About the Name of this blog

This blog's title refers to a Dani fable recounted by Robert Gardner. The Dani live in the highlands of New Guinea, and at the the time he studied them, they lived in one of the only remaining areas in the world un-colonized by Europeans.

The Dani, who Gardner identifies only as a "Mountain People," in the film "The Dead Birds," have a myth that states there was once a great race between a bird and a snake to determine the lives of human beings. The question that would be decided in this race was, "Should men shed their skins and live forever like snakes, or die like birds?" According to the mythology, the bird won the race, and therefore man must die.

In the spirit of ethnographic analysis, this blog will examine myth, society, culture and architecture, and hopefully examine issues that make us human. As with any ethnography, some of the analysis may be uncomfortable to read, some of it may challenge your preconceptions about the world, but hopefully, all of it will enlighten and inform.

Friday, July 20, 2012

The Immediacy of Tragedy


As you are probably aware of by now, there was a horrific mass shooting in Colorado last night, possibly one of the worst mass murders in American history.  I am not going to explore the rationale behind this senseless act nor am I going to explore societal dysfunctions that led to this nightmare.

I cannot even begin to explain it, nor can I even begin to comprehend it.  Perhaps later I will be able to look at it, examine it and process it, but for now, I cannot.  The horror is too fresh.

What I am going to explore is my reaction to the shootings, and try to understand why I reacted this way, and using my reaction as a vehicle, try to understand why we, as Coloradoans react to tragedy in the way we do.

My first thought, when I heard about the shootings, was to wonder if my friend Johnny was OK.  Why was that my first thought?  The Century 16 is the closest movie theatre to his house, he is the sort of person who goes to midnight showings of movies, and the Dark Night Rises is the sort of movie he likes.  Hence my concern that he might have been there.  He wasn't, nor was anyone else I know, but I had to call to find out.

But still, why did I even begin to mentally place a friend of mine in the heart of the unfolding tragedy?

Was is pessimism?  A bleak world view?  Some deep seated fear mechanism?

Not really, but I didn't begin to figure out what was going on until I told my roommate that Johnny was OK and he wasn't at the theatre.  (My roommate had met him last New Year's eve, although that was his only interaction with him.)  He responded that he wouldn't have even assumed that he was there, or worried about it, unless he had known positively that someone he knew was actually going to be there.

So what was going on here?  This isn't the first time this has happened to me; calling someone in a disaster or tragedy to make sure that they were alright.  Why do I make that assumption?

And as I began to examine it, I began to understand, I have a small town mentality.  Whenever anything bad happens, and someone I care about is near that place, I worry that they might be involved.  In a small town, where you literally know everyone in the town, whenever anything bad happens, you know someone involved in it.  The tornado ripping though town destroys the houses of people you know, the woman who dies from cancer babysat you as a child, the car accident on the edge of town will have injured a friend.

In a small town, everything is personal, because all tragedy is immediate.

But then I asked myself, "Why do I have this mindset?"  It's not like Denver is a small town; with 3 million people, it is the 17th largest metropolitan area in the country, and between East Texas and the Pacific Coast, only Phoenix is larger.

Examining this deeper, I realized that my mindset comes from how the West developed, and how it still is structured today.  The Intermountain West is one of the most empty areas of the country.  There are only five major cities in the entire region, Denver, Albuquerque, Salt Lake City, Phoenix and Las Vegas.  Beyond that, there are only two other places that qualify as metro areas, Tucson and Colorado Springs.  The rest of the land, which is roughly half of the landmass of the continental United States, is made up of small, widely spaced towns.  Even Grand Junction, which is a center of activity has less than 50,000 residents, most places have less than ten thousand.

The West is a land of small, tightly knit communities.  Out here, with all of the hardships of living in a place where you have to have community to survive, people are irreplaceable.  It's not that we value life more than in other places, in fact, perhaps more than most, we recognize how fleeting it is.  Instead, it is the fact that without others, life is impossible.  The idea of the rugged, individualist mountain man is something of a myth.  Of course they existed, but they were the exception, not the rule.

The reality of it is, to survive out here, you need people.  We do have a wide streak of independence, so the proper etiquette in this part of the world is to offer help, not to ask for it.  And because we have to work together this has led to a distinctly different character than is found in other parts of the country.  In the West, a person is respected for their deeds not for their position; we are far more casual and egalitarian in all of our relationships; we are somewhat more nosy in order to be able offer help when needed, since we do not ask for it; and ultimately because of these things, we generally don't put a lot of stock in what the rest of the country thinks of us, because they rarely do.

This mindset means that people are extremely important.  We worry about hurting someone's feelings, because hurt feelings can cause problems in the tight knit community fabric.  We are concerned about the welfare of those around us, because we want them to be concerned about ours.  In short, the traditional Western character lives and dies by the Golden Rule, "Do unto others as you should wish they do unto you."  And because of this, the bonds that tie us together become extremely strong.

So when tragedy strikes, the community is diminished, we are diminished, damaged in a way that people who did not grow up in this culture cannot understand.

For comparison, I would like to look at two national tragedies, and how the communities dealt with them.

I was amazed and awed by the strength and resilience of the people of New York City in the months after 9/11.  The ground was literally still smoking when I began working there in January 2002 on the rebuilding process.  Life was returning to the city and people were trying to move past the horror.  In fact, they were doing better on the whole, than anyone else in the country at that point.  They still thought about what had happened, and they still grieved intensely, but they also got on with their lives.

I contrast this with Columbine here in Denver.  At roughly the same point in the aftermath, people in Denver still put their collective grief before normalcy.  There were many people in this city who needed therapy after Columbine, even though they did not know anyone involved, nor did the event directly impact them in any way.

Even though this seems like self flagellation, and the height of being a city of drama queens, it had nothing to do with it.  Columbine hit us so hard because "We are all Columbine."  The bumper sticker, rather than being an inane catchphrase, really summed up the collective experience of the shootings.  The tragedy was immediate to our beings.

We are not martyrs to events that don't have anything to do with us, because in the Western mindset, what happens to the community, happens to all of it's members.  I should note here, one of my closest friends was a Columbine student, he was in the computer lab.  His brother, who was in the cafeteria, saw several people die.  For me, the tragedy is even more immediate than it is for some, although I did not know anyone who died or was injured.

But to return to the point, we grieve even for people we didn't know because we cannot escape the rural, community focused, backdrop that frames our lives.  Even though the reality is that we will never likely know anyone directly impacted  by this morning's shooting, we are all still affected.  The horror of the victims becomes the horror of the community and ultimately it becomes our own horror, because it is something we share intensely.

We were all Columbine, and we will all be Century 16.

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