In 1984, I was 12 years old. That summer, my mother handed me two worn paperback books: George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. “Read them both,” she told me. “Then tell me which one you think is more likely to come true.”
In 1984, I chose Huxley, with his seductive dystopian future shaped by caste systems and fueled by a pleasure drug that rendered life pleasant but meaningless.
In 2015, with our terrorized, NSA-monitored, trigger-happy America, I choose Orwell and his future built on fear and the dangerous illusion of safety.
For me and for many, this Easter season has been overshadowed by yet another tragedy involving a young man with mental illness. This time, the weapon of destruction was an airplane, not a gun, and it proved far more deadly than other tragedies like Sandy Hook or Columbine. Yet like the school shootings, the essential purpose of the Germanwings crash was the co-pilot’s suicide.
While tabloids could not resist inflammatory headlines like “Madman in the Cockpit,”
for the most part, the mainstream news outlets were respectful and cautious, stressing the outlier nature of the tragic incident that claimed 150 lives and calling for an increased focus on improving mental healthcare for everyone. Two years after Newtown, this balanced approach shows that we have come a long way as a society in how we understand mental illness.
But the “blame and shame” comments on these articles demonstrate that we still have so far to go.
Orwell’s book described a society controlled by fear. I would suggest that our society is swiftly moving along this exact trajectory, and that the way we treat people who have mental illness demonstrates how Orwellian fear can be used to control public opinion.
As one example of how we have traded reason for fear, in the wake of the Germanwings tragedy, a journalist with a major news outlet actually asked a mental health policy expert friend of mine, “Is it safe to fly?”
This question demonstrates our incredible inability as a species to assess risk. In fact, it is still safe to fly, much safer than driving to the grocery store. In 2013, for example, there were 32,719 automobile crash fatalities, and only 443 aviation related deaths. This year won’t be much different, even with the Germanwings disaster.
The way we think about violence and mental illness also reveals how we fail to understand risk. While it is true that school shooters are more likely than the general population to have mental illness, the vast majority of gun-related violence is not associated with mental illness. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has tracked school-related violence since 1992: in the entire United States, between 14 and 34 youth die violently at school each year. To put that number in perspective, in Chicago alone, more than 300 young people between the ages of 10 and 25, mostly young men, were killed by guns in 2008.
The crux of our collective and irrational fear is this simple truth: we are all going to die. An almost statistically insignificant number of us will die in an airplane crash. More of us will die in car accidents or because of gun violence or by suicide. Many of us will live to old age, only to succumb to dementia, heart disease, or cancer. But one way or another, every one of us is going to die. Nothing can keep us safe from death.
Only when we embrace this essential condition of human existence—when we become comfortable with the inevitable truth of our ultimate ending—can we live a life that is truly free from fear.
For me, Easter is a celebration of this freedom. The celebration begins more than 2000 years ago with Christ’s bloody, agonizing exit from mortal existence, his lifeless body hanging on a cross, pierced by a Roman spear. The celebration ends with Christ’s mythical transcendence to divinity and allegorical return to the empty tomb. But Easter is really a celebration of radical love, the kind of love that makes all men and women our brothers and sisters, the kind of love that conquers death.
I think sometimes that we focus too much on the promise of the resurrection, of life everlasting, and too little on the Rabbi’s earthly message of love right here and now. At its heart, Easter teaches us to overcome our fear of the most cruel and brutal death possible, to embrace instead the life we were meant to live. Christ's life reminds us that a stranger from Samaria may save us, that the leper may be cured against all odds, and that none among us is perfect. Christ’s message was to “love one another,” to embrace the stranger, to help the poor, and to forgive.
Instead, our “Christian Nation” has adopted an Orwellian illusion of safety and rejected the inherent risk of Christ-like selfless, radical love. We do not love one another. We do not embrace the stranger or help the poor; we blame them and incarcerate them. We do not forgive trespasses; we harbor grudges, as individuals, as communities, and as nations.
Here’s the question I have for you on Easter: What if this life is all we have? That is the question we are asking ourselves, in the wake of a senseless airplane crash that could have been prevented, if only (mental health care, no stigma, social support networks, etc.).
The question we should be asking ourselves is this: “How do I live the best life I am capable of living, here and now, today?”
Only by answering this question can we overcome the Orwellian culture of fear that is dividing the world into smaller and smaller islands of false safety. None of us can escape death. But Christ’s death should have taught us this: we all have a sacred duty to love.