A Cautionary Tale

04-30-2023Pastor's LetterFr. John Bonavitacola

Dear Friends,

What motivates an 84-year-old to shoot a young man knocking on his door? That’s the issue in a recent shooting in Kansas City, where a young black man knocked on the wrong door, as he was picking up his brother, and the homeowner, an 84-year-old white man, shot him twice. Miraculously, the young man has survived, and the shooter is being charged with a crime. The police indicate that racism may be a factor.

For me, the question is why did an 84yr old take such a dramatic action? Why not answer the door and tell the young man you have the wrong house? Or why not, not open the door and call the police or call your next-door neighbor? How is it that a person knocking at your door becomes an existential threat? Why instantly resort to lethal means? Why has there been a complete collapse of social trust? The man said he was scared to death; the knock on the door at night awoke him from his sleep. Maybe the man had been a victim of a crime, a home invasion, or a burglary? Or maybe not. But even if he had, why was his instinct so uncontrolled? I think the answer may lie in how we treat our elderly and the type of isolated lives they often lead. This does not excuse the behavior, but it helps us understand it and prevent it from happening to anyone of us.

I wonder if this 84yr old just sat in his house and watched 24hr Cable News and marinated his brain with all the non-stop stream of bad news, violence, race hatred, political apocalyptic reporting that is constantly being broadcast? If so, his view of the world would become distorted, and paranoia would rule his thinking. In that way he could easily be primed to pop-off at the slightest perceived provocation or threat.

Another part of the answer lies in asking what chemicals was the man using? Recent studies have demonstrated the harms that cannabis use is causing the elderly. While lots of elderly were former hippies in the sixties and may be singing Halleluiah that pot is legal, what they are smoking today is not what they smoked back then. Back then the THC level in a joint may have been 10%, today it’s more like 90%. Frequent, heavy use of this grade of cannabis can cause violent behavior, psychosis, and paranoia.

But there are also other chemicals, often prescribed that put the brain under foreign management. Lots of elderly experience anxiety, depression and other emotional issues that affect their well-being. And a lot of that is caused by unresolved grief, (losing a longtime partner, losing children, being cut off from community) or other declining health related issues that cause someone to lose their independence. As a result, they are prescribed anti-anxiety drugs, antidepressants, or other psycho-active substances. The problem with that solution, is that while they may provide temporary help (especially if they are used with other forms of therapy) these chemicals are powerful influencers on the brain and often disinhibit a person.

When a person is not under foreign management of a chemical, they normally have inhibitions that cause them to pause before taking an action. So, for example, even though you may think that you would like to shoot the crazy driver that cut you out, it remains just a thought as your self-control kicks in, your conscience raises its voice, and your long-term thinking reminds you that you do not want to spend the rest of your life in prison. But without those inhibitions there is no filter, no firewall between a violent thought and an action. Many of the shootings we hear about, including almost all the school shootings, have a chemical component to them. Big Pharma is great at touting the benefits of such drugs and push their often-unnecessary overuse but downplay the serious side effects. Nearly one in four American adults is taking psychiatric medication, and many of these people report experiencing “emotional blunting”, that is an inability to feel their own and other people’s emotions.

Another problem arises that as people age, they can become more of a challenge to family members or actually just a bother or an inconvenience. So, they get taken to a physician who prescribes some kind of benzodiazepine or anti-depressant and BINGO, the elderly person is no longer a problem. They are content to sit and watch TV and sip their diet coke. Problem solved. Solved for the family members but not for the elderly.

One of the best ways to avoid all of this is to stay connected to community. Isolation breeds depression and often paranoia and hopelessness. For Catholics, being connected to the believing community and Jesus in the Eucharist are sure preventative measures against the darker side of aging. It’s why, even when our members can’t attend Church any longer, we make sure to visit them and bring the Eucharist regularly to them. It’s why we have set up a Live- Stream system, so the homebound can stay connected to their Parish.

Those of you who are regulars at Church, participate in community activities, events, and volunteering, dealing with unresolved grief, well, those things are part of a prescription for happy living and avoiding having your sunset years turn into a hopeless prison cell.


Fr. John B.