The holidays are always a bitter-sweet time for me. It is supposed to be a time of joy and happiness and celebration, but I have always dreaded it. There’s something about the crush, the rush, the pressure to perform, the urgency that everyone is feeling to “get it right”, and the lingering sense that — yet again — I have not accomplished all I set out to, 11-1/2 months ago.
This year was looking like it was going to be a little different. I haven’t got any extra money, so the whole Christmas shopping thing has been a non-event for me. And there hasn’t been much snow at all, with the weather warmer than expected, and the snow that did fall rapidly melting away. I haven’t been in any sort of Christmas spirit at all. Far from it. But I was fine with that, because I’ve felt a lot of peace and equanimity, which I haven’t often felt at Christmas time.
Then some batsh*t crazy f*cker walks into an elementary school and kills 20 kids and 6 adults. Little kids. Babies. Gone. The shooter’s gone, too – along with his mother, whom he killed first. And last I heard, they were questioning his brother.
Shit. All day yesterday, it has been on my mind so much that I missed two turns on my way home and I spent 30 extra minutes driving to pick up supper I’d ordered. By the time I got home, dinner was a little cool. I didn’t break down and weep like many folks I know, but I did call home to tell my spouse how much I loved them. No matter how dulled we may be to the cruelties and anguish of this world, awful tragedies like this do alter our world view at least a little and force us to look at the world with fresh eyes.
Senseless. Awful beyond description. Horrifying.
At times like this, our national instincts seem to respond in two ways — one, with unimaginable grief and horror… two, with clinical, distant reasoning that reaches conclusions that seem “logical” enough to the thinkers. On the one hand, there are those who plunge into grief and compassion… and pray. And then there are those who raise the banners of their crusade and charge forth into battle — to either stem the tide of semi-automatic assault weapons that keep showing up on the news, or to call for an even more aggressively armed society where people will think twice before they do something like this… again.
Before the shouting begins (although it already has), I need to take a breath and remember that I too will feel the eager pull of diving into the debate about gun control and the rights to keep and bear arms. I need to remember that I am tired and frustrated and in pain for these families, and that inclines me to say and do things that I wouldn’t otherwise do. I need to remember that the things that I often think are really good ideas, often… aren’t. And the things I want to say and do under such circumstances may not match the things I’d say and do under more ideal conditions.
I need to hold back and not strike out at others whose politics and cultural habits seem to either feed this scourge of shootings that has become so terribly commonplace, perpetuate it with apathy and denial, or alienate and polarize members of “the other side” so that no constructive debate can actually happen. My feelings on the issue of gun control, medication, mental illness, and personal/public security are many and varied, and I don’t fall easily into any one camp. I can easily burn through the friendships I have with a wide variety of people, over this whole thing… and I can’t afford to just alienate everyone on a passing (and passionate) whim.
So, I need to stop — just stop — and check myself, before I start doing and saying things that I can’t take back.
Ultimately, times like this — as senseless and as horrifying as they are — serve most to remind me just how much suffering there is in the world. Without getting into the reasons “why” or pointing fingers or laying blame — as we all love to do — I need to just remember that this kind of thing happens terribly often, all over the world. And whether the parents are in Newtown, Connecticut or in Kandahar Province or in Marseilles or in Chenpeng or in Baghdad, there are an awful lot of them who are losing their kids and parents and teachers to violence they would do anything to avoid, but cannot.
Times like this, I also need to remember how quickly we all tend to “apportion” our compassion. Closer to home, it’s easier to feel the burn and recognize the true horror. When the kids and teachers look like OUR kids and teachers… when they speak the same language, when they eat the same foods, keep the same schedule, vote for the same politicians, and could easily be related to us, it hits us so much harder when something this awful happens.
When the others are… well, other… it becomes a different story. Especially when the others are on the other side politically or geographically, or we’ve been told there is a Very Good Reason why they are being forced to suffer — sometimes in our names, with our tax dollars buying the ammo. And then there are those who are so remote from us, politically and socially and culturally and racially, who are undergoing such horrifying violence and destruction, it is literally impossible for us to get our heads around it, and the best we can do is try to protect ourselves and our kids and our families from having that happen to them.
And that’s all the suffering that’s on the surface. Deep beneath the careful veneer of everyday functioning, there are countless individuals who struggle daily with pain and anguish they neither understand nor can seem to overcome. There are countless individuals whose pain and suffering is well concealed, which cannot be guessed at by anyone nearby. The concealment can be deliberate — they can’t afford to let anyone know — or by default — either because others cannot fathom what it’s like, or they choose not to see. It could very well be that others choose not to see because their own inner pain is so profound that, to open that up is not an option… they literally feel like that might kill them.
And so they don’t open up to it. They stay closed. They get on with things. And they expect others to do the same.
I wish I could do just that — shut down and suck it up… and get on with it. I wish it were that easy. I wish I could just pretend away the headaches, the memory lapses, the distractability, the inner storms that rage at times, the frustrations, the sleeplessness, the stress, the nagging uncertainty about, well, everything. I wish all those things, compared to what happened yesterday in Connecticut, paled and didn’t matter or affect me. I wish I could dismiss it all, since compared to some, I have it really great.
But it’s not that easy. It’s not that simple. And while focusing on the pain of others does put things in perspective and make me incredibly grateful for what I have, I still have to deal with my own issues as I get on with my day. I’m not feeling well this morning. I haven’t felt well for most of this week. I’m fighting off a cold, with my ears filling up with fluid and my balance going haywire. I’m distracted, too, by all this anguish. Which makes me particularly vulnerable to more injury, if I’m not careful. I have to get back to some semblance of normal after a grueling couple of weeks, which is a prelude to an even more challenging 8 days before I leave for my marathon Christmas/New Years tour through five states and several families.
I just don’t feel right. And a whole lot of other people don’t either. We keep checking the news to understand “why”. We keep checking Facebook to see how others are dealing with this. We loop through question after question after question in our shuddering minds, unable to get our heads around it, haunted by the images of the parents and the kids, unable to keep from imagining what it must be like… even if it does us and them no good to do so. At some point, we just have to stop. Just stop. Take a break. Go back to bed. Or go shop. Run some errands. Just do something — anything — to get our heads off it. And all the while, Why… why…? Along with the constant running commentary in my head that pretends to “know why” as a form of logic-driven self-defense in the face of such loss.
This world is hardly a simple, cut-and-dried sort of place, and this holiday season may or may not be even worth celebrating. Suffering is rampant on any given day, and this time of year is no exception. In Connecticut this Christmas, there will be toys that cannot be opened, and there will be pain so great it is unspeakable. There are just no words…
And around the world, this holiday season, there are countless other families who have lost babies… mothers… fathers… loved ones. To war or fire or famine or flood or drought or disease or any number of other reasons. They are brown or yellow or black or red or white. Some of them are even in our own country, living on the fringes of our Great American Experiment, watching their loved ones and all their own hope fade before their very eyes, as so many look away.
This is what I bring with me this holiday season – not just the urge to “be happy” in the face of it all (although that is certainly part of it), but to see and know and understand the other side of happy — the pain and the suffering that so many, myself included, endure at this time. This is not to say that I am succumbing to the dark pull of the nebula of suffering that lurks at the edges of our personal universes, but to say that I can see and feel clearly how much pain and suffering there really is in the world. There are so many who are so alone, whether or not they are the only one in the room. There are so many who struggle and suffer in silence without recognition or support from others. There are so many who carry immense pain and anguish with them over invisible difficulties that they just can’t shake. And seeing and feeling that seems only right, in this time when there is — at the same time — so much light.
Because there is. On the 21st of December, the Winter Solstice will mark the expansion of daylight in our northern hemisphere. The darkening days (literally) will give way to longer hours of light, and a shorter night. This will not eradicate the night — hardly — only give us more light to see our way, for more hours of each day. And when I think of that, when I think of how the world turns and changes, and how many myriad times we have all been through the darkest of dark times and the brightest of bright times, I know that other side of things — the peace and the joy and the hope. Peace that passeth understanding. Joy unbounded. And hope beyond hope.
This is the ultimate irony of this season — that it is such an extremely hard time for many, and yet it has so much hope and promise in it. That 20 little children and adults who were trying to care for and protect them were gunned down, less than two weeks before Christmas is something that will overshadow this season for many years to come. I can’t imagine that a single Christmas will ever pass again without this being remembered.
And in the midst of this remembering, I have to also keep in mind, how many others are suffering — hidden or forgotten or both… how many others are struggling, for other reasons… how many others have lost hope and have no idea what comes next. The politicking and social debates and cultural clashes are bound to flare up soon, which to me adds an even greater pall over these events, even as I know that some sort of change is necessary. It’s not the debate that gets me — it’s the tone of it, the tenor, the divisiveness and the aggression. From each side towards the other. What I need to keep in mind, as those battles rage, is that the source of the frustration and the aggression and the divisiveness is nothing less than human nature — fueled by passion over Things That Matter.
It’s not the greatest comfort, but it is something.
In the end, though, I can’t afford to be felled by this experience. I was not in Connecticut. I do not know those families or those children. My own involvement is as limited with them, as it is with families in Ramallah who lose their kids, too. The fact that they are from my country doesn’t mean they are any more or less valuable than anyone else. ALL are valuable, and ALL matter, and enough with the apportioning of compassion to decide who matters, and who doesn’t. The fact of this horrible shock doesn’t make the sufferings of others any less — the homeless vets struggling with PTSD and TBI on the bitterly cold streets of Chicago or Philadelphia… the families in the Detroit area who are being evicted because they cannot pay their rent… the farmer in South Dakota who lost his barn to fire… the housewife in Boise whose doctor can’t explain that nagging pain in her abdomen… the injured, the broken, the burned, the terminally ill… whether ambulatory or bedridden… whether about to be discharged to go home and recover, or to be moved to hospice to pass on during the Christmas season…. whether cut down in the flower of life, or struggling with lingering dementia in their final days/weeks/months/years/who-can-tell-how-long? For all the light that comes in, this is NOT an easy time for many.
And so it becomes all the more important to find light… to find something else to dwell on… not to banish the pain, but to find the strength to face it. We must find sources of strength and light, so that we can keep ourselves going in this seemingly impossible stretch of “holiday cheer”. We cannot run our best on fumes, and we cannot keep our strength up by dwelling only on darkness. We must seek more, we must find better. For the sake of facing What Is… no matter what.
Ultimately, it really is our choice, what we choose to do with these situations. We can allow ourselves to be pulled down into nothingness and give up hope entirely. Or we can see with different eyes and choose something different for ourselves. We can starve ourselves in grief… or stuff ourselves with sweets in denial… or we can eat sensibly and exercise and get on with doing what needs to be done. What others do… we have no control. What comes of our actions and reactions… that we do have some say in. And what we choose matters a great deal. To everyone around us.
But I have gone on too long… looking for meaning in all of this. Hoping for hope. Digging for clues. The earth cries out with the loss of each child, the ground soaked with young blood the world over. How we choose to approach it, how we decide to use that knowledge… it is up to you. So choose wisely.
And let there be Life, as well.