The Danger of Easy Answers
First published Sept. 6, 2017 on Facebook. 1.2K Shares.
Reprinted in abbreviated form by Idaho Statesman, September 15, 2017
A few days ago, we think that a young man within a small group of his teenage friends, tossed a firework into one of the most beloved sections of wilderness in the world, threating dozens of trails and hundreds of acres of scenery in the Columbia River Gorge. And it burned. And it is still burning. As are the hearts and minds of many people.
“I hope these monsters are locked away for life!”
“Mindless morons. I hope they spend years locked way and more in community service for their stupidity.”
“They should lock the parents up with them for raising such selfish and careless kids!”
“To all those affected, I hope you see justice. I am so sorry for your loss.”
On and on and on and on… I read as much fire and destruction in the reactions to this tragedy as I see in the glowing red of the night photos posted every morning. I see ugliness and contempt and anger as acrid and choking as the ash that coats my car and fills my lungs as I walk out my door to start the day. And I see in all of this, a tremendous sign of the times. In all corners of my newsfeeds and platforms, there abides disheartening thoughtlessness. The time for our entire society to unplug, step back, breathe deeply, and embrace thinking that goes beyond the simplistic has been far exceeded. If we want to save ourselves…save all of us...if we want to save this world in which we exist; the world that sustains every breath we take, we absolutely must stop thinking in absolutes. Let that contradictory statement sit with you for a moment. Let it fill your mind. Let it challenge you. It might be the first time you have ventured to understand a paradoxical thought in quite some time. I have to admit, as a professor and scholar who has spent over a decade encouraging people to truly think beyond the banal (look it up) I am far beyond my tolerance for this epidemic of superficiality by a society addicted to easy answers. Because you know what? There are no easy answers.
There is no simple way to reduce this massive tragedy of lost forest to something as intellectually insulting as a “reckless teenager”; or to a few “bad parents”; or to extend your heart by empathizing with “all those affected”.
Who is not affected?
Who lives separated on any level from the world of the young man or persons that have been suspected of starting this fire? Who doesn’t love and depend upon the beauty and richness of the trees and the forests? Who doesn’t pay the tax money that supports the teams of persons that patrol and protect and save the forests on a daily, weekly, and yearly basis? Who doesn’t breathe the fresh air that fills our lungs that the forests created? Who doesn’t pay for undereducated and unsupervised youth? Who doesn’t live in this democratic society that can demand fidelity of its elected officials but has forgotten they hold the keys?
We are ALL affected.
And not just by the fire raging near our favorite waterfalls. We are all affected by contributing to a society that has falsely created “us” and “them”. We are all affected when we believe the answer to a young man’s impulsive lack of judgment should merit destructive hatred leveraged at both he and his family. They live here. We live here. The forest lives here. We are all connected, one to another. There is no one in this community of ours that has been unaffected or who is not invested or who is not connected. It will be our work and tax money that is applied to the clean up and protection efforts. It will be our patience and observation and mindfulness and VOTES that will allow us the wonder of watching the entire holy woodland be reborn before our very eyes over the next four generations. It will be our concerted effort to support the youth in our communities to develop the understanding of and respect and care for the very land that sustains us. It will be our foresight that helps us reflect on our values and priorities that lead to the resources to make all of these things happen.
Somewhere in this community are hundreds and hundreds of displaced families and business owners whose lives have been devastated. Somewhere in this community are firefighters and forestry workers exhausted and overwhelmed by an unprecedented season of risk and destruction. Somewhere in this community are a small handful of parents who went to work one morning with a normal life, who came home to learn their children were involved in a crime so large, their lives will never be the same. Somewhere in this community, a mother and father have been crying for days because there could soon come a time where they might not be able to hug their child for years and years, losing an entire future that “could have been”. Somewhere in this community is a fifteen-year-old boy and his childhood friends who are learning the meaning of human suffering. We do not now the nature of that suffering, only that it exists and is common to us all.
And yes…there is merit and necessity for compassion in this situation because OUR hearts need it; because our society needs it. If we do not rehabilitate our insatiable appetites for simplistic thinking and the “othering” of anyone who is not our individual selves and families, we will have learned nothing from this tragedy. And the forests will continue to burn. And the schools will continue to be sites for mass murders. And our prisons will continue to be filled with those addicted to drugs because "we" see "them" as someone else and not ourselves.
We need to think beyond the desire to see how many years some kid is going to spend in prison and start thinking about how we have come so far in the erosion of public education that children who live in the forests of the great Pacific Northwest don’t know anything about forests. We need to get beyond blaming a set of parents for not supervising their children and start thinking about how we came to a value a society where almost no parent has a choice in supervising their children because they cannot afford to live in a home or pay for their food without working multiple jobs. We need to get beyond thinking that if something happens to someone else in another part of the town or state or country that it is “they” who are affected and start thinking about why, with all the extensive resources the United States has, we can send 100,000 troops to occupy a country the size of Colorado on the other side of the globe, but we can barely muster enough bodies to put out the fires that rage for up to five months of the year from Montana to California. We need to stop thinking the only response possible to a given situation is a happy face or a sad face emoji and start thinking about the fact that compassion for a criminal and sadness and horror at a crime can all exist in the same space without diminishing any of their individual truths. We need to stop thinking people are good or people are bad and start thinking about the truth that at any given moment, ANY of us could make a mistake that causes harm to ourselves or others and that if we hope we’d be extended a measure of grace that perhaps we had better extend grace forward until it’s our turn.
Eagle Creek forest will be green again. It will take time. It will be different. It will be healed. It will be alive. It will be love and peace and joy. Will we do the same? Or are we simply going to reduce the joyfully-agonizing spectrum of life itself into one of Facebook’s six standard response icons? Stop being intellectually and spiritually lazy. Interrupt your addiction to easy answers. It’s burning our entire world to the ground. And the ash is choking us all.
Aaron (Tabacco) Williamson
Photo Credit: Chris Liedle Photo