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From Pills to Punches: Violence Lives on a Spectrum, and We All Participate.

This piece is the second in a series of reflections on mass violence from members of Sixth & I synagogue in Washington, DC.

I recently learned that a childhood friend of mine, I’ll call him Jeffrey, was barred from his synagogue for attacking another congregant. It was shocking news, but, sadly, it wasn’t surprising. The last time we’d spent quality time together was on a trip to Israel in our early twenties. At the time, Jeff was funny, sharp, outgoing. We joked about how he used to hide the Ritalin under his tongue in the morning and spit it out after carpool. We laughed about the time in high school when he came over for family dinner stoned and downed an entire bottle of hot sauce. Those episodes seemed like nothing more than amusing stories. He was working towards a psychology degree, weighing his options for graduate school, and appeared lightyears ahead of me in maturity and self-awareness.

In the years following that trip, I heard occasional updates about Jeff that snowballed from bad to worse. He didn’t finish college. He couldn’t hold a job. His father didn’t trust him to work in the family business. Eventually, he moved into his parents’ basement and spiralled into depression. The friend who had wowed me with his self-confidence was failing to function as an independent adult. Then came the doctors. And the diagnoses. And the medications. I ran into him years later at a holiday party. It was like speaking to a cloud — his body was there, but not much more.

Eventually, he found a path in religion and a home at a local synagogue. The rabbis welcomed him, gave him tasks to do around the building, and provided him with a safe space. That is, until he punched someone at a congregation event.

Until recently, I’d never thought of mass violence as playing a significant role in my life, in part, because I always viewed mass violence almost exclusively in the context of horrific physical acts that, thankfully, I haven’t experienced. I don’t think I’m alone with this perspective. Mass violence was done by gangsters, criminals, and terrorists. The wave of attacks currently sweeping the world has only validated that understanding, and expanded it to include new levels of savagery. Today, when I think about how mass violence, and even just the word violence, is discussed in daily life, it’s almost always through the lens of these glaring acts of human malice. Violent extremism. A violent offender. The summer of violence.

June 11, 2016 was a hard day for me, full of a different kind of violence. I feel small-minded putting that in writing, given what other people experienced that day, but it’s the truth. It began with a painful breakup, and ended with the news of 49 dead and 53 injured at Pulse Nightclub in Orlando. A part of me felt a personal, though remote, connection to Pulse — I used to live in Central Florida, I used to spend a lot of time in nightclubs — and another part of me unconsciously mingled the pain of my own emotional loss with the tragedy of the shooting.

The two events soon fused in my mind and I found myself questioning what I knew about violence in the first place. I was a distant witness to Orlando, utterly helpless to do anything but agonize, while at the same time a protagonist in my own personal conflict. How to reconcile such different experiences that felt so intrinsically connected?

It seems to me that when we view violence solely in terms of stabbings, shootings, and bombings, we distance ourselves from it, ultimately doing ourselves a disservice. Because what is violence but a disruption to peace? And how often do we disrupt our own peace, and the peace of those around us, perpetuating a culture of violence that is more pervasive, and pernicious, than most us care to admit?

When I think about Jeff, I know that attacking someone in synagogue was only the most visible episode in a lifetime of violence. An unhealthy relationship with drugs and medication. The pressure of mismatched career expectations. Discord in the family. I witnessed all of these things disrupt his peace since we were toddlers. The net result? He may be facing charges. And what if it was worse? What if he was also bullied at school? Harassed by the police? What if he didn’t have any friends, or parents, or rabbis? Maybe he would have done worse than a few punches. Maybe he would have weaponized his pain with an assault rifle. I shudder to think about it, mostly because it seems so plausible.

So what’s the point? Violence is not black and white. We aren’t either victims up close, or witnesses from afar. Violence lives on a spectrum, and we all participate. Hopefully by accepting that, we can better equip ourselves to respond to violence and restore peace within ourselves, our communities, and our society. Hopefully next time, I’ll be a better friend to Jeff.

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