Stephen Barton is not a household name. He has nevertheless achieved a fair amount of celebrity status this past year, primarily for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. While biking cross-country with a friend, 22-year-old Stephen made the fateful decision to take in a midnight showing of The Dark Knight in Aurora, Colorado. Stephen was shot in the neck, received multiple shrapnel wounds on his arms and chest and was placed on a breathing tube.
Stephen recently came to visit us here in Newtown, CT. While we were conversing, I found myself distracted by a nagging desire for my sons, 13 and 15, to be present. Silently questioning if I should run home and fetch them or text them to come quickly, it was difficult to give Stephen my full attention.
I soon relinquished these thoughts and engaged fully with Stephen. Afterword, however, my pesky desire to have my boys present irritated me. Had I gotten caught up in Stephen's "celebrity?" My sons had eagerly awaited the opening of The Dark Knight movie and also had wanted to attend a midnight showing. Consequently, they became all too familiar with the shooting. Did I want them present, I worried, because it would be "exciting" to meet a survivor of the Dark Knight shooting?
The more I had time to process my conversation with Stephen, however, the more pressing my wish that my sons had had a chance to meet him became.
For those of you who have never had the opportunity, I can assure you that there is a world of difference between meeting a victim of a massacre while watching a CNN interview and meeting them personally. Regardless of the technology, we have yet to devise a way to genuinely "connect" with a person on a screen. Sure, we can feel a form of connection -- empathy, sympathy, compassion -- however, there is nothing like an eye-to-eye encounter to bring home the reality that this just didn't happen to "him." It happened to all of us. We are just lucky to not be bearing the physical scars.
So why did I want to subject my teenagers to this dose of sobering reality? After all, things in our town are sobering enough right now. Because, regardless of how much I protect them and how effectively I try to prepare them for life, the perceptions they will form, the beliefs they will embrace and the choices they will make are theirs and theirs alone. An opportunity that might ultimately help them make conscious and compassionate choices is worth embracing.
Time with Stephen could offer them something to carry as they go forth in life. Stephen's story is dreadful, it's scary and it's upsetting. Stephen, however, is anything but. The young, vibrant and smiling man I met exuded a spirit, an authenticity and a motivation I suspect is rarely found in victims of severe trauma.
I can't predict specifically how meeting Stephen Barton would have impacted my boys. Nonetheless, I do know it would definitely impact them. Whether it's through an awareness of our connection as humans or simply an appreciation of the power of the human spirit, I'm willing to bet the impact would be positive.
We've invited Stephen to our home the next time he's in town. I hope he accepts the invitation.