Sandy Hook, Umpqua, and What One Person Can Do (#994)

I’ve been teaching in the UK this weekend and was looking through some of my old Huffington Post articles to see if there was anything in there worthy of recycling for this week’s tip. To my utter dismay, I came across an article I wrote the day after the killing of 26 people at Sandy Hook elementary school in December of 2012. According to the Guardian newspaper, there have been 933 mass shootings since that time in the USA. Perhaps, as President Barack Obama said in the aftermath of this past week’s shooting at Umpqua Community College in Oregon, “Our prayers are not enough.”

And yet in the aftermath of the horror and the outrage and then the inevitable backlash and numbing of a 24 hour news cycle, we will still be left with a choice. Do we follow the hopelessness and anger of our fearful thinking, or do we look to be guided by the hope and love of the still small voice of compassion within?

I really wish I had to rewrite this article in some way – to update it to make it more “topical”. But I’ve decided to reprint it here exactly as I wrote it nearly three years ago…

In nearly 12 full years of writing blog posts, I have chosen to write about current events twice. The first time was on September 11, 2001. The second is today.

The tragic killings at Sandy Hook elementary last Friday have the potential to make the world a better place, because they raise important questions into our personal and global consciousness. How we respond to these questions — personally, in our families, and as a global community — will depend almost entirely on how deeply we are willing to look inside ourselves for new answers.

How do we balance our personal safety and freedom with the safety and freedom of the society in which we live? How do we respond when death strikes close to home and when fear and anger fill our minds and hearts? And perhaps most important of all, how do we deal with the full, unfettered possibility of life, which will always include the expected and the unexpected, the tragic and the comic, things we want to happen and things we would do everything in our power to prevent if only we could?

While I lay no claim to the “correct” answers, I do believe I can point to where the best answers will come from. Perhaps more significantly, I think I can point to a more important question, one that we each face each and every moment of each and every day:

Which thoughts that come to mind will we act upon, and which thoughts do we let pass through to make space for something new?

I do not know if every parent who heard about these shootings spent time thinking “What if that were my child?” — but I did, and my wife did, and every parent I’ve spoken with and heard from did. And because the nature of thought is that we feel what we think, we have all been touched by a sense of sadness and loss, by fear for what might have been and what might be yet to come, by compassion for those that did lose their children that day, by a deep gratitude for our own children and a desire to hold them close and never let them go.

If we were victims of our own thinking, we would be doomed to walk around at the mercy of those thoughts, living in fear and confusion and anger and despair. It would feel like because we were angry and scared something had to be done, something to strike back at the apparent source of our fear and anger.

If we thought that source was outside us, we might write angry letters to Congress or on Facebook attempting to ban guns, or we might band together with other concerned parents and arm ourselves in the hopes of out-gunning the lone gunmen who could one day take away our own loved ones.

If we were sufficiently lost in the whirlwind of our own thinking, we might even stop seeing the people who disagreed with us as a part of our human family and begin to see them as either “them” or “us” — on the side of good or on the side of evil.

When we forget that even the worst thought imaginable is only real in our imagination, the world can look like a very frightening place. And when our thinking has gotten us to the point where the noise in our head is so loud that we can’t even hear ourselves think, we are capable of doing things so horrible that we would never, ever consider them in our saner, calmer moments.

Fortunately, we do not have to become victims of our own thinking. Thought has the power to create any possibility, but it does not have the power to bring any possibility into being. Only we can do that when we speak a thought into being and act it into the world. By themselves, our thoughts are majestically impotent, filled with sound and fury, signifying nothing.

It only takes a moment of quiet to take away a lifetime of noise. One pause in the onslaught of thoughts and their accompanying anger and fear allows our innate wisdom back in, like the sun piercing the clouds in an artistic representation of God. We can have a change of heart in any moment. We can look beyond the noise of thought and feeling and see something new, and in a moment of insight our old ideas are wiped away like writing erased from a chalkboard.

As a society, this is how we will resolve the seeming paradoxes of individual and community safety. As parents, this is how we will learn to cope with wanting to keep our children close and to watch them grow wings and fly free. As individuals, this is how we will learn to live with both the inevitability of death and the infinite possibility of life.

What happened in Sandy Hook did not have to happen, but it did. We cannot go back and prevent it, but we can look forward and prevent something similar from happening again. We won’t do it by entrenching ourselves deeper in our current thinking, looking for better and better arguments as to why our solution is right and their solution is wrong. We won’t do it by drowning in our feelings of hopelessness an despair, no matter how real and overwhelming those feelings will be while we’re in them.

“How could a loving God allow this to happen?” is a question that has plagued those that believe and those that want to believe throughout time. No matter how hard we pray, it seems that we cannot prevent violence through faith alone. For me, I have found my comfort inside the paradox of God in the words of Marianne Williamson:

“God heard us. He sent help. He sent you.”

The future will change one person at a time and one thought at a time. You can’t bring back a child, but you can bring back the hope in one. You can show love to those that have been raised in hate and you can be an oasis of kindness in a desert of cruelty. You can learn more about the nature of thought and feeling, and the deeper wisdom that guides us when we allow ourselves to keep our heart open, even when it feels like it will break into a million pieces.

What breaks is never our heart — it is the shell that has formed around it. And when that shell breaks open, our hearts unite with the hearts of others and we learn at another level what it is to love and be loved.

Above all, the next time you see a young person who seems lost and confused and is trying to find their way, don’t ignore them and don’t turn away. Without your light, it will be that much harder for them to find their way back home.

At moments like this, I question whether my hope for humanity has become naive. I question what more I could or should be doing. I pray for the well-being of the families who lost their loved ones and for the safety of my own son who is attending college just 70 miles away from where this most recent shooting took place.

But fortunately, I recognize the feelings of insecurity and hopelessness that come when I climb on board that train of thought. They have never led me one step closer to peace. They have never helped me to help another. So at least for today, and at least in this moment, I choose love. I choose hope. I choose to make the difference I can make and not lose sleep about the difference I cannot. And I choose to follow the voice of compassion inside me wherever it may lead.

With all my love,

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