We can’t tolerate this anymore. These tragedies must end. And to end them, we must change. –Barack Obama
The events that took place at Sandy Hook Elementary School last week were unspeakable. Nothing could be more obvious. But when it comes to unspeakable things, we have to talk and keep talking. Not necessarily about the “issues” that are at stake here, at least not only about them. Not firstly about gun control, violence in the media and video games, the failure of our mental health and penal system, among other important issues. Of course they must be discussed and are gravely important. Obviously changes in these areas must be made and, I hope, eventually will. But what this tragedy has shown us, it seems more than others, is that what matters first of all is to talk about and to share something more basic: the pain of the event itself. Even if, in the process of trying to speak about it, we are reduced to tears and shuddering. Even if we have no clue what to say.
Of course the pain of the event remains unspeakable. Nothing could be more obvious. It is so much easier, so much less painful, to stand at a remove from the tragedy. In fact, it seems like we are wired for this. We seem to prefer to talk about anything but the pain itself. And so our conversation drifts into one of those issues. Or we guess at the motives of the sick young killer. Or we turn our attention to the adults who saved more children from dying at his hands: the principle, the teachers, and the first responders. Or we think about all the survivors, about the future of this elementary school community, or about the future of Newtown, the future of America. Anything, it would seem, but the pain itself, the pain we save for when no one’s looking– the pain that, way too often, we choose to not even look at ourselves.
And yet the pain is there, it won’t go away, it’s monstrous. Hopefully by now you’ve picked up on the fact that I, also, don’t know how to speak about it. Nor do I know how to talk about anything but the issues, really, the circumstances, the prospects going forward. Beyond that everything becomes murky, difficult, impossible to catch hold of. I don’t know how to transcribe the anger that I feel towards this young killer, how hard it will be for us survivors to forgive him. (I literally beat my fists against the table: it is too inhuman to even believe; worse than Hitler or any murderous religious zealot; violence tied to no logic, no mission, no plan however delusional; utterly senseless; no meaning to uncover; horror that should not even be possible.) I don’t know how to transcribe this sorrow that has reached from their quaint corner of the country to mine, that has reached out to all of us in all our corners, implicated us all. (I listen to Obama reading the list of victims, the names of these dead kids, his own voice stuttering, and I hear the crowd of mourners he’s addressing shivering, hunching over, heaving with terror and grief, trying to understand how something so unspeakable could even be humanly possible.) I don’t know how to describe how this tragedy, apparently “unconnected” to me, brings up with each unexpected wave of sadness so many other losses in my life. (I think of my uncle Jerry who died this past Thanksgiving, of course I think of my parents… but much more viscerally everything runs together, one loss gets confused with the other… Tuscon, Aurora, Columbine, Virginia Tech… as if lodging a huge, unmovable, amorphous mass beneath my sternum, a kind of cancer that will never go into remission… my tears testifying to the magnitude of the total loss, each time, of the whole world.)
And yet the pain of what happened at Sandy Hook seems even more unspeakable. Most unspeakable, because so much more unacceptable. If there is any sense left in this country, we will stop accepting the status quo in all the areas that beg to be addressed: gun control, media violence, mental health facilities, school environments, and so on. But I think that before all this happens, and while it happens, there are some things that we can all do that will have a widespread, albeit it subtler effect: to accept, to bring up, to let-happen our own pain. We have to learn how to shudder, to shiver, to be affected by these things. We have to allow ourselves the full impact of these losses, even if they are those of a stranger. We have to learn how to let ourselves grieve. We have to stop pretending that we are ever unaffected, because, always, unavoidably, we are: our pain is all our pain, shared together in this strange, common existence where no one can help but be exposed to all the others. And so we have to get a bit better at sharing that pain, free of the censoring and filtering of emotions so often demanded by our everyday life. In a word, we have to give voice, somehow, to the unspeakable.
This unspeakable tragedy is so horrible that it has overtaken the national dialog. There is a sense in the coverage that there is nothing more important to talk about than the pain this event has caused us all. As if we were remembering, after a long hiatus, how central grief is to the experience of being human (which inevitably means: a being who has lost something), and equally, how much we really do care about each other (even if they are strangers: even if they are, effectively, lost to us…). We sense that something has come up here that must not be prevented from coming up in full force, however much it shakes us. As if ignoring it would amount to a repetition of the crime. But this, I believe, holds true for all our griefs. No matter how minor or negligible we tell ourselves our losses are, none of them are minor, none of them are negligible. They grow in proportion to our attempt to belittle them. And that suffocation of the inner life has repercussions: it effects how we treat each other, what we purchase, how we use our free time, how we build our society, and generally how we live together in this world.
I am not contending that we would be better off if we were actively grieving all the time, never stopped thinking about death, succumbed to every depressing feeling, or willed ourselves to be weaklings. Quite the contrary! What I’m after is real happiness, a happiness that isn’t sheltered away from the realities of living in a world abandoned to itself, a happiness that isn’t ignorant of or in denial about the raw data of our being-abandoned-to-each-other. I’m contending that our strength and compassion, if not our very humanity and our ability to reason, are premised on our being in tune with these emotions, on our being willing and open enough with ourselves and with others to let those deep realities be acknowledged and shared beyond knowing, to let what is festering beneath come out from the shadows: to express ourselves and to create an environment where selves of all sorts can be expressed also, where judgments come secondary to sharing, where honesty comes before persona, and where we ensure that what’s unspeakable has an opportunity to be spoken, aired out, and heard. And that means, above all, that we get a little bit better at listening to one another. And: a little bit less critical, a little bit less skeptical. A little more open to our own wounds (which are indeed ours).
Sadly, our society too often only simulates happiness, only simulates debates and empathy. Likewise we feign that pleasure can go without pain, that discomfort can be eliminated from life– along with aging, failure, and unhappiness, as we multiply ad infinitum the pills and creams and therapies necessary to accomplish the total mask. We feign that we can smile always, that it’s no good to show any sign of sadness or weakness. We feign that we are all connected and “social”, when in fact we couldn’t feel more far apart. We feign that everything can be said easily (less words the better!), fulfilled easily (less thinking the better!), gotten easily (less effort the better!), and so on. Worst of all, we feign that death itself can be shoved to the side, made invisible, that we can all just live blindly as if death were nothing at all! As if this omission of such an integral part of the cycle of life won’t have any repercussions. I don’t propose to know any simple strategy for dissolving these masks and denials, but I do know that everyone regrets that it happens, that everyone hates the suppression of authentic emotion and expression, that everyone hates the nebulous pressure we feel to hide our pain, to ignore what’s intimidating, to pretend as if harsh realities didn’t exist and to put on instead some socially-appropriate facade, adopt some contrived mannerism or the sanctioned religious belief. But this, my friends, is not real life, and has little to do with who we actually are. (Once again, everyone knows this, and yet…)
If nothing changes, I am afraid that the confusion of the youth will only increase, that unspeakable tragedies will only multiply and amplify in their senselessness, and that the feeling of precariousness and the pointlessness of life will creep up on, and take over, more and more psyches groping to find meaning in a world that seems increasingly to have no room for them. That’s why, in addition to the social reforms (which in comparison seem quite easy!), I’m trying to give voice to another imperative of change, one that can only begin deep within us. I can’t articulate it very well, or guess what it will mean for you. Indeed, it resists being said. But that is part of the point, I think: it can only begin when we start speaking in earnest to one another, honestly and openly, beyond ourselves, sharing what we thought could not be shared or was somehow “unacceptable”. We mustn’t lament society, but transform it at microscopic levels, offering up quiet (or not so quiet) acts of resistance and relationship whenever we can. Even if these acts only extend to one or two other people, it is not the quantity but the quality of our intervention that counts.
So believe in the profound rippling effect of every one of your tears, of every moment of heart-rending sadness that, even if felt “alone”, places you in connection with the whole of humanity and all the world. For in those moments you are hearing our voices within you, you are feeling our heartbreak within you, you are sharing and experiencing the whole manifold complexity of our world. And that is a very beautiful thing, I think. That is real living. That is, I think, “change we can believe in”– change that can prevent more needless tragedies, change that can enrich our feeling of ourselves and our very sense of the world. Because no matter how unspeakable are the circumstances of our love, it is the love that matters most and lives. Indeed, it is always the love that matters more.
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