Firearms, Fear, and Mental Health

A bullet hole in your wall is never a good sign, unless you look at it right. Not acknowledging it is foolhardy, obsessing over it is debilitating. These sides of the teeter totter must be balanced when the hole is really there. What to do when it’s not…well, that’s what this is about.

Firecrackers and rifle rounds, these are the sounds of my childhood. In an early exercise of modifying childish behaviors, my mother had me light a full box of kitchen matches one at a time and let them burn down to my fingertips. It was supposed to cure me of playing with matches. I was three. My brother Eric, who was ten at the time, told me decades later that the look on my face said mom miscalculated. She didn’t cure me. She made me. I remain a functional pyromaniac to this day.

So, perhaps it’s not surprising that fear and firearms aren’t coupled in my psyche. What firearms I have, I own out of prudence, not paranoia. I’ve been on the wrong side of a gun (you can read about that here). I have also used firearms to procure food. For any who have not ventured into the woods and come out with meat to feed their families, you’ve missed something in life. Politicians and popular culture make apologetic room for the American firearm fascination with lip service to the sport of hunting. Watching children eat meat you harvested isn’t sport. It is a central reality of man stretching back for millennia. It is the same reality that caused men to take up arms and defend their home and person. Making it about the weapon misses the point.

Supporting the Second Amendment in its original frame calls for intellectual honesty regarding its consequences. Malice, negligence, and accidents are a reality. Years ago, I was in charge of a waste hauling operation that could see up to sixty trucks on the road at any given time. We functioned under the mandate of a zero-accident policy. The policy was understandable, admirable even. But there were those among us who held to the philosophy of it being possible. To be fair, it was possible—simply so. All I had to do was ground the fleet. No movement, no accidents. No guns, no death and maiming by firearms.

A bullet above my daughter’s headboard. Wounded sheetrock in my boy’s room. The former resulted from a neighbor in emotional distress and contemplating suicide. The later, a negligent discharge from a guest who knew better. Nobody died. I repeat, nobody died. This is where fear and mental health enter the picture.

The spirit of man is invested with the capacity, the drive even, to dream. We were created with the ability to see the impossible, to call out things that are not and strive to make them be. The same mechanism that got us to the moon lets us stress about near misses as if they were catastrophes.

In life, I’ve found stressing over non-events isn’t just a waste of energy, it’s also debilitating to mental health. A near miss is a near miss. Going into adrenal hyperdrive at that moment is understandable and desirable. Carrying the fight-or-flight past a reasonable calming period is self-destructive.

Worse than being wrapped in the trauma of a near miss is the upset over possible catastrophe when the near miss never happened. This is what happens when we imagine what someone might have done to or said about us and we get upset as if they did. Call it delusional trauma, pain caused by the ghosts of our own imagination. When we trade the wonder of imagining what could be for the fear and regret of what may have been, we are poorer for it.

Holes in walls, happened. People dead, didn’t. In both instances, my mind was fully capable—without any prompting from me—to envision a new reality in light of the non-event of catastrophic loss. I had a choice at that point. I could imagine the tragedy of a lost child and allow my limbic system to light up as if it had already happened or admit it didn’t happen and behave accordingly. One would leave me toxic, the other thankful. A bullet hole in your wall is never a good sign, unless you look at it right. The holes in my walls were evidence of God’s protection in grace in the face of the carelessness of others. When I think of them that way, I stay in a much healthier head space.

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