During this holiday season, the warmth from the hearth of “Peace on Earth,” “Joy to the World,” and “Good Will toward All…” is now suddenly and devastatingly replaced with the bitter and stinging winter cold of loss and unshakable grief. For some it is utter disgust while for others it is devastating sadness but what is certain is that our emotions are intertwined with an overwhelming and paralyzing feeling of anger and shock. The range of emotions that we are all feeling is sending a sharp and reverberating pain to the pit of our stomachs and to the depths of hearts. The tragedy that took place this week in Newton Connecticut in which 27 people, including 20 children, were brutally and innocently gunned down will have an everlasting affect on both our individual and communal psyche.
Unfortunately, this event will now take its historical place alongside the myriad of tragedies that have come before it and that we have had to endure throughout each of our own lifetimes. Regardless if one is young or old each of us now have our own events that have been so devastating that we can retell where we were and how we felt the moment we heard the news. How I long for the days when that distinction was the sole possession of only those whose birth, placed them at a time in history where they could recall either the attack on Pearl Harbor or the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
For me, some of the events in my lifetime that have chipped away at my hopeful optimism and have placed an indelible mark on my faith in humanity include the massacre of 11 Israeli Olympic athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics, the murder of John Lennon outside his home in 1980, the 1999 massacre of 12 students at the Columbine High School in Littleton Colorado, the recent suicide of a freshman from Rutgers University triggered by the insensitivity of his personal choice in life, and of course the terrorist attacks on September 11th, 2001. As I rattle off these events and I imagine the young smiling faces of the children we lost this week, my fist clenches, my heart hardens, and anger fills my veins. How much longer must our world endure such hatred and experience such heart wrenching acts of violence?
The pain and sorrow from such tragedies releases the inherent and abundant empathy in all of us. We continue to play out over and over in our minds what the community in Newton Connecticut must be experiencing. We lift up these events and place them in our own personal lives. We see the tears from parents on the TV reports and feel the warm drops slowly meander down our own faces and taste the bitter sting on our tongues. We imagine what it would be like if it were our children or teachers we were mourning. We see the typical one-story elementary school with a backdrop of soccer goals and baseball backstops, and a tall flag pole souring proudly to the sky and imagine ourselves walking from the parking lot, hand-in-hand with our own child towards the entrance of the building. We see the serene tree-lined streets and envisage our own neighborhoods crushed by such acts of hatred and violent behavior.
So we quickly shake away the images in our heads for just the thought of these trials are far too painful for us to grapple with or to even fathom. But as we drive to work on Monday morning and we pass the all too familiar schools, swarmed bus stops, and think about our own kids or family and friends who are educators themselves; the unspeakable images and nightmares rush back into our conciseness.
To ease our pain we anxiously search for answers to our many questions and try to rationalize and reason away the events that are incongruent with the experiences of our daily lives. We hope that just a single answer will sweep away the pain like the swat of hand eradicates the annoyance of a fly or gnat.
But what rational could any answer provide us? Perhaps this was the act of a lonely person who was misunderstood and felt wronged throughout their life? Maybe this was a person with a history of mental illness that went unnoticed or untreated? Conceivably, this was someone who was viewed as “odd” or “different” by the rest of society. Clearly, this was someone that was filled with such anger and hurt that they wanted others to feel the same pain too. But how do any of these answers truly relieve the hurt that we are all feeling or mend our broken hearts? The answer is; they don’t.
So we turn to our need to control the situation as a way to relieve the pain we are dealing with. We begin to hear the call for stronger gun control as if the removals of guns will sooth the pain of the perpetrators and halt their acts of violence. A plethora of articles will be written on how we can be watchful in our own community and what to do in case of a similar attack. Increased security will be discussed at great length by the talking heads on CNN as a way to prevent such tragedies in the future. All these are important and necessary steps but the reality is that sometime there is only so much we can do to stop someone who is intent on killing.
So if we have truly had enough of 24 hour cycles of breaking News, press conferences, interviews of shocked neighbors, and candlelight vigils we can no longer ignore what is at the heart of these acts of violence — the utter feeling of abject despair, loneliness, and anger that plagues those that act out. As a society we must begin to address mental illness as a true disease much like we view cancer or heart disease. If we can do more to prevent the unstable from getting to such a place of hopelessness, perhaps we might be able to help dramatically decrease or put a stop to such horrific events. Certainly we can lobby our congressmen for more legislation to promote mental health as a true illness. We can educate people on the causes of mental illness and look to encourage those in despair to seek the help they need.
But what can we, as individuals, truly do on a daily basis? Perhaps, along with all the strategies mentioned above and those that will be touted by experts in the months ahead, there is one more thing that each of us can do every day to make a difference. Perhaps we can begin to be more kind to each other. While not the panacea you might be hoping for, perchance the simple act of being kind might have more of an affect than we can ever imagine and could ultimately be a step toward the eradication of such terrible events. Undoubtedly, there will be many that will scoff at such an idealistic suggestion. “What we need is harsher penalties for the offenders of such acts,” some might say; as if the gunman was considering his punishment when deciding to perpetrate such a heinous crime.
We have all seen the inspirational YouTube videos that show how a single act of kindness such as opening the door for someone can touch the lives of people we have never met. For those of you that doubt the power of a single act of kindness, I challenge you to prove me wrong. Make a conscience effort today to be kind to someone you normally wouldn’t take notice of and see if it makes a difference.
While the work we do for the synagogue as Board members is extremely important; it is only relatively important as compared to the work we must do as Jews and as human beings. On December 26th we are scheduled to have an Executive Board meeting. I have decide that instead of having our regular meeting, I have asked all our board members to come together and help out by shopping for food and stocking the shelves at Jewish Family and Children’s Service’s (JFCS) food pantry. The food that we will be purchasing will be going to those that rely on JFCS to help feed their families. Without JFCS’s help and support many of these families would have no food for their families.
So let’s all do our small part and make a huge difference by being kind to someone today. Because, just maybe one simple act of kindness, like a small stone thrown in a calm and expansive body of water, can have a ripple effect that radiates throughout our society. For it is then that we can hope that such senseless acts as the one that took place at Sandy Hook Elementary School will never happen again. If you don’t believe it — try it — you never know…