My parents immigrated into this country in 1982. My parents told me a Taiwanese parable while I attended the same schools as Mike Pohle, one of the 32 victims of last week’s massacre. In the story, a teacher took his class on a field trip to the mountains of Taiwan. On the way home, they encountered a swarm of killer bees. The teacher removed his clothing to attract the bees away from the children to his flesh.
I heard the echoes of this parable while reading about Liviu Librescu, the professor who blocked the classroom door with his body while the gunman demanded entry. While he did this, students escaped through the windows. No doubt that being stung by bullets was agonizing. There was little dignity in these painful deaths, only in their sacrifice.
And what of the bee?
The bee who stings out of cowardice dies soon after, so we cannot ask. Panicked, we call in the world-class bee experts to explain the situation. This response, though gratifying, is in vain. Like Wall Street analysts who offer their best predictions after the fact, the analysis will not provide us with the protection we need. The bee and Seung Cho perceived threats that were not real; their behavior escapes appreciation.
Let’s try anyway. His parents were South Korean immigrants who sent a daughter to Princeton and a son to Virginia Tech — a feat worthy to boast of across many oceans. College is the frame upon which immigrants hang their hopes, but sometimes it comes at a price. The drive that steers us toward hard work is often frustrated by the apparent frivolity that pervades American campus culture. Fraternity keggers, society taps — these seem to be the cornerstones of the American college student’s anxiety. To the ethic of a different culture, they are laughable. Seung Cho’s complaints, through lunacy, tap the drumbeat of this disappointment.
Seung Cho’s two defining characteristics continue to be his mental health and his immigration status. Experts dissect the belongings strewn about his dorm room, scrambling for a diagnosis. Depression. Paranoia. Obviously. It is insulting to the millions of positive mental illness survivors to dwell on this. On the other hand, we could further probe the reality of cultural disparity and the specific causes he cited for his intense dissatisfaction with his experience in the United States. Yet to draw conclusions about immigration from his story is an enormous disservice to the core of the nation’s foundation and strength. Both of the gunman’s prominent characteristics lead to a dead end.
I know a man who spent 17 years in prison. He told me that the scariest inmates are the ones who are there for life. The lifers languish in hopelessness, and claim this as license to be brutal and sadistic toward everyone else. Another man I know was born deaf and contracted AIDS in his late teens. A few years ago, Michigan tried to prosecute him for sexual predation when he, with a willful heart, transmitted the virus to 13 different people within the span of six weeks. He remains unrepentant.
Why do people sink into despair? The painful simplicity of the answer escapes psychoanalysis: laziness. Seung Cho chose bitterness as his permanent sanctuary, allowing himself to drown. Yes, he was unwanted and weak, and he elicits a kind of sympathy. Perhaps the shore seemed distant and we all know that without constant encouragement, the race is long. But we do it. We brush ourselves off after devastating exams, awkward dates, even outright evidence of human unkindness. As every first-generation student will tell you, we are too lucky to be given so much. As Seung Cho embraced his victimhood, we should embrace this explanation and free ourselves from this futile search into his psyche.
How should we, the children in the parable, react to this event? When confronted with people who churn bitterness into poison, the natural reaction is fear. We buy bigger guns, go to college closer to home and dead-bolt our doors. Such malevolence seems intolerable to tempt with risk. Fear is the pulse of Seung Cho’s madness, and this is the lesson he expected to teach.
Yet Seung forgot his role in the parable — the bee was never a teacher. We see the families of Virginia Tech. Grief is agony, but it will not kill us. Seung Cho underestimated the goodness his psychosis would beget. Enduring traits of the human spirit enable the sacrifice of the Taiwanese schoolteacher and the Virginia Tech professor to transcend cultural borders to show that no matter where you are, the broken heart continues to beat. This country may not always safeguard us, but retreat will not protect us. The teacher’s pain was apparent, his message clearer still. Seek comfort not in bitterness, but in courage and hope. We are always safe in their arms.
Carol Duh is a senior in Trumbull College.