Courage to walk unarmed


A Nation of Cowards

Jeffrey Snyder suggests that carrying a handgun is both a right and a duty of every law-abiding citizen.

This is hard for me to relate to; as, for all practical purposes, no such people exist in my world.

Gun lovers’ slogans include, “When guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns.” Forget laws; in my world, only outlaws have guns now.

I have no impulse to join them.

Snyder offers a fair assessment of the failure of gun control laws to keep guns out of the hands of lunatics or affect the market in illegal guns. He offers encouraging numbers of people who have successfully used handguns to defend themselves.

Snyder’s argument for arming oneself for self-protection turns on a wildly exaggerated fear (sic) for one’s personal safety.

Likewise, Snyder’s argument for keeping the Second Amendment turns on a wildly exaggerated fear (sic) of tyranny. If George F. Will endorses repeal of the Second Amendment, then that is only one more thing among many about which he and I disagree. And I don’t anticipate that any movement to repeal the Second Amendment will be politically viable in our lifetime. Snyder refers at least twice to a “campaign to eradicate gun ownership” that, as far as I can tell, exists only in some gun lovers’ imaginations.

Opponents of violence often point to other nations, such as Sweden and Norway, where rates of gun ownership, violent crime and incarceration are all much lower than in the U.S. I note that those nations do not appear to be at any special risk for tyranny. Snyder is silent as to these comparisons.

Snyder has much to say about God and about self-esteem, but much of it is very confused. He fails to consult any of the serious authors on either subject. As to self-esteem, he appears to rely on statements in the popular media from the ultra-liberal “self-esteem movement,” which may have been de rigueur when he wrote (1993) but never had the support of any authority in the field. Nathaniel Branden, for example, was a student of Ayn Rand.

Self-esteem can be empirically defined. Snyder notes the proposition “that if a person properly values himself, he will naturally be a happy, productive, and … responsible member of society.” Actually, that’s exactly what I propose. Any trait that fails to obtain those outcomes isn’t self-esteem.

Self-esteem can be coaxed, developed, taught. It cannot be handed to a person like a candy bar, nor can it be imposed. It must first of all be chosen.

Related: Happiness is a Choice

I will use these terms interchangeably: “self-esteem,” “self-respect” and “self-worth.” And I will add two more: “self-love” and “grace.” Nearly a quarter of M. Scott Peck’s The Road Less Traveled is devoted to the topic of grace, including an important chapter on “Resistance to Grace.”

Snyder quotes an unnamed preacher at an unnamed church in Philadelphia in 1747 to the effect that God commands one to defend one’s life against predation. I am not aware of any such commandment. The first commandment I’m aware of is that one love one’s neighbor as oneself. I fault traditional religion for its failure to attend to the limiting reactant in that equation: self-love. It is impossible to love one’s neighbor one whit more than one loves oneself. One who loves oneself little cannot love one’s neighbor much.

Let’s go back to the beginning.

God’s gift

Genesis 1:31 states that, after creating human beings, “God saw every thing that he had made, and, behold, it was very good.” If one believes that, then self-worth – grace – is not and cannot be earned; rather, it is innate. It is the birthright of every human being.

A basic decision to accept or reject this birthright is normally made in infancy, and after that, barring some conversion experience later in life, one normally gives it no more attention than breathing.

Thus Erik Erikson speaks of “basic trust,” and Martin Luther speaks of “baptismal grace” and “infant faith.”

Yet this decision sets the direction of one’s life.

Mainstream people take a high level of self-esteem for granted, and never think about it. Are you able to keep a job? Congratulations: you have much more self-esteem than do the unemployable malcontents who populate the underclass. Self-respect is the basis of respect for others, and in turn respect for law. One who has no self-respect will not respect the law. Are you law-abiding? Congratulations: you have far more self-respect than do most of my neighbors.

Any trait that impedes one’s ability to be gracious indicates that one still has room to grow. Zeal for ideology – any ideology – is an example.

Related: The Gospel vs. George F. Will

It is difficult for an adult to access the infantile awareness in which this decision must be made. This accounts for Snyder’s flippant dismissal, “‘Self-esteem’ simply means that one feels good about oneself.” Those who do access it, choose to accept grace and as a result redirect their lives, in many cases speak of being “born again.”

Grace correlates strongly to emotional intelligence. A recent article listing fourteen indicators of emotional intelligence includes this one: “After you fall, you get right back up.” The popular authors about self-esteem seem to want to create a world in which no one ever falls. On the one hand, that just doesn’t correspond to reality. On the other hand, self-esteem is in fact the engine that empowers me to get back up, or to strive for any goal. It is the engine of the courage that empowers me to have or set a goal.

It is the engine that empowers any work at all.

In particular, it is the engine that empowers an infant to grow out of infantilism. The extent to which many people reject grace is reflected in the infantilism of their adult lives: one who constantly demands “help” from others, or takes things by force, while doing nothing for oneself, has never, in effect, been weaned; one who fouls public restrooms and dumps trash in the neighbor’s yard has never, in effect, been toilet trained.

I am surrounded by such people. Many of them weigh 250 lbs. and “pack.”

Application

In the gun-ridden, crime-ridden world in which I live, people live under a tyranny right now from which gun ownership cannot set them free. It is the tyranny of the chaos that they’ve made their lives, based on profound identification of themselves as worthless. The social consequences are devastating.

(1) The teen Diana is a stalwart of the youth group at my church. She comes every week, and has for years. It is significant that she alone, of her family, attends. On March 2, 2014, I learned that the family had just become homeless – again. This is the fifth time in fifteen months. Now, every program that deals with homelessness, every agency, makes housing families with children its first priority. The adults in this household care too little for themselves, let alone the children, to maintain stable housing.

(2) Pumpkin personifies “disreputable.” Whatever that term means, she’s it. She is dirty, and a drunk, and a thief. She’ll spend the night with any man debased enough to take her.

I lived in a rooming house. We had no central air conditioning, so on a hot summer day we let the kitchen door stand wide open. Byron was frying chicken on the stove. He went to his room to get something, and when he returned, the chicken was gone. Someone had come in the back door, took the chicken off the stove, and left. I don’t know that Pumpkin did it, but it’s just the sort of thing she’d do.

One day on the bus stop waiting to go in to my job as a stock clerk at a dollar store, I saw Pumpkin walking uphill toward me. She was looking at me, smiling. I finally realized, she was proud of me. Imagine: of all people, she knew someone personally – me – who actually had a job. That she choose to feel good about herself in this instance was – her choice. She could as easily have rejected grace and felt resentful instead.

(3) Snyder says:

“‘Dignity’ used to refer to the self-mastery and fortitude with which a person conducted himself in the face of life’s vicissitudes and the boorish behavior of others. Now, judging by campus speech codes, dignity requires that we never encounter a discouraging word and that others be coerced into acting respectfully, evidently on the assumption that we are powerless to prevent our degradation if exposed to the demeaning behavior of others. These are signposts proclaiming the insubstantiality of our character, the hollowness of our souls.”

Let me take this in a direction Snyder did not intend.

His remark can be construed as questioning the value of civility and decency in public speech. Now, in my world, it’s not at all uncommon for public speech to take the form of a parent telling a toddler, “Shut the fuck up fo’ I slap the shit out your ass.” One can question the degree of self-respect in the speaker. I won’t speculate about the “insubstantiality” of a toddler’s “character” or “the hollowness of” its “soul.” The hard fact remains that the burden is upon this child to develop sufficient self-esteem to become a happy, productive and responsible member of society.

(4) SuEllen Fried’s Reaching Out from Within coaches prison inmates to develop empathic concern, a sine qua non outcome of self-esteem. Recidivism rates of those who complete the program are markedly better than the norm. The program does not hand it to them; if an inmate hasn’t chosen self-esteem already, he will not enroll.

Related: Kansas prisoners get the Granny treatment

Snyder defines “coward” differently than I do. To me, one who turns the cheek is not a coward. Rather, a coward is one who flees. As I stated at the outset, I have no impulse to join the gun-toting outlaws of my ‘hood. A modicum of self-esteem may empower courage to defend oneself. A greater share of self-esteem empowers courage to walk unarmed.

(Originally published 2014-03-24 at Yahoo! Voices, 2014-08-13 here.)

Related:  Nancy Lanza, chapter 2

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