It is mid-December 2012 and in the background of daily life are the impending holidays and the end of the Mayan calendar on December 21, which some people suggest predicts the end of time. Last week, I thought I would write this week about the holidays, celebrating Christmas in all its pagan glory when my children have been raised exclusively as Buddhists. Last week, I finished my weekly Whoopsiepiggle post on Thursday and planned to edit it one more time before posting it the next day. But last Friday, before I had posted, a friend told me of the shooting in Newtown, Connecticut. I didn’t post on Friday. I wondered whether or not to post on Saturday. Would posting, by resuming my weekly routine, help process such an emotionally eviscerating event? Or would holding off on posting show respect for the dead much like a moment of silence? I posted on Saturday and I’m still not sure if that was the better choice.
Mayan calendar or not, it may feel like the end of time has come for the families of the 20 first-graders murdered in their school. The friend who told me of the shooting takes my sixth-grader, Jules, to school each morning with her own first-grade son. After she called, I wanted to back up time to earlier that morning when we were chatting in my driveway while Jules climbed into her Jeep. The air was crisp but not frigid, the matte finish of frost coated the lawn and the sky pinked the horizon. At just past 8 o’clock, it was the beginning of the last hour of life for twenty little children and the adults who tried to protect them.
People die everyday. Approximately 150,000 of them worldwide. In 2000, it was estimated that roughly 1,500 people are murdered each day on our planet. Sometimes these events hit us because the person who dies is someone we know, someone we love dearly and when they pass, it can feel as if something inside us dies too. Other times, strangers die in ways that captivate our sensibilities and make us pause in our otherwise self-absorbed lives. The destruction of the Twin Towers on 9/11/01, the South Asian tsunami in 2004, last year’s tsunami in Japan. We gasp when other humans, particularly those who live most like us, suddenly stop living with little or no warning. If it could happen to them, it could happen to us is the feeling deep inside. Perhaps even relief that it happened to someone else and not to us.
This past year brought an onslaught of mass killings in the U.S. Humans killing other humans whom they didn’t even know for no apparent reason other than insanity. Last February, after a boy in the nearby town of Ravenna, Ohio randomly shot and killed three students, we practiced a lockdown drill at the school where I worked and Jules attends. The community at the private, Waldorf school feels like that of a healthy church community in the way we come together to help out the school and one another. The dogma is the Waldorf pedagogy we have all chosen for our children. I have long had a list of things I would buy the school were I to win the lottery—things like energy efficient doors and windows. After the Ravenna shooting I became acutely aware, as I sat at a desk from which I could see the main doors to the building, that our school was not adequately prepared for an intruder with an assault weapon. My wish list for the school is now very different. Then again, the fact that Sandy Hook elementary was far more prepared was of little consequence when the assailant just shot his way into the building.
A week after the Ravenna shooting, we learned of an Episcopalian school’s headmistress being murdered in her office by a recently fired teacher. They had let him in because they knew him and never suspected his guitar case contained a gun. Working at the K-8 school my son attends is the only job I have ever had where I felt a deep concern for my physical safety. Not because there was anyone I was afraid of but because it is clear that nobody at any of the school shootings this past year thought they were in any danger of inexplicable violence.
With each mass killing this past year, not only at schools but also a movie theater in Colorado and a Sikh temple in Wisconsin, I observed something as grim as the murders themselves: We as a nation have become desensitized to mass murders committed with alarming efficiency. Until last Friday, I never expected uproar for gun control because I knew, as apparently did the politicians, that it was pointless. I have long had the sinking feeling that we will just live with these crimes in this country, that it is one of the negatives in the cost benefit analysis of living in the richest country in the world. People talk about Canada having a preferred approach to a number of social and criminal issues but I do not know a single American who has moved to Canada in response to American policies.
I wrote in Whoopsiepiggle last week that having children changed me, made me a better person. I was not a bad person before and, if anything, my kids have taught me to be kinder to myself. Losing a child under any circumstance would also change me. Perhaps more deeply than having them in the first place. To lose a child to unspeakable violence, to wonder what your baby’s terrifying last minutes of life were like, and to know that as the parent you were utterly incapable of protecting your child, these things shatter my heart as a distant observer.
That’s the difference.
According to a recent study, mothers who lose a child, even a child out of the home, have a 133% greater chance of dying themselves in the subsequent two years. This horrific event has made many turn inward, go deeper than we did in any of the multiple mass killings of the past year. This time there is much discussion of gun control, access to mental healthcare, and the fact that middle class white men have perpetrated the overwhelming majority of these massacres. These discussions are happening because this crime, even given our gun death saturated news cycles, was too much for us.
I don’t doubt that many people have turned to their faith to help them process this event. There’s nothing to make sense of, the killing of 20 innocent children and their adult educators is insane. My faith does not ascribe spiritual causation to events whether they are good or bad. But I have learned through my practice to observe our behavior when things are very difficult. Particularly at times of grief can our hearts become softer, more open, vulnerable and compassionate. It is a tenderness we would do well to cultivate, to carry into our interactions for as long as possible.
In the days following 9/11, the French paper, Le Monde ran the headline, “We Are All Americans.” As a nation and perhaps beyond our borders I see many people grieving as if we are all family with the people of Newtown, Connecticut. A friend posted on her Facebook wall yesterday: “I have to stop watching television. All I’ve been doing is crying.” Another person responded that she too had been crying and her TV was off.
An longtime friend who now lives in California stayed with us over the weekend. Also Buddhist, she and I briefly discussed that in this or any situation the question of why is irrelevant. Whatever has happened has happened, so now what?
But the soul cries why. Why were these children born if only to be taken? Why did the killer pick that day, that school, that classroom, those children? Why had the killer not been treated, hospitalized, or jailed? If I were a parent of one of the murdered children, I imagine I’d ask myself why I hadn’t kept the child home that day.
Questions of why only lead to despair because in the end, we have no control over what happened. The dead are gone, many now buried. And nothing will bring them back. We will all die and soon, in relative terms. For most of us, 99.9% of the world’s population will not notice our passing. And soon thereafter, within a few decades, we will be forgotten in the vast darkness of time.
What will we do with the very limited time we have? We will cry for those little children as surely as we cry for their families whose pain breaks us open and for the moment brings us together with people we will never know. We will try to sustain the compassion we feel for one another in the shadow of this tragedy because right now, in this holiday season when shopping seems so hollow, when the fiscal cliff now seems inconsequential, our perceptions of “us and them” are momentarily suspended while we grieve for the dead in Newtown, Connecticut.
And maybe, before we re-swaddle our conscious minds with our busy lives, we will finally address the complex issues of these now common massacres. Twenty children were heinously sacrificed. It need not have been in vain.