Like any therapist, I hear a lot of sad stories. Betrayal, illness, tragic loss. Empathy is a requirement of the job; we journey with our clients, taking in their struggles and their suffering. Yet, paradoxically, we must learn to manage our own emotions, to see beyond the pain, in order to be helpful. I’m used to grieving that way, touched by the pain of others, but not overcome. Then came Newtown.
The story of Newtown, Connecticut bypassed all my emotional protections, and went directly to the heart. It was just last Friday that 20 little kids and 6 teachers were murdered, rapid-fire, with an assault weapon, at Sandy Hook Elementary School. It seems much longer ago.
What do we do with our heartache, when these were not, after all, our children, and we have never even visited their town? I wept through the interfaith memorial service, the photo montages of the dead kids making funny faces just a week ago, even the street interviews by the burbling creek that runs through town. Don’t feel silly if you did too. I’m sad, outraged, stunned, and I don’t really want to recover, yet.
But in the meantime, like you, I have a job to do. That requires finding a way to make peace with this awkward experience we call empathy.
Those who suffered the loss of a child that day will have a lengthy journey through grief and sadness. First, the funerals. These families will be forever joined to one another, and form a community of support. Some will find their voices. All will be transformed. But the rest of us, who only bore witness online and on tv, have no familiar way to grieve. We will have to find one.
The social media that have included us in the tragedy in real time, will also allow us to form communities of support. What kind of support is meaningful, at a time like this? Glib words of comfort seem unworthy of this moment, dark and sacred. Our naivete about the limits of human cruelty is stripped away, this week. Our society has failed those children.
Healing and repentance are entwined. Something in our society stands in need of healing, and it requires something of us. It is not enough to be sorry this massacre happened. Perhaps this is where we can bring our wounded hearts: to the work of repairing the world, so that it is safe to be vulnerable in public again.
The psychiatrist and holocaust survivor Victor Frankl said that we humans can tolerate suffering, if only we can find meaning in it. It is essential for our own healing, to make this tragedy an impetus for change in the world. Many possibilities come to mind.
Perhaps it is our inadequate mental health resources, for people as troubled as the young killer of Newtown’s children. We don’t know much about him yet. People in incoherent pain can do terrible, destructive things. Presumably, his affluent family could afford therapy, but that is not true for many troubled people, in this era of budget cuts and stingy insurance. As things stand, if a sociopath refuses treatment, we have no recourse until he becomes violent or suicidal. Are you angry yet?
What is spiritually amiss, that allows people who bore witness to the Sandy Hook tragedy in the same way I did, to respond by stocking up on assault weapons just like the one that killed those kids, in case access to them becomes more difficult? Could it not wait until next week? Could a less vicious weapon not do?
What is spiritually wrong with a clergyman or politician who, eager to be heard, and to make sense of the chaos, proclaims that God must be displeased with the policy of not teaching prayer in public schools? The image of divine vengeance working out God’s plan in Newtown is a horrifying, disrespectful, abusive statement of our place in the world. Are you angry yet? Healthier images are urgently needed, that allow us to tolerate our fallibility and our grief, gently, without syrupy sweetness.
Tomorrow, according to the predictions of the ancient Mayans, is the last day of the world. In the language of the healing professions, the end is also the beginning. The murders of the children at Sandy Hook School have touched us, and made us not strangers, if our hearts can tolerate this moment of awakening.
May our universe emerge more peaceful tomorrow. After Newtown, our world will not be the same. Find your anger.