Disaster was narrowly avoided this week when Michael Brandon Hill, a young man armed with a gun and 500 rounds of ammunition walked into a school outside Atlanta, hoping to confront and kill police -- and possibly children -- decided to give himself up instead. Why the change of heart while his murderous plan was already in process? Why did events turn out differently here than at Sandy Hook in Newtown?
At least partially because of the brave and loving actions of school bookkeeper, Antoinette Tuff. While Hill was holding her and another staffer hostage, he told Tuff that no one loved him. To which Tuff replied, "I told him that I loved him and that it was going to be OK, that we were going to get out safely." And that's exactly what happened. Tuff stayed with the would-be shooter, sharing with him her own life challenges, building empathy, until eventually Hill agreed to turn over his ammunition to her and surrender.
This is an essential story for so many reasons.
While I take no issue with our Supreme Court's interpretation of the Second Amendment as an individual right to bear arms, there is a profound difference between what we are allowed to do vs. what is best to do. For those who think the answer to violence is arming more people -- teachers, administrators, even the student themselves -- to counter the possibility of homicidal violence, Tuff's approach offers an alternative approach, the kind that would surely be taken by Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. Let her heroic actions stand as the supreme example that there are alternatives to meeting violence with violence, with the continuous, upward escalation of deadly force as our best solution to anything, whether that be school shootings or countering a terrorist's scheming.
Most importantly, Tuff demonstrates that those who dismiss compassion and unconditional love as hopeless, weak-minded, New Age pabulum do so without foundation. Empathy for others, bolstered by unconditional love, are proven, powerful tools for transforming not only ourselves but society. This would-be tragedy is hardly a one-of-kind incident. One need only recall how Nobel Peace Prize winner, Archbishop Desmond Tutu (and others) helped spearhead South Africa's transition from apartheid to democracy through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission which focused on compassion, inclusion, and healing rather than solving challenges through endless cycles of retribution.
In fact, the personal and social benefits of compassionate empathy and unconditional love have been repeatedly demonstrated in a wide range of mainstream, scientific studies.
For starters, by his own admission, Michael Hill felt driven to the precipice of homicidal rage at least in part due to his feeling of aloneness and lack of love in his life. The need for positive human connection is paramount for our own positive feelings. When this is lacking in our lives, we become depressed and prone to either suicidal or homicidal behavior.
One of the most effective antidotes to what Hill is experiencing is what Tuff offered him in the place of violence and retribution. We humans positively respond to compassion on many levels. For example, one important scientific study found that kindness breeds more kindness. That is, when we are confronted with the kindness of others - even total strangers - we immediately become more likely to commit acts of kindness ourselves. Tuff choosing to meet Hill not with contempt but understanding, lead directly to him abandoning his homicidal plan. Offering others compassion, understanding, and unconditional love, creates an instantaneous, authentic connection; one that was so powerful that Hill realized he needn't necessarily feel angry, alone, and frightened. If she had instead responded with contempt, judgment, or even paralyzing fear, that most likely would have only confirmed for Hill that he was making the right decision to gun down as many strangers as possible.
To understand just how powerful compassion towards other is, consider this: we all know that there is no proven cure for the common cold. You'd probably never guess what one of the few things that has ever been scientifically proven to lessen the duration of a cold (and the only one to do so without side effects): compassion from your doctor! Yes, it's true, we recover faster to a nasty cold when our doctor shows us empathy than when she doesn't. The positive influence of empathy on our physical health has been demonstrated time and again.
Most importantly, responding to challenging situations with compassion and unconditional love has been shown to help create not only a kinder but more altruistic society. There is even abundant evidence that these more positive approaches can directly combat even the thorniest problem of terrorism.
Given our societal tendency to want to solve violence by ramping up our own violence in response, Tuff's authentic heroism reminds us that the best, lasting solutions to our challenges is by meeting violence and hatred with kindness, compassion, and unconditional love.
For this, not only do the children, teachers, parents, police, and first responders of Decatur, Georgia owe Antoinette Tuff a debt of gratitude, each and every one of us do.