It’s a hazy day here in Virginia Beach, and unseasonably cool. Tonight in my Giants of the Arts class at Saint Leo University, we’re going to talk about Leonardo da Vinci as an example of the potential of a person. We will talk about all he did in art, in sculpture, and all he wrote in his journals about science, about the body, about the heavens. We talk about how he would have rather spent time with his friends talking and drinking wine than doing work, that it often took years to complete one project, that he always believed in all his efforts that he could have done better.
It’s a fun lecture since too many students think the only thing he ever did was the Mona Lisa and was fodder for the film, The Da Vinci Code. A few of my students, however, most of whom have been stationed all over the world at one time or another in their military service, have seen the Sistine Chapel. I prefer it when they tell each other of the artists’ accomplishments rather than it come from me.
Every once in a while, however, our discussions about art and music, about architecture and drama, digress to philosophical explorations about potential and genius. We explore just what it takes, according to a full understanding of “Giants” of the arts, the ingredients necessary to achieve. Talent is not enough since unrecognized talent is everywhere; and drive is not enough since more than a few driven individuals don’t have the talent to triumph. Timing, of course, and luck, vision of some sort, and a full understanding of your craft, along with the ability to tune out the naysayers, to ignore the uninformed out to disparage you. Oh it is quite involved and takes the full two and a half hours to explore and still come up short, but the consensus is always the same: no wonder there are only a handful of “Giants” in any given generation.
These things we are capable of, whether by the luck of birth, the grace of God, or the sheer will of hard-headed artists, is a possible proof of faith. “The Last Supper” is a miraculous painting; and more so the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. The “Pieta,” and his ideas about human anatomy.
On the way to the college I’m stopping at Harris Teeter. They have the best bread there, and I need a new notebook to make my daily lists, and that store is the only one I have found which carries this tan, college ruled, 5×8, style to which I’ve become accustomed. I’ll park near the Wells Fargo ATM to take out a twenty and when I walk toward the door I’ll look to my left toward the municipal center half a football field away, toward Building 2, toward the spirits of late former students Alex and Mary, and their nine colleagues, and one contractor just trying to get a permit, who all just moments earlier took what they didn’t know would be their last breath, missed what they didn’t know was their last chance to call home and say how much they loved someone, missed their last chance to notice what I’ll notice across the parking lot, the dozens of Carolina wrens which always seems to gather in the bushes near the crosswalk. Moments later they ceased to be.
The killer took fifty or sixty shots from his .45 caliber handgun with extra magazines. He managed to keep it somewhat quiet by equipping the gun with a suppressor. He emailed a resignation earlier in the day stating he was grateful for the job but for personal reasons he needed to give his two-week notice. So either he was not contemplating carnage when he wrote the letter, or he was trying not to draw attention to himself by simply not showing up or quitting outright. In either case, something snapped.
So here’s the thing: the shooter is just another ordinary killer in the United States. Twelve deaths by a gun? Last year there were more than 36,000, a third from intent to kill another, and two thirds by suicide–which if you take the gun out of the equation, drops the suicide success rate by three times.
And, of course, this doesn’t include the more than 100,000 injuries from guns.
I am not an expert in gun control; I’m not an expert in sociological issues, in the psychology of killers, the second amendment, the constitutional track of the laws which bring us here. I have some training in how to secure a building during an emergency by virtue of teaching college for so long, but I’m equally aware of the likelihood the shooter is most likely already in the building by the time emergency steps need to be taken. I’m not an expert on PTSD, nor am I an expert on depression, despite my deeply committed readings on the subject.
My expertise is in the arts, in the humanities, I can engage a group of adults for hours in engrossing conversation about some of the Giants of history and what they leave behind that so enabled them to be household names half a millennium later. My expertise is in showing my students what those Giants are capable of.
Oh, dear God, these things we are capable of.