore called out 15 years ago)–and has become concerningly frequent for me lately.  What has gotten me particularly worked up over the past few gun violence tragedies is the spiking interest in guns that follows a mass shooting, which seems to be feeding on itself exponentially since the pandemic.

This is eminently foreseeable in a time of intense fear and uncertainty. When humans are fearful and need to feel in control, the message embedded deeply in all of us–not just through gun lobby propaganda, but in all the movies and television and video games–is that a gun is a good answer; it protects you and gives you the control that is being taken away from you. Everyone is vulnerable to this instinct. Data won’t help. Individuals are fully aware that having a gun increases the risk of gun death for the inhabitants, as studies have consistently shown (even though research on this issue has been hampered by gun proponents who successfully restricted public funding for it). While mass shootings have occurred in all types of states, the overall rate of gun death by state tends to bear at least some level of direct correlation with gun ownership and inverse correlation with gun restrictions in effect in the state.  Unsurprisingly, guns facilitate suicide, both premeditated and impulsive suicide.  And just last month, a study showed that risk of death is twice as high for adults who do not own a gun themselves but who live with gun owners, with a disproportionate impact on women residing with gun owners. 

New gun purchasers are perfectly aware of this, but have rationalized that the risk of gun death at the hands of someone else’s gun has gotten or will get high enough that it is greater than the risk of owning a gun to themselves and those who live with them.  There are documented biases distorting that logic (overconfidence bias, fundamental attribution error, availability heuristic, etc.), and the recent study did not bear it out–gun ownership was not correlated with a lower risk of fatality from stranger assaults.  But fear will win in a battle over facts every single time.  I cannot claim any meaningful willpower here; the reason I have never been tempted by gun ownership is not because I am immune, it is because I can’t even keep track of the eyeglasses I need to see, so I am way more fearful of forgetting where I left my gun than I am of getting massacred in the upcoming civil war.

For those otherwise outraged by gun violence who are newly considering gun ownership, in conversations I’ve had or have seen on social media posts, generally their reasoning is along the lines of “If we don’t get guns, all the people that have them are terrible and/or incompetent.” In the end, I cannot quibble with the notion “if everyone else knows how to use a gun, I better know how to use one too.”  At some point, “if you can’t beat em, join em” becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, and once-distorted logic because rational.  When I see this change in perspective, it feels like we are all “desisting.” This sends me straight into the pit of hopelessness and despair. 

My lesson from this latest, particularly-brutal, descent into oblivion: the “desisting” that Pirkei Avot tells me I am not free to do has nothing to do with the actions or inactions of others. Those are merely reminders that I cannot complete the work. But, I am not obligated to complete the work, only not to “desist” from it.  And it is actually my succumbing to despair that is tantamount to “desisting.”

In the words of Rebbe Nachman of Breslov (from a compilation called “The Empty Chair,” which I’ve carried around with me since high school) “Never despair!  One must encourage oneself in every way possible.” In diving deeper into Rebbe Nachman on Sefaria, the word translated as “encouragement” is hitchazkut, which more precisely translated may mean something closer to “to strengthen oneself.” This self-strengthening and its energy of hope and happiness is what Rebbe Nachman insists we must do at all costs to avoid despair – no matter what comes our way. Congressman Lewis also calls for self-strengthening, as he illustrates the long road ahead: “Ours is the struggle of a lifetime, or maybe even many lifetimes, and each one of us in every generation must do our part. And if we believe in the change we seek, then it is easy to commit to doing all we can, because the responsibility is ours alone to build a better society and a more peaceful world.”  And in an essay he asked to be published on the day of his funeral, Congressman Lewis reiterated a view of self-strengthening akin to hitchazkut: “Though I may not be here with you, I urge you to answer the highest calling of your heart and stand up for what you truly believe,” he said in an essay he asked to be published on the day of his funeral.  

What tends to get missed in our culture of “data” and “results” is that the internal reflection is itself part of the work – it is real work, work we all have room to do, and work whose importance has gotten more attention from scholars recently and reflects the wisdom of our rabbis as well. 

I need to work on my consistency in “standing up” too, but it’s the “highest calling of your heart” part that warrants deeper focus from me, tracking Rebbe Nachman’s guidance to pursue divine energy, choosing it over hopelessness and despair.  I absolutely believe in speaking up, calling out, and in appropriate cases, causing discomfort – but I also know there is a better way to “not desist” from hopeless, exhausting work than morphing oneself into a reactive verbal tornado as I often do; speaking up can be impactful when emanating from a “settled presence,” but can be destructive from an unsettled one, as Resmaa Menakem describes in “My Grandmother’s Hands.” The latter depicts the despair against which Rebbe Nachman cautions. 

I’ve always fallen short in tempering my zeal when I believe my cause is just, but since the pandemic it’s become a more predictable source of interference with my relationships; I’ve had some kind of outburst or even falling out with close friends or family members over my urgently-expressed viewpoints about everything from lockdowns to face masks to racial justice to Roe v. Wade to gun violence to Depp v. Heard. The hitchazkut part of it eludes me; I despair, then what I produce is less “speaking up” and more “lashing out in a dysregulated tangle of opinions and negative emotions.” I then despair further for having miscalculated that anyone is capable of knowing me and my flaws well enough not to take my views personally. I recognize that the privilege to speak my mind with minimal consequence is an unearned one that many don’t have, tied to various aspects of my identity but primarily that I’m white. I want to do better. I’m working on it. As Rebbe Nachman said, “if you believe you can harm, you believe you can heal.” 

And indeed, working on ourselves is one of the most powerful ways to “not desist” from work we know – and are outraged – that we cannot complete.  Dr. Shawn Ginwright’s recent release “The Four Pivots” describes how we must pivot our thinking about what is necessary to achieve justice–and “working harder for justice” isn’t enough. The introduction explains that we must pivot toward healing: “Healing is the capacity to restore our humanity and care for ourselves and others even in the midst of our fear. Healing is the only pathway to real justice[.]”  Dr. Ginwright continues: “The regularity of mass shootings, innocent citizens gunned down by police, urban youth violence, and rural opiod use among use all have one thing in common: they are symptoms of a society that is broken. Americans are more depressed, commit suicide more frequently, and have little hope in the future, and our leaders have no idea what to do about it. America’s capitalist culture based in individualism, fear, and scarcity is toxic and has taken a toll on how we work, live, and relate to one another.”  The first of the four pivots is from [outward-looking] lens to mirror.  “Reflection,” Dr. Ginwright says, “allows us to take stock of what’s going on inside and shatters the myth that the only real movement work happens outside of us. It also forces us to reconcile the close relationship between our inner journey and how we show up in the world on the outside.”

Those of us feeling hopelessness about gun violence can and should still consider outward facing actions, statements, and perhaps, e.g., donations to courageous politicians (like Beto O’Rourke).  As a friend who, like me, has kids aged 6 and 8 said, we can show our elementary-school-aged kids we did everything we could.  But when that inevitably makes no change, we can remember that even the act of focusing inward to strengthen our own minds, embracing hitchazkut and refusing to abandon hope, is hard work in service of our commitment to tikkun olam. In some ways it may even be the most impactful work we can do for justice. 

Then as we confront tragedy after tragedy with no reprieve in sight, perhaps we can channel Reb Nachman’s wisdom to forge on: the only way we truly desist from the work is when we allow ourselves to drift into despair. 

About the Author
B. Shira Levine writes about Jewish spirituality and observance, parenting, intersectionality, and the U.S. and Atlanta Jewish communities. Views are her own and not those of her employer, synagogues, or any other organization.