It was Ash Wednesday and Valentine's Day and I was in a fight for my life.
It's the same one I endure every day. The battle of the bulge. A confirmed addict, I eat too much. I make a daily effort to change my habits, even if it's just a little bit. Those who know me well recall when I was much rounder and significantly heavier. Over the past 20-plus years, I've made major progress. But it's a constant struggle not to backslide. I can't quit fighting.
So, earlier this week, I was pumping my legs on the exercise bike at the gym while watching information flash across the big TV screens that span the width of the mammoth workout facility. I'd just finished reading a daily dose of "Killing Pablo," the intense best seller about the pursuit and eventual police shooting of Columbian drug kingpin, Pablo Escobar. It's a thoroughly researched and violent story by journalist, Mark Bowden, that chronicles the dramatic rise and fall of the monstrous mobster from South America.
I plugged my earbuds into the jack on the upright stationary bike and turned up the volume on the news. Just then, the anchor led to fresh footage from the day's mass shooting at a high school in Parkland, Florida. It was video from a student's smartphone and I could hear the hammering sounds of semi-automatic gun blasts peppering the school.
A woman stepped into the foreground between me and the TV. She read the captions that scrawled across the bottom of the screen, because the sound is muted in the gym. She froze and stared at the images and began to cry. She covered her mouth with her hand and sobbed. The woman's boyfriend came up next to her and put his hand on her shoulder.
I couldn't help but see the symbolism. We watch the violent horror and the vicious loss of life unfolding again and again, but were not hearing the victims. It's as if we're deaf to their cries for help and genuine compassion. It's as if we're codependent. We can't do anything because we're addicted to the addict.
The next evening I peddled again while I heard the mother of a Parkland school shooting victim scream into the lens of a television camera begging someone to do something.
There is a saying in twelve-step groups: "I was sick and tired of being sick and tired." That's the point where the addict or those who love him or her hit bottom. The tipping point when they develop the courage to change the things they can.
Seems like America may have hit its "bottom" this week with the latest of our mass shootings in Parkland. We won't know for a while yet. It will depend on what you and I do about it and how persistent we are. That is, will we change what we are doing and not quit? Will we continue to make progress and not give up, even in the face of tough odds and stern resistance?
The same goes for every other problem where we feel a sense of hopelessness. Whether it's the affordability of healthcare, access to mental health, a solution to homelessness or rampant violence on our streets and in our homes, nothing changes without courage.
Today, there's buzz about high school students in Parkland creating a "March for Our Lives" protest on Saturday, March 24 with hope that the Florida massacre will be the last. That's a great start, but it will take more than one event, no matter how large. Just ask those who witnessed the civil rights movement, and the police dogs and fire houses trained on the peaceful marchers and protesters in the 1960's. Don't forget the church bombings and lynchings. Ask those who know the history of the suffragettes, women who battled to change the U.S. Constitution so they had an equal right to vote in the land where "all men are created equal." Or consider how many complaints across two decades it took before mass sexual abuser, Dr. Larry Nasser of Michigan State University, was arrested, charged, tried and sentenced. And that doesn't begin to count the dozens and dozens of women who exposed the terror of his abuse during his sentencing hearing. Or take a page from those who join the "March for Life" and protest abortion year after year after year. Persistence. Persistence. Persistence.
This is a life issue.
Doing the same thing and expecting different results is one definition of insanity. If we want any change, we have to change it.
Take it from me, transforming oneself is very tough business. Changing someone else, including corporations and government, is impossible. But we can draw boundaries and require that they not violate them. Then we can pray that they change while we firmly guard our boundaries.
For instance, if we want the media to relentlessly keep the heat on government officials regarding our nation's addiction to gun violence, we have to call and write our local newspapers, TV stations, radio stations and all the networks. We'll let them know that unless they report the death toll daily from shootings and mass killings, we're going to stop watching and we'll shame them on social media. We'll get a response.
When neighborhoods are struck by a spike in crime, some people hunker down. Others organize neighborhood watches and begin to police the streets and inform the cops. The same could work for your local grade school, middle school and high school with volunteers taking shifts to stand guard. Let's not forget to reach out to retirees, they have time and skills. This might make life less cozy for drug dealers too.
We can use social media to urge friends and family to call local, state and federal officials week after week after week until we get genuine action. I've spoken to my congressman's office in the past, and I know they monitor and count the calls. It makes a difference, almost as much as votes.
We can join groups like "Everytown for Gun Safety" and become active members with millions of others who have begun the fight. But groups must engage city hall and elected officials. Not have meetings and symbolic marches.
It would be foolish to forget the power of boycotts. After all, civil rights icon, Rosa Parks' refusal to give up her seat on a city bus in Montgomery, Alabama led to a bus riders boycott that financially crippled the Montgomery system forcing it to integrate or go bust.
It might be necessary to temporarily boycott all retailers that sell firearms, whether they're bricks and mortar or online services. Ultimately, the protest would not be designed to get rid of all guns, but to demand a sense of urgency, so constructive change will begin to occur quickly in our state legislatures and Congress. Money talks and now the U.S. Supreme Court equates it to free speech. So speak freely with your feet and your wallet. By the way, in 2015, Walmart instituted its own ban on selling "military style" sports rifles. They're no longer three aisles down from the diapers.
Make no mistake, it's not just about the guns. We need to tell Hollywood that it must dial down the violence in movies, shows and gaming. One media source reported 15 different Netflix offerings glorifying the murderous Escobar narcos as well as other mobsters and their bloodthirsty approach to drug trafficking. Let's not overlook Tony Soprano in reruns, everybody's favorite psychopathic family guy. If we watch it they will make it. If we reject it, the programming will change. Look at what the #MeToo movement is beginning to do to tinsel town and Washington. Who was the star of House of Cards? That's because women and men are finding the courage to name their attackers and abusers. Why then would we watch programs about attackers and abusers?
Those are just a few thoughts on a very large and complicated violence problem that requires that we dive in, learn, volunteer, get involved and stay involved. I believe the richest nation in the world can solve any problem it has the courage to change.
And the next time we walk past a homeless man or woman on the street, each of us should ask ourselves, "Why don't I do something about homelessness?" Remember, many of the homeless are veterans of the U.S. armed forces. The next time we hear about a mother gunning down her whole family and then committing suicide, we should ask ourselves, "Why haven't I done something about access to mental health?" And the next time we hear about a cop getting ambushed or an unarmed kid being shot, we should say, "Don't all lives matter? Why haven't I done something?"
How will we find the courage?
In my personal life, it was chronic illness that finally got my attention. That was my rock bottom. I realized I needed to change my lifestyle or face declining health. There were many things to change. But I also discovered the healing power of that change.
As a nation, a society, and a world we have many, many chronic illnesses. Insanely, we continue to search outside ourselves for elected leaders to bring the healing. But they are nothing but reflections of each of us and our own level of compassion and intestinal fortitude.
Jesus said: "No one has greater love than this, to lay down one's life for one's friends." (John 15:13)
The heroes we're seeking are trapped inside each of us. Inside our addictions and fears. Waiting for us to find the courage to say, "I'm sick and tired of being sick and tired." And to say we're ready to do the heavy lifting and to begin to love one another.