Two emotions seemed to dominate the comments which I heard after the assassination attempt on President Reagan. The first was anger and the second, closely following, was despair. "What can we do? What can anyone do when all illness seems to have seized the whole nation?" were typical remarks.
There are steps each of us can take. They may not seem giant enough steps for the times, but they are steps with exponential effects, something like the snowball at the top of the hill which seems so small when it starts down, yet gathers momentum and volume as it goes. Each of us in his own way can take the steps that will make all the difference. We can recover our good health.
One, we can support the men and women we have placed in public office. Measured against some ideal, they no doubt leave much to be desired, but only those who have held such positions can understand the enormous difficulty of serving the public. The necessity of conducting business in public, often in meetings with hostile audiences and forever being "meat" for the press, places strains upon our leaders never experienced by the rest of us. Citizens coming to city hall are often angry before they even enter the door. Carrying this burden of unpopularity makes government employees less responsive, less efficient, not more so.
The effects are far worse than this. Making government responsible for everything wrong legitimazes violence against public officials. The idea that protest and disobedience to the law are all right if you have a "cause" remains active. This destructive belief releases a poison which corrodes our public life and works against the constructive clear thinking which will solve our problems.
The second step we can take is to teach our children stronger values. Growing up, they confront a world in the midst of transition, a world going many directions at once. As children enter adolescence and disengage themselves from home, they are swept up in the images spewing forth from the media. Worse, they are tempted by the two great destroyers of our time, drugs and alcohol.
I taught in a public high school for 10 years.I observed that young people who were wel-grounded in their religion passed through their teen years more smoothly than those who were adrift without coherent values. Parents need to do more than set good examples or to teach good behavior. Children need firm values; they need help in understanding the foundation of those values, and they need practice in applying their values to new experiences.
The third step we can take is to forswear violence wherever and whenever we find it. Despite our bad publicity, Americans are not violent people, not as individual Americans. But we are tolerating an unprecedented outpouring of violence in our culture which pervades the mental atmosphere day after day. Violence comes directly out of the hearts of men and women. The only place we can overcome it is right there. We can stop watching it, stop being fascinated by it, stop talking about it, and, above all, stop practicing it.
If each American right now would resolve to eliminate hatred and anger from his thought, would stop practicing verbal violence is disputing with other men and women, our country would be saved from further spectacles of seeing our President gunned down in our capital.
The past two decades of forever marred in our thought by memories of sudden gunfire. Following each tragedy, pressures increase for gun control or other external controls. Yet, whatever such measures we may take, the truly effective changes must take place within thought, yours and mine. We can dissipate violence by affirming what is decent, good, and true in ourselves and others -- seeing that good and being that good.