Since last Friday I have struggled to make sense of the senseless. I have tried to understand what can’t be understood. I have counted my blessings to have my own happy, healthy children who have lived to see adulthood. As a teacher I have wondered if I would have had the courage to do what those teachers in Connecticut did to shield the students in their care from harm. Along with our nation and the world I have mourned the precious lives lost in Newtown, Connecticut. I have tried to find words to express the ineffable sorrow conjured by this moment in time, a pivotal moment fraught with grief and politics, but also one I hope holds the key for change within our society.
For several days after hearing about the shooting in Newtown, I had no words to convey what I felt. Words seemed inadequate and still do. How do we comfort the parents of these children who will never see their faces again or hear their laughter? How do we comfort the families of the teachers and administrators who tried to protect those little children from this nightmare come to life? No words can convey our sorrow or our helplessness in the face of such grief. No gesture can offer enough comfort to ease their pain, but still we try because we can imagine all too well the same fate happening within our own communities to us. We still pray for them and reach out to the families of these precious children and wrap our arms around them even if it is from afar.
As I was returning home yesterday from Appleton where I finished my Christmas shopping and made a final grocery shopping run—two tasks which seemed incongruous in this moment—I turned on the radio. I looked for a Christmas carol station but couldn’t find one which had religious songs, only silly pop renditions of “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” and the like. I needed the comfort of calm, so I turned to NPR. I knew there would be no commercials and perhaps some classical music. Instead I realized the news was playing. Frankly, I didn’t want to hear another story about the shooting, but yesterday the first two funerals were held. The correspondent for NPR was covering those funerals. I was only half listening to the story because I was worried about an imminent snowstorm on Thursday and wondering how my youngest son would be able to make it home. Ironic, I know, that I worried in the midst of this tragedy, but parents worry no matter how old their children become. Despite my being distracted the words of the rabbi who attended Noah Pozner’s funeral made it through my own thoughts.
I believe the rabbi’s name was Rabbi Shaul Praver, and what he said finally allowed me to make sense of what has happened. His words allowed a puzzle piece I had worried over to fall into it’s proper place and filled me with calm purpose for the first time since last Friday. I regret I must paraphrase because I was so taken in that moment that I forget the rabbi’s exact words. He said Noah and the others who died are with God in heaven. It is up to us now to bring heaven down to Earth, act by act and word by word. Wow! Those words sang through my consciousness. Finally, here is something I can do. I can make a difference each day by treating all people with kindness and compassion. I can be the light of heaven here on Earth. We all can. Another rabbi interviewed on the news, Rabbi Yehoshua Hecht said that we can “elevate and sanctify our lives in honor of these children.” Even those of us who are far away from Newtown can make a difference in this life. We can’t change what has already happened, but we can honor the memory of those lost by how we live. Even if we only touch one person with kindness, perhaps that one moment will make the difference between life and death.
The idea that we reach out to others one kind act at a time is what I am advocating here. Why should we do this? We should reach out because each life is precious, because we are our brother’s keeper. Each life on this planet contributes to every other life even if we aren’t always aware of our affect. Just look at the movie It’s a Wonderful Life. We all affect each other’s lives in so many small and sometimes great ways, and we will never know how great an impact we have had on our fellow man, at least not while we’re here. We are and should be responsible for each other. Let’s remember what John Donne wrote in 1624 in his Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions, Meditation17. I won’t quote the whole passage here, but the words do explain why each of us must make a difference in the lives of others. He says, “No man is an island, entire of itself. Each is a piece of the continent, a part of the main…Each man’s death diminishes me, For I am involved in mankind.” Though these words were written so long ago, Donne’s message applies to today’s tragic circumstances.
Most of us will mark this tragedy in our own personal ways by hugging our children, by praying, by taking some sort of action. However we decide to accomplish the task, I believe we must make a difference in our world. Perhaps this tragedy will be the impetus for true change in our society. Perhaps we will mean it when we ask someone how they are instead of using “how are you” as a greeting. Perhaps we will be patient when we drive behind an elderly person. Perhaps we will treat the young men and women in middle and high schools not as delinquents but as people with strong opinions trying on adulthood. Perhaps we will guide them instead of ridiculing them. Perhaps we will treat each other as human beings worthy of love and forgiveness and kindness.
We must take responsibility for each other, act by act, word by word. We must bring God’s heaven down to earth and shine the light of His love into the darkness we see in the world. Get off social media for a while and interact in a physical way with your friends, family, and strangers. Become “involved in mankind.” Talk to people in the grocery store. Chat with the lady collecting money for the Salvation Army. Chat with the older gentleman in the pew next to you at church. Then really listen to what they have to say in return. Learn their stories. Embrace them with kindness. Become a part of your own communities. Make a difference. Honor the memory of those who lost their lives long before they could make a difference here on Earth. Perhaps if we do these things, the wish for peace we all share at this time of the year will become reality.
“No Man Is an Island”
No man is an island,
Entire of itself.
Each is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thine own
Or of thine friend’s were.
Each man’s death diminishes me,
For I am involved in mankind.
Therefore, send not to know
For whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee.