Another Shooting: Now Lament and Steward Joyful Defiance
I have a dear friend, up here in Two Harbors.
She comes over once every week or two for late-night conversation and wine.
For every gathering we splurge on our favorite red blend “Cooper and Thief” (gosh is it good), and over it we savor Life while trying to sort It out.
Last night, we couldn’t quite let go of the unspeakable, unfathomable awfulness that descended upon Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.
One more shooter stole 17 lives of breath, and stole from all those who knew and love them joy and peace.
In that stead, the shooter sprayed despair, and horror, and impossible grief.
I told my friend about how, when the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting occurred, it was all I could do to overrule my borderline frantic compulsion to run down the street to my children’s elementary school, situated far away from Newtown, and scoop them up to safety.
That night, I held them powerfully close, and again it was all I could do to let them go to school the next day.
This time, though, both my friend and I couldn’t help but notice that we each heard the news of Parkland with horror…and then continued to progress through our day.
This next-morning, post-school shooting, although I thought about the ‘what-if’ of a shooter on the loose at their respective schools, nonetheless with relative confidence I put my son on the bus, and I dropped my girl off, and then I moved on to the next thing.
So, what was behind that sort of internal shift, we wondered.
What was happening to us?
Were we acclimating ourselves to horror?
Was another-day-another-shooting now our new, accepted and acceptable normal?
And should we feel guilty about the ease with which we moved through our respective days after the news?
To all of the above, I don’t think so, and here’s why:
When I see the pictures of the parents wailing in grief, I remember in my soul, I know in my soul, what they now, ever-so-regrettably know too.
When I learned that my husband was killed, and that my son might not make it either—and if he did, he would be terribly, permanently, wounded in unpredictable ways—the grief, the disbelief, the paralyzing shock was my first foray into apocalyptic living.
Nothing seemed real, everything was hyper-vivid, and the emotions of despair and confusion and grief and desperation were so powerful as to be themselves surreal.
To boot, I suddenly, viscerally realized that nameless, faceless others had, and were, crying out “How Long O Lord, How Long?” too; they were surely singing a different lament tune out of their own tragic circumstances, but our voices were all united in the same Key of Grief.
The intensity of it all was absolutely unsustainable.
It was impossible to feel all that I was feeling and simultaneously function.
It had to, somehow, abate.
Trouble was, I felt as if abandoning my grief was abdicating the integrity of my pain.
Oddly, I felt somehow loyal to it.
Laughing, picking up a latte, caring about the Minnesota Twins, somehow felt horrifically disrespectful of my own pain, and that of my son’s, and that of my daughter’s.
But then, suddenly, I discovered…myself laughing, and latte-ing, and checking the stats.
In related news, suddenly I found myself breathing more, and weeping less.
Suddenly too, I became a better Mama, for joy, just like grief, is contagious.
And the other thing?
Pretty soon I found myself able to not just laugh, and latte, and stat-check, but I had the energy and chutzpah again to advocate on behalf of those I’d never meet who were still—or would one day be—curled up in a ball, wrapped only in their own grief: the hungry, the forgotten, the exploited, the vulnerable.
The point is this: those who are afflicted cannot do anything but despair.
They can barely breathe.
It is tragic holy space, and it is their calling to be in it.
But the rest of us, we have a different space to inhabit, a different calling, for we are able to do something instead of despair.
We have to do something instead of despair, because they can’t.
Their role is to lament.
Our role is to lament…and.
For if everyone laments, and if that’s all that we do, then two terrible things happen:
1) Nothing changes.
Nothing changes because our energies are taken up and sapped by grief.
Nothing changes because we have no breath to resist the normalcy of enabled mass shooting after mass shooting after mass shooting, and the incredibly powerful systems that are quite content to empower the gun lobby interests over the interests of keeping our babies safe.
Nothing changes because the death of our loved ones and the death of our grief claim the death of energy to do anything but weep.
Those who despair need those who can breathe to resist, in every possible way, the deadly trajectory of systems that not just tolerate but even train for the deadly trajectories of bullets that spray in our schools and in our streets.
2) Despair wins.
I learned many things, post-accident.
One of them was this: When joy disappears, death wins again.
That possibility ticked me off, and was in part what moved me to do something as simple as care about the Minnesota Twins again.
Because as real, as painfully, horribly, inexpressibly terribly real as it is that these young people lost their lives, these things, in a 180-degree way, are equally real:
Babies burp. Lakes shimmer. Music lilts. Lovers love. Puppies tumble.
Boys who were supposed to die learn to walk, bit by bit, again.
See, death wants us to forget these truths.
Those who are dead-but-technically-alive have forgotten these truths. No blame there to be had.
But we who are alive, or who are coming into life again, despite death, and to spite death, we recall, we begin to recall, and when the time is right, we can remind.
I learned, then, what I have come to call the Art of Joyful Defiance.
We must defy death by defying it not least of all with joy.
There is no reason, you see, for devastated people to move beyond their devastation if there is nothing beyond it.
We who are not crumpled by grief are freed to be reminders of, ambassadors of, joy, of the possibility that there will be a day when even a small smile will creep against the sides of the mouth.
We who are not crumpled by grief are freed to be reminders of, ambassadors of, tangible hope that things will not stay as they were.
We who are not crumpled by grief are freed to be reminders of, ambassadors, of a normalcy that does not include inexpressible, existential pain.
Truth be told, if we all fully appreciated the entire pain of the world, none of us would get up off the floor.
Let us not forget that the word ‘despair’ means, quite literally, to have no hope.
We who have breath not only know to hope: we can breathe it into those who, for the moment, and perhaps for long days and months and years of moments, have none.
The wrong, then, the dishonor, the disrespect, is not in laughing, or latteing, or Minnesota Twinsing it again.
The wrong, the dishonor, the disrespect is only doing that.
Steward the pain, then, by changing the world for better on behalf of those who cannot: steward the joy by creating a world where those who mourn have reason to breathe, reason to come back to life, reason maybe even to smile while drinking a latte (and/or a Cooper and Thief) and checking the stats.
A huge correction to my blog concerns the stunning activism of the students who survived. They have found a way to channel their grief into immediate, and perhaps transformative, action. Their united community will have the violence no more.
Look at these stories for inspiration of their courage and strength in the crucible of pain and anger.
May their righteous indignation be contagious (And thank you D.S. for pointing out my oversight!)
For what you can do and what is being done:
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Contact Anna at firstname.lastname@example.org to visit about personal or congregational consultations, as well as to speak about booking her to present at your next event!
She also runs The Spent Dandelion Theological Retreat Center, where you can come to Retreat, Reflect, and Restore at her North Shore home. Visit www.spentdandelion.com to learn more!