There are only 7 days left until Christmas. I had hoped to write a blog on holiday baking, or my childhood memories of Christmas Eve. While doing the dishes I was composing a poem about frost and the unpredictability of English weather.
So, let’s get this straight. This is NOT what I want to write about. Connecticut. 26 dead. 20 of them children. The newspaper headline was enough to send me running, hoping I might just out-sprint the lead ball forming in my belly. But I am writing today because words are how I try to understand.
I wonder if there is a normal way to react to inexplicable tragedy? For myself, there is always a progression… Disbelief. Outrage. Sadness. Fear. Perhaps ‘progression’ is not the right word. It seems to imply that my feelings are linear, that they fall into place like the pieces of a jigsaw and guide me to a better place.
Usually I begin with a series of thoughts. America, I tell myself, is a dark place, a place of rampant gun laws and vigilante violence, a place where ignorance and fear breed rage and aggression. I try not to question these thoughts. I tell myself that acts of this nature are much less likely in Britain. If I can contain this atrocity within the borders of one country, a country where I no longer live, than I am that much safer.
But unfortunately America is also the country where I grew up, the place where my family lives, where my niece and nephew attend local schools, and my friends are having babies. It may be easier for British people to look at this tragedy from a distance, to soothe themselves with the wobbly belief that things like this only happen in places like America. But love, unfortunately, prevents me from finding solace in sweeping generalisations.
So, I move on to plan B. I look for someone or something to blame. If I can pinpoint the exact reason why 20 innocent children are dead, I will make sure this never happens again. The gunman seems a good place to start. Who can I blame for his psychosis? Perhaps he was a victim of a shoddy school system, or a product of horrific parenting. Maybe he endured some terrible abuse as a child. This could be the result of those terrible video games that simulate war and destruction, or a glut of action thrillers with gratuitous violence. Then again, I could just as easily lay the blame with the NRA and their ridiculous quest to protect our right to bear arms. Shouldn’t they be held accountable? Shouldn’t someone?
But on this occasion blame falls short. I try to raise my fist in the air at the injustice of it all, but the only thing I feel is a deep sadness that visits me when I least expect it. Two days ago, Dave and I were on a train heading to Telford to see his Nanny. On the platform I saw parents with shopping bags holding onto their children’s hands and I smiled at a little girl in a pink coat that looked remarkably like Cindy Lou Who from the Grinch who Stole Christmas. And suddenly it was there, a rushing vulnerability. The parents grieving in Connecticut crowded behind my eyes and wrung their hands.
It seems to me that to analyze this situation would be just one more attempt to push it away. Because as soon as I begin to point the finger or shake my head or raise my voice or climb up onto my soap box, Connecticut becomes a mythical tragedy, one that I can talk about with detachment and with an equally mythical sense of safety.
This time I let the sadness speak. I stop trying to figure out what went wrong, and I bring mindfulness to what is happening in my body. Each time I feel the despair I let it stay inside me and I resist the urge to ‘think.’ I breathe with the children who have survived this tragedy and whose sense of safety has evaporated overnight. I breathe with the parents in neighbouring schools who are hugging their sons and daughters harder, trying to confront on a much grander scale, what we are all feeling: a total lack of control.
And what is dawning on me slowly, growing cell by cell into a conviction, is that Connecticut is not someone else’s problem. Connecticut is not someone else’s pain and suffering, not someone else’s society running amok… This is our ailing humanity, our collective wound.
And If we want our society to be different we need to address in ourselves what has led to this abomination: anger, hopelessness, depression, isolation, loneliness, anxiety… and an utter lack of compassion and kindness.
We want to tell ourselves: This has nothing to do with me. After all, I’m not a killer. I would never show up at a school with a gun. And if we can reduce what happened to a series of knowable absolutes, we can push away the growing realisation that tragedy of this kind could happen anywhere, at any time, and it does.
So, here is Connecticut. Here is a soulless gunman, a random act of violence. And yet, when I ask myself, what has led this young troubled man to this action, there is not a simple answer. Human behaviour is too complex. A nurse commits suicide after taking a prank phone call and we want the caller to take on the burden of the death. We forget that each life has a history, a set of circumstances that build on one another, an intricate web of thoughts and feelings that lead to actions, which cannot make sense in isolation. The conditions of our lives change and grow more difficult. They lead us to the edge of our sanity and sometimes back again.
The truth is…. the emotions that were at work in that gunman are alive and well in us. We may not have led the same life or have faced the same circumstances, but anger and fear bubble up in us every day. The tragedy is that we act from this place.
Here is an example.
Your internet service has been off for the last three days. You make an initial inquiry and are told engineers have been sent to the area. Now, it’s been nearly five days and you haven’t checked your email and you’ve called two times and the phone is always busy. When you finally get through you shout at the woman who takes your query, and hang up the phone. That Virgin Media! you think, what an inefficient bunch of idiots! In your mind, justice has been done because you’ve been wronged by this company. What you don’t acknowledge is the effect that your words have had on the woman who answered the phone. Today your anger has made her feel small and helpless and out of control. She has a son at home, and she’s working long hours and still having trouble making ends meet. Tonight she will go home and pick a fight with her son when he doesn’t finish the food on his plate. In her state of anxiety she will throw his plate on the floor and tell him she wishes he’d never been born. Tomorrow that boy will go to school and the cycle will continue.
But what happens if you make a different choice, if you notice yourself feeling angry and frustrated about the internet, and you wait to call Virgin Media until you are calm enough to inquire without being flippant or sarcastic or just downright mean. And so the woman who takes your call returns home and she is only tired. She has more tolerance for her son because her heart hasn’t been trampled.
We are fooling ourselves if we think that our actions don’t make a difference. Our anger hurls itself into the universe, no matter how small and seemingly insignificant. Do we want to be one of the many bad experiences in a life that ends at a school in Connecticut or do we want to be the means by which someone is liberated? Every day we act on our emotions. We send little ripples into the pond. If we want to point a finger, we should be pointing it at ourselves.
I’m not saying we shouldn’t transform the parts of our society that foster violence… our gun laws, our television shows etc… But I think it is important to keep the ball in our court, to work with the suffering that resides in our own hearts and minds, to address our own anger and anxiety and fear.
For the past couple of days I have repeatedly thought of my seven year old niece. I went to her classroom on my last visit to America and met her new teacher. We spent an hour together making string bracelets in her bedroom. There isn’t anything I wouldn’t do to keep her safe.
Every time I speak or interact with another person I have an opportunity to help my niece. Every effort I make to bring awareness to what I’m feeling inside reduces the chance that I will act out of anger and pass on pain.
And if saving my niece means bringing light to the dark places in this world, practicing compassion when I could just as easily do nothing at all, then this is a commitment I’m willing to make.
And so should you.