Columbine, Kudzu, and a Colt .45

We were drinking coffee in the prison employee break room when Mark and Sam started comparing their childhood terrors. They both grew up with alcoholic dads. They both were subjected to a daily barrage of insults, hits, cursings, and cruelty. Sometimes they escaped by running or hiding, only to watch a pet or sibling or mother receive the blows. They learned that they both were taken with their dads to the same bootlegger tucked away in a mountain hollow. They swapped stories of fights with fists, bottles, knives, and guns. They pointed to scars. They felt lucky to have survived at all. And what did they survive with?

Mark stood in blue uniform with gold stripes on his collar and black weapons hanging from his belt. He’s a sergeant and earned badges as an expert marksman. Mark speaks with delight about shooting birds out of trees, watching the feathers scatter to the ground. Some days, he says, he just wants to kill something—anything. Just feels the urge. Loud noises still make him jump at night. He grabs his Colt .45 under his pillow to investigate the sound. He never answers his door without a gun.

Sam sat in a blue-striped shirt. He is a prison counselor. He does not own a gun. He walks away when a movie becomes too violent. Sometimes he likes to walk in the woods at night and call out to screech owls. Just feels the urge. Loud noises still make him jump. He will grab his glasses at the bedside to investigate the sound. He never goes to his door without his glasses.

VIOLENCE DOES NOT always beget violence. Gentleness does not always beget gentleness. Ask parents. The roads our children take are often wildly divergent. They defy explanation by even the most discerning minds. The same stimuli do not produce the same results. How do we explain it?

The first garden had the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. We have been chomping its fruit with equal portions of horror and delight ever since. It seems we cannot savor good without sampling evil. "Columbine" used to refer to a beautiful mountain wildflower. Now it conjures up a national tragedy of teens killing teens. What happened? Bad parenting? Neglectful teachers? Easy access to guns? The media? Our love affair with violence? Sin? Satan?

Hannah Arendt dubbed the undramatic way that we live with absurdity and call it normality "the banality of evil." Evil, it appears, is as common as kudzu and as predictable as the evening news.

In Billie Letts’ novel Where the Heart Is, Lexie asks her friend Novalee how she will ever explain the sexual abuse done to her children by her boyfriend. She wonders what to tell her kids about the evil visited upon them. Novalee answers, "Tell them that our lives can change with each breath we take....Tell them to let go of what’s gone because men like Roger never win. And tell them to hold on like hell to what they’ve got—each other, and a mother who would die for them.... Tell them we’ve all got meanness in us...but tell them that we have some good in us too. And the only thing worth living for is the good. That’s why we’ve got to make sure we pass it on."

In the end isn’t it the mystery of goodness that most baffles and amazes us? Isn’t it the incredulity of good that astonishes our life together? Columbines are still flowers that spring up wild in the mountains. God’s still on the earth and all is wild with the world. Goodness still happens.

Nancy Hastings Sehested is a Baptist preacher and state prison chaplain living in the mountains of North Carolina.

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