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What do you choose?

After Joe Stack’s plane crash here in Austin–actually, let’s call it what it is: a murder/suicide, plain and simple–I come back to my usual refrain when faced with a tragedy like this.

What drives a person to these lengths?

What kind of pain would cause a person to consider this as the best option for dealing with it? Where in their thought processes does the switch from “I’ve had all I can take” to “I’m going to take everybody out” occur?

My working hypothesis is that it all comes down to the foundation upon which you’ve built your life. If you define yourself by your job, or by your income, or by your family, and that foundation is taken away for some reason, then the process of grieving and rebuilding has to start from a much lower place than someone who has a firmer foundation.

I’m passionately atheist, so the concept of a Higher Power appeals to me not at all. But the wisest words I have ever heard are the Serenity Prayer adopted by 12-step programs.

God, grant me the serenity
To accept the things I cannot change;
The courage to change the things that I can;
And the wisdom to know the difference.

There’s a fine line to walk between”I can’t change it, and I accept it,” and “I can’t change it, and I’m a victim.” Joe Stack crossed the line from accepting the things that cannot change to being victimized by those things. Then, when he’d had enough, he lashed out with horrific violence at the people he saw as victimizing him.

I don’t know the details of Stack’s situation beyond what he posted in his online rant. But let’s accept that absolutely everything in his rant is 100% factually accurate. Assume, for the sake of argument, that the government is corrupt, that the tax code revisions made it impossible for him to make his living, and that his accountant threw him under the bus during the audit. Now he is about to have everything taken away from him, and will have to start over yet again, with every chance of failing again. He may end up losing my wife and stepdaughter in the process.

Without changing any of those facts, consider these two perspectives:
My patience has run out and I have no control over my life anymore. The government is entrenched and powerful, and the only way I can affect my circumstances is to end them. Perhaps by ending them violently, I will be able to make the situation better for others.

Now, with exactly the same facts and pain, imagine intentionally adopting this perspective:
I have no control over my life. I have to accept that I may be in a car wreck tomorrow. I have no control over the weather, over other drivers, or over the people in the government who have stripped my livelihood away from me yet again to pad their own pockets. The only thing in this world that I control directly is my own reaction. I can choose to be angry, to be bitter, to live my life in fear, to end my life, or to end my life violently and take others with me. Or I can choose to live my life in the best way I can, continue to cultivate myself to be the best person I can be, despite the efforts of other people to suppress me.

Without diminishing the severity of the bad circumstances one iota, the second perspective allows a person to accept that they have the ultimate in control: They control their own reactions.

That’s an unimaginably powerful feeling. In the midst of pain and loss, I can face my own grief with the courage of knowing that I, and I alone, am responsible for the next words out of my mouth. Will they be virtuous or vitriolic? Hurtful or healing? Will they cause suffering, or ease it?

I can’t control how others react. I only control myself. And that is sufficient.

If Joe Stack had believed that, there would have been a lot less suffering this past week.

Categories: Life
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