In the Aftermath of the Charleston Shooting, Choose Love

06/22/2015 03:38 pm ET | Updated Jun 22, 2016

The mass shooting in the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, is a tragedy of unspeakable proportions. No words can communicate the value and the sacredness of each of these nine lives, abruptly terminated while in full bloom. No words can do justice to what unfolded in that historically significant house of worship. Yet, let us not succumb to fury or heartbreak. Let us instead allow this situation to break our hearts wide open. Let us choose love.

The most powerful thing we can do at a time like this is be the light. To gleam, flicker, and shine in the face of the jarring hatred we have just witnessed. Lighting one tiny match will brighten a pitch-dark room. Let's be that match, embodying luminosity rather than meeting an unthinkable act with our own rage-filled and hateful response. Let us not rail "against" what happened; let us not lapse into fear and negativity. Instead, let us take a powerful stand for a better, a different, and a more humane world.

Let us stand for a world that prioritizes love, takes everybody to be equal and honors the interconnectedness of all people. We all are one, and this holds true even and especially across our differences. I wonder, when will we honor our oneness? When will we treat each other and set the terms for our society accordingly? How many more tragedies will we have to endure before we acknowledge as a nation that racism is alive and well, and entirely out of alignment with the fact of our oneness? How many more obvious cases of race-related violence will we have to witness before our society wakes up?

We live in an intelligent universe and it's speaking to us in every way it can, drawing our attention to that which we are meant to focus on. For overt instances of racism keep presenting themselves, hitting us over the head like an ever larger, heavier baseball bat.

The great scholar-activist Angela Davis (whom I had the great fortune of having as my dissertation advisor back in the '90s) has a fabulous post on her Facebook page that reads: "I will no longer accept the things I cannot change. Instead, I will change the things I cannot accept." The time is now, yet there is only one arena in which every one of us wields that kind of power: We all have the power to change ourselves.

Let us choose to shine like the sun. For the sun shines powerfully and non-judgmentally, beaming on one and all with illuminating, warming, healing rays. We ourselves must take on the sacred assignment of being the light, being the change and being the inspiration. For this is how we will most effectively have impact on those around us, magically infecting others with their own mission to inspire others.

The people worshiping in that church were our brothers and sisters, words I use to refer to my fellow human beings even though I happen to be of partially African-American descent. In a time of collective mourning such as this, the separation between all humans vanishes. People of all backgrounds experience interconnectivity through our shared sorrow. With this, the petty differences between us -- as individuals and across groups -- turn out to be of little import.

A deep hatred of others stems from an even deeper hatred of oneself. I can only imagine the level of pain, turmoil, twistedness and psychological disintegration the perpetrator found himself in leading up to this fateful act. His logic is just so far-gone, so erroneously rooted in "separation consciousness" and false hierarchies. Perceiving human beings as separate from one another and unequal when we simply aren't becomes its own prison. It becomes a case of a would-be jailer locking himself into a prison and hence becoming a prisoner himself. (In this case, his notions very literally imprisoned him.)

I'm in favor of a sincere attempt to understand a guy like this. His choice to embrace a white supremacist agenda; his shocking ignorance; his existential confusion; his deep misguidedness. What did he need throughout his life that he never got? What might have made the difference? Perhaps more love? Perhaps a quality education that actually engages students, prioritizes human creativity and honors every child's unique individuality? The possibilities are many. Who knows what deep-seated pain this young man is carrying that's managing to taint his every thought, word and deed. There is clearly some hungry ghost within him causing him to "see through a glass darkly," a lens that distorts whatever falls under his gaze.

We must endeavor to understand the inner workings of such a guy if we are going to be able to prevent situations like this from arising in the future. And at the same time, we can't just look over at him without doing some reflection on the thread that's woven into the fabric of our society that gives rise to the existence of people like him. Somehow, without knowing how, we are all collectively complicit in fostering the societal circumstances that allow for a killer like him to be created and then to unleash his venom as he did.

Perhaps this situation is a reflection of our own tepid half-interest in the life or death goings-on of the world. Perhaps it's a reflection of our general preference to check out, to tend to our jam-packed to-do lists, to snack on brain-fogging foods, to shop 'til we drop, to watch outrageous amounts of television or to absorb ourselves in social media. Without knowing how, we have created a society in which we inadvertently tolerate overt racist violence of the most deadly sort. Sure, many of us don't like it, we protest it and speak out against it. But thus far, we don't seem to dislike it enough to resolutely put our foot down, to stop the madness once and for all. The same goes for recurrent mass shootings of innocent people in our schools, movie theaters and now churches. What gives?

To be sure, there are many upsides to our society -- our charms, strengths and virtues are many. On the downside, however (and I emphasize the downside here because that's what needs to change), we are a culture that runs a fair bit of commerce in judgment, fear, negativity, grudges, resentments and ideas that we are separate from one another. We feel separate from other people, and we feel separate from the awe-inspiring mystery of our very existence.

Tragedies like this Charleston shooting become the expected and natural order of things when we consent (yes, we consent without meaning to, by doing nothing) to living in a society that pigeon-holes and observes sharp we-they divides. The recent furor about Rachel Dolezal's choice to tan, wear a weave and identify as black was clear evidence for just how attached we are as a society to our various forms of racial imprisonment. "How dare you stray from your designated category!" we yelled at her with a maniacal fervor.

We are all guilty to some extent of cultivating intolerance, judgment, separateness and viciousness in our thoughts, words and deeds. As a society, our levels of stress, anxiety, worry and depression are endemic, which doesn't help with the larger order of things. A holiday dinner is hard to get through in many families in this country, and the most cursory look at social media or any reality television show will reveal how poorly we tend to get along with others. The macro is always an extension of the micro -- how we get along in our private lives will only be magnified when it comes to how we get along socio-culturally.

With so many of us living in a dim rather than a sunny place within ourselves, why would we not expect those people at the outermost fringes and at the depths of disintegration to act out in the absolute worst version of themselves? Moreover, we will never succeed at immersing someone in the light through shaming, vilifying, condemning, legislating against, or even imprisoning them. Only through being the light do we have the capacity to bring light to others.

As a result of the Charleston tragedy, my resolve to be an ambassador for love has increased. I am choosing to be motivated by it, to be of greater service. I have also intensified my resolve to live in the light. If enough of us are catalyzed by this event in a similar way, if enough of us choose to do something to make our world a better place, then the nine people whose incarnations were ended so abruptly in that church will have left a powerful legacy. For they will have left this planet a better place than they found it. I hope we will each do our part to make it so.