I’ll admit it. In the aftermath of any mass shooting—particularly ones that happen on college campuses—I find myself harboring an occasional unsettling thought: could today be the day it happens here? On any given day when I’m driving to campus, making last minute plans for whatever I’m planning to do in class, I’ll occasionally wonder whether today is (as the Sioux battle cry goes) a good day to die.
When this thought arises, I’m usually en route to a campus where I teach and work: a campus, in other words, where I “need” to be, a campus where I know my way around, and a campus where I feel a responsibility to protect “my” students. When I’m wandering a campus that isn’t mine, on the other hand—a campus where I don’t know where I’m going, I don’t know anyone, and I honestly have little business being—I’m not wondering whether today might be my last day on earth. Although being shot at work is senseless, at least there is an entirely sensible reason for being at work on an unlucky day. When you’re on your way to a writing retreat at a campus where you’ve been only one time before, however, you’re not wondering whether today might be the day when you’ll be at the wrong place at the right time. Being shot at work is senseless, but being shot at a place where didn’t truly have to be seems even more senseless.
Today is the BRAWN writing retreat at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. BRAWN is the Boston Rhetoric and Writing Network—a group of Boston-based college writing instructors—and I went to their summer writing retreat last August, when we basically spent the day in a boring classroom at MIT working on nothing other than our own writing: a kind of creative peer pressure where you make a shared vow to write rather than endlessly checking email, Facebook, Twitter, and Google Reader. Today is the BRAWN writing retreat at MIT, and it’s also the day a person with a rifle and body armor was allegedly spotted nearby, sending the campus into a lockdown.
It turns out there was no such person…or if there was, he was just passing through. But before Cambridge police announced the “all clear,” my fellow retreatants and I did what any sane person would do: we retreated from campus to set up shop in a nearby café, where we spent the morning “sheltering in place” over croissants, hot beverages, and our writing projects.
“Sheltering in place” is an interesting term. It suggests that the safest place to be is right here, right now: given a vague report of a possible threat, the best thing to do is basically nothing: stay where you are, keep a low profile, and wait for the danger to pass. Many prey species instinctively shelter in place when something scares them: when one of our backyard blue jays cries “hawk,” for instance, the feeder birds automatically hunker down and the squirrels freeze in the trees. Whereas the natural human reaction in the face of danger is to turn tail and run, many prey species rely on stealth and camouflage to protect them: by remaining completely still, they play the odds that a threatening predator either won’t notice them or will choose to strike someone else.
There is, I suppose, an eerie similarity between spending a day on a retreat and spending a day sheltering in place. Both activities involve hunkering down where you are, anchoring yourself to your present location as a safe haven against possible threats. I think of Ulysses and his men lashing themselves to the mast of their ship: come what may, we won’t be moved. When you sit a meditation retreat, you emulate the Buddha’s decision to sit and stay under the Bodhi tree until he’d answered the question of why we’re born only to grow old, get sick, and die; when you participate in a writing retreat, you promise to remain glued to your seat until the day (or your writing) is done.
When you shelter in place, you trust that whatever threat is “Out There” can’t broach the borders of “In Here.” At today’s retreat, the three of us who had managed to arrive at our boring classroom before the full nature of the threat had been announced quickly decided to move off campus, sending an email to those who hadn’t yet arrived, telling them to meet us elsewhere. As we walked across one of MIT’s grassy quads, one of my fellow retreatants remarked, “I keep scanning the rooftops,” and at that moment I realized that something as simple as walking across campus becomes a bold move when you think there might be a gunman lurking somewhere, watching. As Annie Dillard remarks in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, quoting the medievalist Dorothy Dunnett, “There is no reply, in clear terrain, to an archer in cover.”
Call me morbid, but this isn’t the first time I’ve wondered what it would be like to be shot by a stranger. I first started meditating in the aftermath of the 1991 shooting in which six Thai Buddhist monks, a nun, and two other victims were killed in a temple in Arizona. We think of senseless mass shooting as being a recent phenomenon, and perhaps they have indeed increased in frequency and subsequent news coverage. But when I first started meditating at the Zen Buddhist temple in Ann Arbor, Michigan in the aftermath of the Arizona shootings, I often experienced a moment of panic when I vividly visualized a silent gunman creeping into the Buddha hall and methodically shooting each one of us in the back as we meditated, quietly (and quite helplessly) facing a wall.
The first time I went camping, I had a similar moment of panic, wondering what could stop a homicidal gunman from walking up to our tent and shooting straight at it, his bullet piercing both tent nylon and layers of sleeping bag before hitting the warm, vulnerable bodies therein. Again, this might sound like a morbid thought, but it’s not an entirely unrealistic one: in his book A Walk in the Woods, for instance, Bill Bryson recounts several murders that have happened on the Appalachian Trail, including the 1988 murder of Rebecca Wight, who was shot along with her partner while hiking in Pennsylvania.
The practice of sheltering in place rests on the assumption that the world out there is more dangerous than the world in here; sitting a meditation retreat might lead you to question that assumption as you explore the layers of your own delusions. But when you’re pondering the possibility you’re on a campus with a gunman, you can solace yourself with odds and likelihoods, and one relevant statistic still remains: mortality always has the last word. A sniper’s bullet, a sudden heart attack, a prolonged illness: in the end, does it matter what hit you? When you’re shot by an arrow, the Buddha famously argued, it doesn’t matter who made the arrow out of what material or for what purpose: you’re dead all the same.
Yesterday I almost got run over by a delivery truck while crossing a particularly tricky intersection by Symphony Hall. A group of pedestrians was crossing, and I was the laggard, walking in dress boots. Had I been hit by a truck that didn’t stop but instead thundered past just as I hurriedly stepped onto the curb, I would have been like a dawdling antelope snagged by a lurking lion: the rest of the herd would have continued on, either oblivious to my demise or secretly relieved it hadn’t befallen them.
After yesterday’s near miss, I looked at the photo I had taken seconds before stepping into that intersection near Symphony Hall and realized it could have been my last. Today at MIT, I took a handful of photos on my way to the BRAWN retreat, and fortunately it turns out that today at MIT was neither a good day nor a good place for me to die. Had today’s story turned out differently, however, this would have been my last shot before being shot.