In light of the tragedy at Sandy Hook, I dropped my children off at school with a heavy heart this past week. Seeing a policeman at the door each morning has been comforting. Knowing why he's there is not.
I know I speak for many when I say that every news report, every photo of a lost child, every shattered family member talking about simple pleasures the victims loved -- painting, Legos, pretty dresses, time with siblings -- is like a wound that gets ripped open again and again.
I have cried so much this past week -- and not just any cry, either. It's a soul cry. The kind that comes in waves and without warning. The kind you can feel in your gut -- and the kind that makes you skip out on Christmas parties because nothing feels particularly merry or bright.
But in being mindful of my own pain I've also been watching others in theirs and I've seen a few patterns emerge.
I've seen those, like my husband, who avoid it altogether. As I sit in vigil over the TV, he won't even glance at the screen. I don't blame him. Everyone grieves differently and looking evil in the eye is hard, draining work. Still, I believe all pain exists to teach us something we didn't know before. If you can't acknowledge it, you can't learn from it.
I also see those who are afraid. These are the folks who launch into highly-emotional reactions over guns, mental health and the stripping away of "freedom" in this country. They are trolling social media in particular and, if you don't guard your mind, you can get hooked into their darkness and start to dwell there with them. (You'll know you've reached this point by the way when you also find yourself wanting to bury your head or throw up your hands because "it's too hard, too late or too hopeless.")
Thankfully, I've also seen another tribe emerging. These are the ones searching for ways to create meaning out of what happened. They are the light workers because their thoughtfulness literally brings light to the lives of others. They are candles sparking other candles -- and it's not only a beautiful thing to watch, it's a beautiful way to honor the fallen.
If you want to join this tribe but don't know where to start, I have a simple solution. Start where you are. Start with your own thoughts and when you find them getting pulled into the minutia of rage, fear, or judgment, just remember the old saying that "whatever you feed grows." In other words, the more you think about fear, the more fearful you will become. The more you think about hate, the more hateful you will become.
Fortunately for us, the inverse is also true. The more you think about caring, the more caring you will become, the more you think about joy, the more joyful you will become, and so on. Personally, I'm paying tribute to Sandy Hook this season by accepting the challenge to generate 26 acts of kindness -- one for each victim at the school -- or 28 acts if you want to include the killer and his mom. Up to you.
Here's the start of my list.
1. Delivered two bags of food to a holiday drive.
2. Donated to Make-a-Wish.
3. Bought some Christmas gifts from a Haitian nonprofit that puts 100 earthquake survivors to work.
4. Volunteered yesterday to meet with someone who is going through a career crisis and needed an ear.
4. Brought a jar of homemade strawberry jam to my kids' teachers and the crossing guard who protects them from other cars.
6. Gave a box of sweet potatoes to a friend.
As I make my way through these small, simple acts, I keep thinking of an interview I heard recently with Nobel Laureate and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel. He talked of being at Auschwitz with his father where one night "dinner" was only a tiny piece of bread between the two of them. Wiesel's father, clearly weak and starving, told his son he wasn't hungry and gave him the bread. This one act of kindness, given amid such death and despair, showed Wiesel there was still good in the world and changed the course of his life forever. And when I'm tempted to think my small acts don't matter or our collective candles aren't burning bright enough, I remember Wiesel's words which seem as true for our experience today as they were for his almost seventy years ago:
I belong to a generation that has often felt abandoned by God and betrayed by mankind and yet I believe that we must not give up on either. We must choose between the violence of adults and the smiles of children. Between the ugliness of hate and the will to oppose it. Between inflicting suffering and humiliation on our fellow man and offering him the solidarity and hope he deserves. I know I speak from experience that even in darkness it is possible to create light and encourage compassion. There it is. I still believe in man, in spite of man.