Today, the country is reeling from yet another mass shooting in a public place. This time, the shooting was at a community college in my very own state. The interwebs are filled with anger and vitriol, from the POTUS demanding our attention to work colleagues alleging that we’ve become desensitized to these occurrences.
When I read that allegation, I took a hard look at myself. After all, I heard the headlines and promptly set out to ignore any related news stories and/or discussions. I briefly considered trolling news sites, social media feeds, watching Obama’s speech. And then I put my foot down. I just can’t go there, my darlings. I learned a very tough lesson after 9/11… tracking this kind of news, this type of conversation, is an extremely slippery slope for me.
September 11, 2001 is a day that haunts most (if not all) Americans. It’s the worst tragedy that our nation has faced in my lifetime. As the day unfolded, I was a walking zombie. I could hardly figure out which way was up, and I didn’t even know anyone whose loved ones were affected by those acts of terror. I was a mess of emotions, and spent the majority of the next two weeks obsessing over the news coverage. I sat in my cubicle day after day, ignoring client work so I could read about the amazing people who lost their lives on that horrible day. I came home and watched the news, getting educated on the political fallout so I could have conversations with any and everyone I ran into. I went to the candlelight vigil in the middle of downtown Portland, sharing my tears with thousands of others. In short, I fed my grief hour after hour, day after day. My life ceased to exist outside of 9/11 coverage or discussions. I was an absolute mess, and I finally had to put an end to it.
From that day forward, I refused to engage with news coverage of terrorism. My tender heart breaks every single time, and I am almost supernatually empathetic – which means that all of those emotions (sadness, anger, fear, hate) seep into my subconscious and begin to ruin any potential for the love that I’ve been put on this earth to share.
As the years go on, I approach each 9/11 anniversary with caution. How much reflection can I handle this year? Generally, the answer is just one or two stories. Because my heart still aches for the stories I obsessively consumed, the people I read about and the children they left behind. It’s no wonder I have to stay away from the horrific acts of terror that continue to take place. I have very little room left for new stories of grief and horror.
The Sandy Hook tragedy was a big exception. My daughter was in kindergarten when those sweet babies lost their lives, and the client I was working with that day had a very personal connection to the news as well (her mother has taught kindergartners for several decades). We were under deadline when the news hit, so we alternated between working really hard (so we could each go home to our families) and reading news coverage to each other over the phone.
This year, my daughter is in fifth grade. In September, her school was the victim of a mass shooting threat. To say I was scared is an understatement. When my girl came home to me that day, I didn’t want to let her out of my embrace… but I had to, because I didn’t want her to think something was wrong. She’s extremely anxious on a normal day, so we’ve learned to take great care with how we talk about tragedies, terrorism, etc. But at night, when the kids were sleeping, my husband and I would talk into the wee hours, trying to make sense of the shooting threat. Had the school done everything in their power to protect the children? [We decided yes. They didn’t make a move without the advice of our local police department, who were on the scene within minutes.] Her best friend is now being home schooled. Should we do the same? [Definitely not. I would go insane and probably drive everyone else batty too.] How do we feel about the armed guard that now patrols campus? [We don’t love this – it’s quite expensive and what if someone came onto campus from the area he’s not patrolling?] Should we send her to another school?
The questions felt never-ending, and the fear was threatening to swallow me whole. And that awareness was my trigger to STOP. Stop the worrying, the frustration, the finger-pointing. Because I don’t want to make any choices from a place of fear. I’ve been flexing my “courage muscles” for the better part of two years now, and it doesn’t necessarily get any easier. But it definitely lets in more joy and light than I’ve ever experienced before.
Will courage keep my daughter safe? No. But on top of my courage, I also have faith. Faith in a world where beauty and laughter and love shine brighter than hurt and pain. So I choose to focus on the love. Because it makes me come alive, and that’s my best weapon against fear or sadness or hate.