Elegy ~ Sandy Hook Elementary School ~ December 14, 2012
In memory of those who died at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newton, CT, on Friday, December 14, 2012.
It’s humbling to try to write anything as a response to an event like the Connecticut school shooting. It’s a reminder of just how inadequate words can be.
After something horrific happens, whatever we feel is our truth. All feelings are a certain kind of very fleeting truth. Since Friday, I have felt deeply sad, a sort of a grief though I didn’t know any of the dead. I’ve also felt fear, anger, and again, sadness.
Fear is an emotion designed to helps us avoid future pain. It leads us to close down, to escape, to batten for another blow. Some people will feel fear and want to stay home, stay in, stay away. Others will feel fear and want to buy a weapon. Still others will want to ban future weapons sales, or even confiscate the weapons that are already owned. Fear makes us want to control.
Anger is an emotion that compels us to act, to protect and to defend ourselves. Some people will feel angry and lash out at the shooter, the community, the NRA, the lack of mental health care in this country, the government, the President. Those feeling angry will want to do something with their anger. Angry people arm themselves, protest and threaten, or blame. Angry people sign internet petitions and write their Congressperson or Senator.
Grief means that something sacred and dear has been lost. We will grieve and our grief will be overwhelming. We will feel helpless, hopeless. We will want to do something to prevent ourselves and others from future grief. We will want to give up. Those who are grieving will not be able to think clearly or concentrate until their grief has dulled. For their grief will never pass, but only dull. The grieving need our support and our love. They don’t need our fear or our anger.
After something horrific happens, whatever we do is our choice. In our choices we reveal, or obscure, our humanity.
I agree with Liza Long, “I am Adam Lanza’s Mother,” who wrote that more than anything else, we need a conversation. A conversation with those who become so angry or so scared that the only thing that makes sense to them is destroying life, their own or others’. A conversation with those who are caring for the scared and angry. We need a conversation with those who own guns out of fear and those who train their children to use them out of fear.
After all this carnage, it might help to talk to one another using kind words. It might help to acknowledge that some people only feel safe if they own a gun. Then we must decide together how to make sure that everyone actually is safe.
It might help to look at the data, to learn about the places in the world that are most safe and those that are the least safe. To see how many weapons exist in each of those places and how the laws in the safe places deal with weapons and how the humans in those safe places deal with each other.
Fear, anger, and grief don’t lend themselves to conversation. But I have to believe that we can learn to acknowledge our emotions and then make humane choices. We can choose to talk, and choose not to fight, because we are human beings.
We can look at the facts and the deaths. We can accept each other’s deep emotions and say: I understand. Like you, I also feel pain and anger, grief and fear. Like you, I have felt lost and I have felt loss.
Like you, I want this to change. I hope for this to change.
Hope means that we trust in a promise, or at least, that we would like to trust. We feel hope when a way opens that seemed closed and when either the rock or the hard place gives way. We feel hope when the angry and fearful voices, the voices that are inside all of us, are heard, acknowledged, and so can finally be quiet.
We feel hope when our fears are no longer ignored.
I’m reminded of the words of non-fiction authors Pam Cope and Aimee Molloy in their story of a journey after grief. They wrote of little children, the voices of our children, the voices of all of us:
Now that you’ve seen my suffering, now that you know about me, what will you do?
Love is an Ability
For Mother’s Day this year I would like to thank my mom for her ability to love.
I first learned about this idea of love from the special features following the film “Pieces of April.” Derek Luke, who plays Bobby in the film, says the movie is unique because of its message about love. Through the magnificent failings of all its quirky (did I say quirky? I meant dysfunctional) characters, the film shows that love is an ability, not a feeling. Which means it is something that can be learned, a word I usually associate with school.
While I learned about the importance of effort in academic pursuits in graduate school (and boy, did I!), it took me longer to realize that the same effort could be applied to learning emotional and relationship matters. And though I began my academic learning when attending school for the first time, my ways of feeling, reacting, and relating to others had been practiced and reinforced since I was born.
When certain behaviors, like a particular way of responding when another person speaks, are practiced over and over again, they create “super-highways” in the brain. After that, they become the default behavior – the impulse, the automatic response, or the thing that is easiest to do without thinking. For example, if a child is often hungry as an infant, that child will probably react to a snack by eating it immediately when it appears. If the child has never had the opportunity to practice waiting to eat snack, he probably won’t be very good at it: behaviors that aren’t practiced are like roads that don’t get driven on. They simply disappear.
When anything threatening or uncertain happens, my default reaction – my superhighway – is anger. Lashing out, raising my voice. It doesn’t necessarily have to mean that I’ve been personally threatened – it could be something as simple as someone disagreeing with me. On the phone one night, my mom and I were discussing what I should do about my fatigue. I was (idiotically) trying to figure out a way to continue in my three after-work hobbies: a cappella chorus, weekly writer group, and monthly writer group. I’ve been on a schedule overload like this since high school, and my mom was trying to encourage me to rest:
My mom: “What if this is your window to rest and recover, and what if you spend it too busy? You may miss that window and end up tired…for the rest of your life.”
Me (angry): “What did you need to go and say that for? Don’t you think that’s what I’m worried about most?”
I was angry because my mom had said exactly what I was thinking. It’s kind of ironic to get mad at someone for essentially agreeing with me. But like many default reactions, anger is a defense mechanism meant to deflect other negative feelings like feeling scared (in this case), or ashamed or ignored. It is not a very useful response, because no matter what the anger is directed towards – a person, the store that’s out of a key ingredient, a flat tire – the anger usually shuts down the situation instead of resolving it.
In the past couple years, I decided that I needed to find a way to either avoid anger in the first place, or (more realistically) to do something besides go into attack mode when I felt it. The process was (is, I must admit) messy and stilted. In emotional conversations, I often become angry anyway, even after telling myself it won’t happen. (I once made myself a little note – a “yellow card” like in soccer – to use when I was feeling over the edge; I was in Italy during the World Cup at the time).
It helped when a teacher reminded me that “when under stress, regress,” which means, when a person is under stress, she reverts to her original ways of handling a situation. This helped me to have patience with myself when I was trying to lay down the new highway in my brain. It helped me to realize that even if I didn’t always succeed in managing anger, it was important that I was trying, and some day, I might succeed.
Eventually, after a much longer time than expected, I became able to feel anger and not do or say anything about it. I can “just be” and let the feeling occur. Sometimes, magically, I can even say, “I want to talk about this, but can we do it later?” Other times, it is like my car has stalled on the highway. I won’t let it go any further down the anger road, but it doesn’t have anywhere else to go. So I remain silent, staring, remembering my breath. And still other times, when I am at my most vulnerable, the anger still comes.
My mom has stuck by me in all of this. She has talked and listened on too many phone calls to count (though my cell phone company is delighted to count them). For several months last year, we talked on the phone every single night. I was going through a divorce, plus dealing with health problems, and was not the most cheerful of conversationalists. But my mom was there, putting in the time, listening and responding. Sometimes I even asked her for a different response, which she remarkably was able to give. And many, many times, my mom responded with wisdom and kindness, with words I didn’t even know would make me feel better and with stories that helped me see the strength and dignity in our human plight. She helped me see the value of having the world tumble down around our feet. She helped me find my own particular strength and dignity.
My mother is not a perfect person (I always wonder why that seems like a disclaimer. As far as I know, not one of us is perfect so this is a way of saying “she is a human being, not a robot” which is intended as a compliment). But my mom has a quality that I admire a lot: she tries, really hard, to love. She sees love as an ability and as something you can show a person through words and actions. She believes that people can change their words and actions, that she can change and I can change for the better – “for the healthier.” She is able to love me. And she succeeds.
Thank you, Mom, for all that you’ve done, to get me here, to today. I’m more grateful than words can say (But like the academic I am, I shall try).