El Paso. Dayton. Gilroy. South Haven. Christ Church. Parkland. Las Vegas. Columbine. Sandy Hook. Knoxville.
If you have been paying attention to the news at all in the last few years, you know that these places share a tragic, horrifying trait: they are the sites of mass shootings. Once again this week, our world is mourning the deaths of children, parents, partners, brothers, sisters, cousins, lovers, friends who were killed in public places by random acts of violence.
If you are like me, you’ve talked with friends and family about the causes and possible solutions to this unbelievable trend in our society. When I was young, such occurrences were unheard of. I can remember someone putting sugar in the gas tank of a school teacher in my middle school, and it seemed like an incredible violation of the sanctity of the school space. But now…well, we’re finding ourselves inundated with regular stories of schools, places of worship, stores, where shooters take lives in ways that can make us afraid to leave our homes. And, as UU’s in East Tennessee, we are acutely aware of how such events can directly devastate lives, families, and communities. We remember with love and loss those who were killed in the shooting 11 years ago at Tennessee Valley UU Church: Linda Kraeger and Greg McKendry.
So what’s the solution? I am not going to begin to suggest that I know the answer to that. In my house, we talk about the pros and cons of gun control. We consider the effects of violent media, including shooter video games which were originally designed to train military personnel. We wonder whether mental health issues are getting worse or not, and if so, why. We vacillate between being angry, despairing, and numb. And I think we’re pretty typical of Americans right now.
So how do we respond, as UU’s committed to a fair, safe world? Here’s what I’d suggest: there is no single right way to respond. Grief has many faces, and many stages, and all of them are valid. But we have to acknowledge that we’re grieving. I think we can easily forget, in our rush to advocate or take action, that we have to actively grieve. We have to make space to feel whatever we feel. Rather than trying to convince one another of our solutions to the problem, let’s take time to actually acknowledge with deep vulnerability how we are feeling.
Maybe that sounds trite, or like a waste of time, but here’s how I see it: the individuals who commit such horrific acts are often doing so out of some feeling. Whatever else may be true of their mental health states, they may have felt something that drove them to believe shooting, killing, was a valid form of expression and action. Perhaps owning and expressing our deepest feelings, rather than suppressing them, is an act of radical courage. Perhaps publicly and intentionally making emotional exchanges a realm of healthy discourse is one small way to change the dominant culture. We may not stop all acts of violence, but we may influence one child, one young adult, one acquaintance or family member or friend, who will choose to do the same, rather than express themselves in ways that harm themselves or others.
And, maybe if we start there, we will have greater clarity about what we need to do next. Right now, I am terribly sad, and uncertain. But grateful for a community like this, of caring, thoughtful people.
May you be well. May you be at peace. May you know safety and joy.
May all beings be well. May all beings have peace. May all beings know safety and joy.
With love and grief,