The tragic events around us remind us of the enduring lessons of love and courage that we can learn from
A week ago, in my last women’s studies seminar of the semester, we were asked to each suggest one thing we would want to leave behind to our daughters. In the moment, I could think of no better gift than courage: the ability to face the impossible and the unthinkable with dignity.
The killing of 20 children and young adults in an elementary school in Connecticut seemed impossible and unthinkable. Words cannot contain all the affects these events have on us. But we search for words like we search for a reason and for an end to such violence, nonetheless. This search is necessary. Such tragedies lay bare some of the countless failings we are all responsible for perpetuating.
And yet, somehow, there always is a remainder in our search to bring meaning and control to such horrors, something left over that escapes our understanding. We cannot yet police all possibilities, much less all impossibilities. How can we think ahead and plan for the unthinkable? That is why amidst all the yelling and vengeance, all the bandages and reforms, we must also recognise the unintergratable fragments: the absent and the unknown.
We have lost. We have failed. Many things will come from this, but not all the potentials that have been foreclosed, not all the things that might have come to be because these children (and they were all someone’s children) have been killed. Nothing, no lesson, no happy accident will bring back what has departed. Many things can be replaced with something else, but not absence. Absence lingers among us, however silent or invisible, like an angel or a ghost of things we may not even remember. Not all failures “get better” or turn into successes, if we go on at all it is by living with them, all the absent potentials and present impossibilities.
We can live with absence, but how do we live with the unknown? With fear? How do we move on when the unthinkable can and does happen every day? We need courage. Courage is more than simply what we perform in dangerous circumstances, when the chances are against us. Courage can be how we face a circumstance that does not offer us any possible good outcomes. Courage is how we change the game when the rules in play have told us we have already lost. Courage dignifies us by denying that the meaning of lives and actions can be reduced to outcomes.
It was the day of the Connecticut shooting, as I was getting off the train from DC to Chicago and had been disconnected from all the news of the day that an exchange from the film, “A Lion in Winter”, played through my head. It is when the sons of the king are getting ready to be put to death and one says to the other, “you fool, as if it matters how a man falls down,” to which to other replies “when the falling is all that is left, it matters a great deal.” I tweeted that and when I got home and read the tragic events of the day those words took on a whole new force for me.
We go ahead because we have to, time keeps passing and things keeping moving, transforming. There is no way to prevent the impossible from happening again, but we can practice the courage to face it however it comes. It allows us to do things, because they must be done, even if we fail, even if we lose, even if we die before we know what came of them. We do what must be done because impossibilities defeat other impossibilities all the time and they can happen through us.
As stories begin to come to light of the last moments of these kindergarteners, first graders, and school teachers not long out of college, we hear more about how people faced impossible circumstances with dignity. We hear the story of Victoria, a first grade teacher that hid her students in closets and cabinets when she heard the gunshots, then went to the door. When the shooter arrived, she told him that the students were in the gym. He shot her and moved on.
Because of what she did, she died. Because of what she did, her students lived. We cannot imagine that such a shooting would ever happen to us, nor can we fully imagine what our reaction would turn out being at that moment. But when the impossibility of a gunman aiming to kill these children arrived, it was met by the impossibility of a young woman to face him so that others might live. They did live, and she didn’t, but even if they hadn’t, or she had, what she gave was her dignity in the face of an act of terror. This doesn’t resolve the absence or nullify the fear of the unknown, but shows us how we might face them.
In the weeks that follow, we will be reminded about gun control laws, the inglorious glorification of murders and violence in the media, mental health, the different faces of terror and terrorism, as well as the uncountable other tragedies that occur every day in other places in the world. These conversations need to happen, because they are one way we do what must be done in the face of events that stare us down and say a violence-free-world is impossible. Sometimes the best way to thwart those statements of finality is to just carry on, somehow.
I am not so cynical so as to discount one of the perhaps overprescribed and misunderstood methods of carrying on: love. As David Bowie and Queen once took the time to remind us: “These are the days it never rains but it pours…it’s the terror of knowing what the world is about; hearing some good friends screaming, ‘let me out’….Keep coming up with ‘love’ but it’s so slashed and torn…Can’t we give love that one more chance?” I don’t think it is now any less tacky to say that than when they did, but I don’t think that it is any less needed either. But what do I mean when I say this? Perhaps, nothing more than another “tired and broken hallelujah.”
Then again…Living amidst poverty, violence, and hate acts on us perpetually, but there is untold, forgotten, absent, unthinkable and impossible goods that happen every day amidst all that because of people having the courage and dignity to take every opportunity to give the world one more gift of love. This is not a love that desires anything but to give itself and let the receiver do with the gift what it will. It is by this kind of love that things have come into being that would have otherwise been foreclosed. It is this gift of love that gives the world not what is just, but provides it with better than it deserves and more than it can handle.
One of the gifts of this tragedy is change, another may be courage, and certainly one is absence. All may be more than we can handle and certainly more than we deserve, but we carry them with and within us regardless. It is our daughters (and sons) that in this case have left us something behind. These angels have left their message and departed, so that we may carry it on a little longer. Take it, feel it in your hands, and pass it on. As it carries on, it may carry us with it.
Image from: http://www.heraldsun.com.au
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