With numbing regularity we are confronted with news stories of shooting rampages involving a jilted lover, a disgruntled employee, a student who had been picked on by classmates. This particular story was no different, except that for me it happened close to home. An accountant working at the state lottery headquarters near where I live in Connecticut arrived for work on a Friday. It was casual-dress day, and he showed up wearing jeans and a leather jacket that was zipped up to hide the knife and the 9-millimeter handgun he was carrying. He used the knife to stab a supervisor to death, then gunned down three lottery executives whom he had apparently blamed for denying him a promotion. As police closed in, he turned the gun on himself. Apart from the local angle, this was a story that has become disturbingly routine: five people dead, a flurry of headlines, a community shaken.
The gunman was variously described by co-workers as “disgruntled,” “strange” and “withdrawn.” He had recently shaved his skull and had grown a goatee, giving him an angry look. Just before the massacre he had been out on sick leave with job-related stress. A grievance had been filed over his job responsibilities, which he claimed merited higher pay. An office romance had gone sour, and his former girlfriend was now dating the man who had replaced him while he was on leave. Yet it would dishonor the dead to settle for some tidy explanation of the inexplicable. The many who are content to live lives of quiet desperation, as Thoreau would put it, are in no position to understand the few who act on murderous impulse. Most of us swallow our disappointments and move on.
I am reminded of another story that I will paraphrase here. A samurai warrior visited a monk and asked him if there was really a heaven and a hell. “Who are you?” the holy man asked. “I am a samurai,” the warrior replied. The holy man looked him up and down. “Why should I bother with a thug like you?” he demanded. Whereupon the samurai flew into a rage and drew his sword to cut off the monk’s head. “Here open the gates of hell,” said the monk calmly. At these words, the samurai sheathed his sword and bowed. The monk said, “Here open the gates of heaven.”
Were I as disciplined as the monk, I might give some thought to this story before flying off the handle, as I still sometimes do. “All that are in Hell, choose it,” C.S. Lewis wrote in The Great Divorce. The trouble is, I usually find myself in hell before I reflect on how I got there. This may be a principal difference between hell and heaven. We don’t find ourselves in heaven by murderous impulse or any other kind of impulse – unless, of course, you can call love some kind of impulse. There is no easy road to heaven, because we must learn painfully to embrace every circumstance we find ourselves in, even the hellish ones. This may explain why most people defer choosing until the next life, assuming there is one. Faced with a bad choice and a hard one, we dither. So where does that leave us? According to Roman Catholics, the only other option is purgatory, a theological term to describe those lives of quiet desperation.
Zen Flesh, Zen Bones, compiled by Paul Reps