I am crazy about my new girlfriend, Rose. She’s smart and successful. She’s funny and articulate. She’s creative and sexy. She’s bold and butch and seems not to be afraid of anything. And she’s spiritual, a Buddhist. She meditates. I feel like I’ve hit the jackpot.
So when Rose first talked about her guns, I thought she was joking. I suppose I couldn’t quite reconcile my experience of her, naked and open, with the image of her toting a .357 Magnum. When she made an offhand reference to her guns in a telephone conversation, I didn’t skip a beat. “Doesn’t every Buddhist have a gun?” I quipped.
Seeking to find an elixir that would bring eternal life, Chinese alchemists discovered the explosive combination of sulphur, saltpeter and charcoal during the 9th century. The result—gunpowder—was initially used to frighten evil spirits, but soon the Chinese recognized its potential as a weapon.
They were the first to fill bamboo tubes with the powder, tie the tubes onto arrows, and light the powder. The resulting explosion would propel the arrow toward its destination with greater force than that of a hand-drawn bow. Fragments of stone or metal—a precursor of shrapnel—were also sometimes placed in the tube; these too were expelled when the powder was lit. Over time, more potent gunpowder was developed, the tube or barrel came to be made of metal, and the shrapnel came to be replaced by projectiles—all the basic elements of gun technology were in place by the 11th century.
My previous experiences with guns were these:
Just after the 1967 Detroit riots, my stepfather purchased a handgun to defend against the onslaught he was sure was coming. That blitz never occurred, but my parents did use it as a prop in their nightly skirmishes and, one time, one of them fired at the other. I was in my room, reading Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice. I can still hear the shot echoing through the house. The bullet hole in the kitchen cabinet remained for years.
In 1975, my first girlfriend, Pat, owned a motorcycle and a .22. These were the days when lesbians believed we were preparing for an armed revolution against the patriarchy. She tried to teach me how to shoot and I went along with it to please her, aiming toward a tin can, trying not to jerk my arm when I pulled the trigger. I never imagined myself shooting anyone.
My friend Jere acquired a .38 after she was mugged on a wintry day in Grand Rapids, Michigan and was left bleeding in the snow. When she moved to L.A. the gun came with her. She felt safer with it, as though it was a talisman against further assault. During the civil disturbances in 1992, she called to tell me she was sitting on her balcony watching smoke rise in the distance, drinking Margaritas and cleaning her gun.
When I learned that Rose did in fact keep weaponry in her house, I never asked why she did so. In fact, I didn’t think very seriously about it. I chalked it up to butch bravado.
When an individual perceives a threat, the body is wired to respond. The amygdalae, two small almond-shaped groups of neurons located deep in the brain, send signals to the hypothalamus, which releases hormones that activate the sympathetic nervous system. This release of chemicals into the system prepares the body for fight or flight, that is, for violence or withdrawal. This is the fear response, and we are neurologically designed to do one or the other.
My mother is a Presbyterian. Although she was not always churchgoing when I was a child, in my adulthood she has come to regularly attend Sunday services and to speak more openly about God. For a time she even served as a Deacon of her church.
In recent years she has attempted, unsuccessfully, to persuade me to get baptized—a detail she somehow forgot in my infancy. My un-baptized status doesn’t trouble me, but it weighs heavily on my mother’s conscience. She fears, she says, for my eternal soul.
Science would contend this is not fear but anxiety, which is generated in response to threats perceived to be uncontrollable or unavoidable.
Some theorize that gunpowder came to Europe through the Middle East, because of trade along the Silk Road. Others believe it may have come during the Mongol invasion in the 13th Century.
By the late 1400s, portable handheld cannons appeared in Europe, allowing individuals to have their own personal weapons. Over the centuries, this device was refined into the flintlock rifle, the breechloader and finally, the automatic weapon.
It wasn’t until about two months after Rose and I had started seeing each other that I realized she was serious about deploying firearms. The cinderblock wall in front of my house had been graffiti’d on Halloween night, and Rose gallantly offered to paint over it for me. I was eager to accept, until she added, “I’m going to bring my gun.”
I hit the ceiling. “What are you talking about? You are not going to bring a gun to my house.” I knew she believed my neighborhood—working class, primarily Latino, claimed by the Avenues gang—to be risky, but that was only from unfamiliarity, I was certain. She hadn’t gotten to know the young boys to the north of me—Adrian and Fabian, age nine and three respectively, who liked to hang over the wall and talk to me while I worked in the garden—or the grandma to the south of me, whom I’d driven to the vet when her dog Fluffy had been hit in the street. Just whom did Rose think she was going to shoot?
Samuel Colt first dreamed of inventing the revolver at the age of thirteen while aboard a sailing ship bound for Calcutta, where he whittled a model out of wood. In 1836, he was issued a U.S. patent for the Colt Revolver, so called because of its revolving chamber containing five or six bullets. Although revolving designs had been developed years earlier, the technology was not available to manufacture precision parts until this time. Mass production made the guns affordable and Colt’s skills as a salesperson made them popular.
Detroit erupted in riots in 1967 when I was twelve, and that earned the named of Murder City during my teen years. Yet I can scarcely remember a time I’ve been afraid in any urban environment. I’ve gone out by myself at night in all kinds of neighborhoods in many cities in the U.S. I never expect that someone is going to hurt me and, while I am reasonably alert when on the street, I never carry a weapon.
“Where do you think I live?” I demanded of Rose, who by that time was sorry she’d ever offered her help, “someplace where people just shoot each other on the street?” I admit I was taking it personally; her assumptions about my neighborhood must in some way reflect her feelings about me. This was our first really contentious conflict and neither of us was prepared to feel so estranged from one another.
Eventually she explained to me that years earlier she’d lived in a high crime area in Venice, California. She’d been part of a Neighborhood Watch program and had one day gone out with a group of neighbors to paint out graffiti; that excursion had ended when she’d been shot at by someone in a car. Luckily they’d missed.
Her inclination to bring a gun to my house had a simple explanation: she was afraid that her past experience would repeat itself.
The amygdalae not only play a role in the initial response to a threat. They also play a primary role in the formation and storage of memories of an event. Memories of emotional experiences can elicit a fear response in the present day. The stronger the emotional response to the original event, the more likely this event is retained in memory and likely to evoke the same level of response.
My mother’s response to any piece of information from me—“I’m coming to visit;” “I bought a new car;” “I have the sniffles;”—is to project into the future to scan the possibilities of the absolute worst that could happen. “I’ve been hearing that the planes have been delayed for hours!” “I read that those cars have had terrible problems with their brakes.” “I hope you don’t get pneumonia.” This is accompanied by a high level of emotion, as if her prediction had already come true.
Any input, positive or negative, provides my mother with the chance to contemplate catastrophe. It is as if, having anticipated all possible disasters, none could ever take her by surprise. But what of the cost to the quality of life to be always living in this fear?
And I’ve wondered why her Christian beliefs have not afforded her the comfort of faith.
Faith is defined as the belief in something for which there is no absolute proof. In Christianity, faith is focused on the belief in God and in the benevolence of God’s plan for humanity. Why, then, fear hardship, if it is God’s will?
Writings in Buddhism acknowledge a positive aspect to fear. This sensation heightens our alertness when actual dangers arise in the present moment.
Most Buddhist texts note, however, that fear is more commonly related to living in the past or the future. When we get stuck in the past we respond to a current situation with a conditioned fear response in an attempt to avoid the repetition of an unpleasant event from our history. When we get lost in future we find ourselves projecting worry and anxiety about what bad things might happen. In both instances, we create needless suffering for ourselves by reacting to an illusion—something that is, in the present moment, not real.
This is not to say I am without fear.
I’m not a fan of physical risk. I don’t ski or jump out of airplanes or ride a motorcycle. I don’t care for roller coasters or horror movies.
And it’s not that I’ve never had a confrontation on the street. I’ve had people yell “White bitch!” at me and I’ve had fundamentalists threaten me with Hell for marching in the gay pride parade and I’ve had experiences where men tried to force me to go with them when I didn’t want to. While I’ve been fortunate never to live in a war zone, I have lived in two cities that erupted in riots. But I don’t fear these things.
The truth is, the worst things that have ever happened to me came from people who claimed to love me. Violence, molestation, neglect, abandonment. And because of this, I am more afraid of people close to me than I will ever be of strangers.
When I told my mother that Rose and I were considering looking for property to buy and live in together, my mother’s catastrophe response went into full gear. She thoughtfully recounted how all of my previous relationships had failed (my mother is herself thrice married), how I’d never been good with money (I’ve had my own business since 1982), and how I was about to throw away the degree of security I had attained (I own a house) on fast-talking, money-swindling Rose, whom my mother had never met.
According to the National Shooting Sports Foundation, there are 192 million privately owned firearms in the U.S., of which 65 million are handguns.
According to the Mercer University School of Medicine website, in 2001 there were 29,573 deaths from firearms in the U.S. Of these, 16,869 were suicides; 11,348 were homicides; 802 were accidental; 323 occurred during legal intervention; and in 231 the cause was undetermined.
Research has demonstrated that the hyperactivity in the amygdala in response to a perceived threat can be mitigated by stimulating an area in the frontal lobe known as the rostral anterior cingulate cortex. Conscious awareness of the threat allows this region to activate and dampen the amygdala’s response, providing one a degree of emotional control.
In other words, becoming conscious of our fears allows us to make a choice instead of responding instinctually. Gives us a broader range of options than to shoot someone.
Every major religion espouses the principles of nonviolence. This despite the number of wars and conflicts that have throughout history been promulgated in the name of religion.
Jesus said, “Love thine enemies.” Rabbinical texts from antiquity declare, “Gadol Hashalom — peace is the highest of values.” The Qur’an insists that “peace is one of God’s names.”
In Eastern religions, principles of ahimsa (without violence) include non-injury to all living beings; responding nonviolently in the face of violent thoughts, words, and actions committed by others; and maintaining mental and verbal nonviolence toward oneself and others.
But enacting such principles is only possible when we can override the biological triggers of perceived threat that lead automatically to a violent reaction. Spiritual practice can provide the tools for this—mindfulness, prayer, meditation, faith.
In my early twenties, I lived in Grand Rapids, Michigan, home to a surprisingly large lesbian community, given its otherwise conservative politics. Some women had pooled together the funds to rent a gathering space they dubbed the Feminist Center. Inelegant as it was, it provided an alternative to hanging out at the bar, at which gay men and lesbians drank and flirted and disco’d.
At a meeting at the Center one Saturday night, perhaps twenty or thirty women were sprawled in a lazy circle on the ancient carpeting when suddenly a large man ambled in from the street. Most of us were struck dumb with fear or outrage at what we perceived as an invasion of our wimmin-only space. Given the collective mindset of “men are the enemy of women” prevalent at the time, we assumed the man meant to do us harm and despite our numbers, we were unsure how to respond.
Only my friend Suzanne, who stood barely five feet tall, noticed his awkward gait, his confused and terrified expression. Perhaps he’d wandered in by mistake. Without a word, she stood and walked directly over to him. She took his hand—how relieved he seemed to give it to her—and led him firmly and gently out the door.
I used to love the story of Stanley Mosk, a white man who, during that summer of 1967, drove an ice cream truck in downtown Detroit. While stores were being looted and buildings set on fire, he drove his truck into the riot areas and sold ice cream. “It was summer,” he explained when he’d tell the story. “It was hot. Everyone was out on the street. I sold out of everything I had.” He was unarmed.
Rose did eventually come over to paint out my graffiti one afternoon when I was teaching. She didn’t bring her gun. It was a beautiful autumn afternoon, sunny but crisp.
She told me how Adrian and Fabian had come over from next door to help and had talked to her the whole time. How another neighbor came by to tell her he’d tried to stop the kids who were spray painting my wall.
This time she’d had no reason to be afraid.
The 2002 Academy Award winning documentary, Bowling for Columbine, explores the epidemic of gun violence in the United States and tries to find reasons for it. It compares our nation to other industrialized democracies and finds that in 2001, Germany saw 381 gun deaths; the United Kingdom had 68, and Japan had 39. The U.S., on the other hand, saw 11,348 gun deaths that year. Why this discrepancy, filmmaker Michael Moore asks?
It isn’t that U.S. culture is more inherently violent than the other three industrialized countries cited above. It isn’t that our movies are appreciably more violent or that we have greater problems with economic disparity or cultural conflict.
The reason, Moore posits, that so many more of us in America shoot one another is that we are more afraid. And we are more afraid not because there is more actual reason to be, but because the media and politicians have played upon and exacerbated our fears.
A fearful populace is less likely to question authority, less likely to insist on its rights, less likely to band together to demand change.
The fourteenth Dalai Lama has for decades engaged in a nonviolent struggle to gain for the Tibetan people “autonomy” from China. The Chinese government has waged a brutal occupation of Tibet, committing what the Dalai Lama calls a “cultural genocide.”
While Tibetans grow ever more frustrated with worsening conditions, the Dalai Lama continues to insist on the necessity of nonviolence, of developing a sense of “caring” for the Chinese people, even while vigorously opposing their actions.
Speaking to a crowd of Tibetans in March 2000 he said, “The nature of violence is very unpredictable. … In today’s world, destruction of your neighbor is destruction of yourself.”
Since childhood, I had dreams in which I was being chased. I didn’t know the source of the threat, only that a powerful force was after me and that I feared for my life. I would run and run until I’d awaken in a state of terror, drenched in sweat.
As I grew older, my adversaries became more distinct. In my late twenties, I had a dream of being in a dark basement, pursued by a rapist. I understood he had already caught my girlfriend at the time, and I needed to find her and try to save her.
I was running through the basement, an endless series of lightless tunnels. I rounded a washing machine and saw the man. At first I woke up, my heart pounding, my limbs trembling. But then, I made the choice to go back to sleep to return to the dream to find him.
I stood face-to-face with him, looking right into his eyes. It was so important for me to reach the spirit inside him. I said, “Don’t do this. You don’t have to do it. You’re better than this. You are a human being and so am I.” In the dream this message moved and affected him; the tension dissipated, he let my girlfriend go, he let me go. By embracing a connection to what I feared, I was able to defend my self. In acknowledging his humanity I preserved my own. I fell into dreamless slumber until morning.
One Saturday morning, I got a call from Rose. “I heard this yelling outside my house.” She sounded upset. “These three black guys are in my yard and they’re trying to beat this one guy to death.”
“Do you want me to come over right now?” I have this perhaps exaggerated belief in my ability to bring calm to situations that have gone out of control.
“I don’t know…”
“Are you afraid of them?” I ask her.
She seemed frozen, then abruptly said, “I have to hang up now.”
Several minutes later she called back. Two of her neighbors had heard the disturbance, called the police, and come over to tell the fighting men they had to leave. They’d dispersed quickly.
Rose was very upset that the calm of her yard had been so disturbed. She found a knife, a man’s shirt, and a large chunk of concrete with blood on it.
“It never occurred to me to get my gun,” she mused later, and I saw that weapons do nothing to dissipate one’s fear.
Living beings are genetically programmed to maintain our own survival. Fear of death is the ultimate trigger that moves us to defend or attack, even when our literal survival is not at stake. But death will come to all of us, fast or slow, by means that are easy or harsh. There is no defense against this outcome.
Many religions offer modes of belief designed to ameliorate the fear of death—whether in the promise of an afterlife, the prospect of reincarnation, or the possibility of enlightenment in which one attains merger with the infinite energetic field. But even as an individual might subscribe to one of these possibilities, he or she may still doubt. Research has found that those who have truly committed their lives to a spiritual path do have less fear of death; their faith does sustain them. But, the data shows, those who have been but sporadic practitioners, who were shaky in their faith, are likely to be more fearful even than those who have no religious leanings whatsoever.
Maybe I’m too trusting.
Maybe I’m not afraid enough.
Maybe I should listen to my mother and anticipate disaster.
Maybe I should get baptized.
Maybe I shouldn’t walk alone at midnight.
Maybe I shouldn’t fall in love with a woman with a gun.
And yet somehow I have faith. Not the faith that nothing bad will happen, but the faith that I’ll be able to meet whatever comes my way. My Kundalini Yoga teacher, Harijiwan Khalsa says, “The safest place on the planet to be is inside your own strong energy field.” So that’s what I work on: Loving my enemies. Seeing everyone as human. Trusting that what happens is in some way for my highest good.
This faith guides me to walk through the world with open hands, not a clenched fist. Unarmed. With a willingness even to be hurt if it allows me to undergo more deeply the experience of being consciously human, alive for now in this amazing and turbulent world.