Remembering the forgotten
Like most people, it was difficult to pull myself away from the horror of the school shooting in Connecticut the day I was finalizing this very issue. Without access to a television, I listened to updates on the radio and regularly checked social media. As the news evolved and opinions began to heat up, accusations around guns, evil, mental illness, and even prayer in schools began to circulate, only further heightening tension.
While guns are not the entire problem, they play an undeniable and significant role.
And, within the first 24 hours, stories began to emerge. As we learned their names and ages, the victims — teachers and students alike — became larger than life. Some stories grew so quickly that the fact checking website snopes.com began to address the inaccuracies and conflated stories.
As I was listening to news coverage, someone announced that there would be 26 flares set off at the Sunday Night Football game in honor of the innocent people killed. Twenty-six. How many were dead? Memory had said 28. But only 26 flares will be launched.
When an unspeakable tragedy like this happens, many of us want to know the heroes and the villains as quickly as possible. I suspect that names and ages help us to fit our pain into familiar categories and themes, which in turn helps us process our collective grief. And our sense of loss seems to be validated by the size of the event.
Before long, every victim becomes an above-average student, and every teacher a hero. It’s not unlike obituary columns, in which every person listed was, apparently, a saint during his or her lifetime, pretty much without flaw. And I’m okay with this. Death, especially under such horrific circumstances, is not the time to remember that a particular student was actually a behavior problem for the teachers. Or that a particular teacher was slow in getting grades out. Under these circumstances, all that stands out is that each person was, indeed, a hero — for dying surrounded by such mayhem, fear, and devastation. That alone earns all the victims the title of above-average hero.
When we don’t know the right action, we can usually acknowledge the wrong one
As time passes and we gain distance from the pain of Newtown, Connecticut, our society will decide, as we do after every one of these senseless rampages, whether or not now will be the time we truly, deeply address all these issues that are flying about the Internet: lack of mental health services, violence in schools, gun control. Indeed, violence is a very real issue in our society, and while guns are not the entire problem, they play an undeniable and significant role. And, it seems to me, our country collectively acknowledges this reality only when the number of victims is high, or the circumstances seem so outside the bounds of human imagination.
I am not advocating a solution but, rather, arguing that maybe we should suspend our Facebook volleys and see if we can work toward an agenda that ensures fewer of these deaths. I think it would be helpful if we could all learn to talk about mental health differently. Dehumanizing Adam Lanza, as many social media writers have done, doesn’t move that conversation forward in any meaningful or helpful way.
Lastly, and perhaps most difficult, at least for those of us who profess Christian faith, we need to talk about forgiveness. Let me be the first to say, here and now, publicly: If my loved one had been murdered in Newtown, forgiving the gunman would be the most difficult thing I would ever do. But, as with all difficult journeys, I suspect forgiveness begins with small, more manageable steps. To start, maybe we mourn the boy — someone’s beloved child — who set this nightmare in motion. And maybe we mourn his mother who, in all likelihood, had exhausted many of the local options available to her to help her son with his mental health struggles.
And maybe we set off 28 flares instead of 26.