I am a news-follower. I’m that person who flips on CNN or MSNBC the moment “breaking news” happens and stays glued to my television for hours on end, catching up on the latest developments of a breaking news story. I have a hard time disengaging – I continue to watch long past the point of wanting to, even when I need turn off the TV and think of something else for the sake of my own well-being. I find it impossible. Update after update, interview after interview, careless speculation, media spin…some call it Tragedy Porn, and I find that to be an apt description. Even still, I can’t turn away.
For me, I feel like bearing witness to these things in their entirety makes me an informed American, and a compassionate individual. I’m a person with a lot of opinions when it comes to politics, moral issues, and current events. It’s the least I can do to become educated about what is happening in the world around me before I offer an opinion. And so I watch. Sometimes to the point of causing myself anxiety and anguish. “Just turn off the TV,” I tell myself. And yet I still watch, sometimes long after everyone else is tuned out.
The tragedy at Sandy Hook this past Friday took a toll on me that I did not expect. I tuned in from the moment the news broke. The same as I did when Columbine happened back in 1999. The same as I did on September 11, 2001. The same as I did when Osama Bin Laden was killed. I watched the madness unfold. This time, however, it was different. I could feel the panic rising in my throat, the anxiety building in my chest. Something about this particular news story was different to me. It wasn’t just me watching as a bystander removed from the situation, casually observing from a moral standpoint. This story was real to me. It was a story I could easily envisage myself being a part of.
I have a three and a half year old son. For the past few months, my husband and I have been tossing around ideas for his future education. We’re torn between the idea of homeschooling, which many of our peers do, and which falls in line with our values and ideology, and sending him off to Head Start, at one of the highest rated elementary schools in the State. As of late I’ve been leaning towards Head Start, simply because I don’t know if I am qualified enough to teach my son and I don’t want to short change him, and I’d like him to benefit from going to a great school. I’ve been grappling with the feelings of sending off my only child, who is a wide eyed, free spirit, to school on a big yellow bus with no seatbelts and a bunch of other kids who he may or may not like. I don’t want to be that Mom, who shields her child from every imagined threat, so I’ve been pushing my anxiety aside and telling myself that he’ll be just fine at school. Most other kids are, right?
No. Sometimes, they aren’t. School shootings are almost the norm in our society these days. Nobody is safe. From elementary school all the way up to established colleges, these students are prey for the whims of the perpetrators who wish to do them harm. We talk in circles about gun control, better mental health care, and tighter security at places of learning. And yet, nothing ever changes. Nobody ever reaches a consensus or offers a concrete solution. We talk and argue and post our videos and pictures in remembrance, and think that is enough. But it is not enough.
It isn’t even just about guns. Our children face many other threats at their place of education. Cases of bullying are constantly in the news, with kids who simply can’t endure anymore actually taking their own lives rather than face the pain and fear any longer. So often bullying is tied in with violence in a never ending spiral, and still nothing gets done about it.
Some time Friday evening I finally managed to disengage from the news, but my feelings of anxiety and sadness still lingered for days, as they did for everyone else. It made me feel physically ill to think of twenty children, all around 6 or 7 years old, having lost their lives in such a horrific, violent manner. Death is always sad, but when it’s the death of a child, especially at violent hands, it’s hard to bear. I had to take a break not only from the television, but from social media for a while. Watching people argue about guns, and mental health, or choosing to blame the mother of the perpetrator (who is also dead, at her son’s hands) all pointing fingers at each other, in a never-ending unproductive spiral, was just too much for me. It doesn’t serve the victims. It does nothing to remember them. It does nothing to push the issue forward and find solutions. It’s all just talk, a dance of egos.
This past Sunday afternoon, my heart was still a little heavy as I slowly got ready for a social obligation that had been planned for weeks. An acquaintance of mine, with help from various friends in our unique Athens, GA community, had planned a “Gift Drop-Off,” so that parents in our area who may not be able to afford to get their children Christmas gifts could come and “shop” in private for Christmas gifts and socialize. I briefly considered not going, because I just wasn’t in a Christmas spirit kind of place. I was still feeling anxious, and I often become anti-social and hermit-like when I feel panicked. Still, I had items that I’d promised to donate, and a friend waiting on me to give her a ride, so I forced myself to get ready.
When we arrived, my heart caught in my throat. The host of the gathering ushered us into her bedroom, which was covered wall-to-wall in toys, candy, board games, books, art supplies, stocking stuffers, clothes and other gifts that had been donated or bought with donated money. All of it being given freely to the children of our community. You couldn’t see her bed! You couldn’t even walk through her room without running into another box of donated items. For the next four hours, more and more friends and acquaintances showed up and dropped off items. We all gave what we had to give, and then took plastic garbage bags and collected items for our children. Our host said she planned to donate whatever was left over to Project Safe, our local charity and community center, which provides financial and emotional support to victims of domestic violence. As I stood in her cozy kitchen with a glass of wine, chatting with the other guests, I began to feel a little brighter. As my friend and I left, I was grateful for the experience, and for the fact that just a little bit of my faith in humanity had been restored. There are people in our communities, in our country, that care for the well-being of children and who go above and beyond to make sure we all have the opportunity for safety, health, and happiness. It was just a little bag of donated Christmas items, but it made all the difference to me.
The lesson I learned on Sunday is that staying glued to a television and watching tragedies unfold does not make me a more compassionate person. Yes, it may make me more informed and in the know, but at what cost? It won’t bring those children back. It won’t further a solution to gun control, or better, more compassionate mental health care for our citizens. It won’t magically solve the problems running rampant in our children’s lives. It won’t ease my anxiety at sending my son off into the world – a world rife with prejudice, hatred and violence. I can’t solve those problems alone, and I definitely can’t do it by staying plugged into a talking box.
No. We begin to solve those problems by banding together as a community, forming villages and tribes with our neighbors, friends and families, and showing our children what true love and kinship is. We should give to each other without expecting things in return, and share what we have selflessly and without expectation. Through the act of giving, we band together, form friendships, and strengthen bonds that will benefit our entire communities. And through those strong, supportive communities, our children will thrive. They will be the better for it.
Of course, we can’t always protect our children and loved ones from tragedy that happens unexpectedly. That community in Connecticut was tight-knit, too. It is impossible to shelter our small ones from every possible threat because we face risks every day that we’re alive. What we can do, though, is to do our small part to make the world our children live in one of kindness, compassion and giving, and to show them by example that they can change their environment from something negative to something positive. It has nothing to do with politics, or socio-economic status, or race or religion or sexuality. It something beyond all of that. We can teach them generosity of spirit, compassion, and unconditional love. None of us can control how long our lives will be ““ but we can control the quality of our lives while we’re living them. Let’s start today.