Tuesday, April 17, 2007


Confront life

Everyone, at some point in their lives, is faced with tragedy. It varies much from the mildest to the most horrific, and the responses vary in like fashion... but today, in the aftermath of the massacre at Virginia Tech, we are faced with a lesson we spend our lives deliberately ignoring at all costs:

Tragedy happens, and there is nothing we can do, short of total isolation from other living things, to avoid it.

My personal lesson came with the passing of my mother, who at the age of 63 had lived nearly two lifetimes worth of experience, much of it negative. As we put it to the doctors who feared our blaming accusation at the manner of her passing: her body simply had no more to give. She gave up.

The lesson continued through the next 18 months or so after her passing, starting with a psychotic breakdown that required 13 months of weekly therapy to reconcile. To say that her passing caused it would be wrong; to say that she was at the center of it would be completely accurate.

I cannot, except by extension -- having parents who survived, separately, one of the most violent spans of time in human history -- know how it feels to be confronted with violent death. Violence sickens me, physically. I'm one of those who will react as he must during a violent crisis, but will toss his cookies (even if there are none to toss) afterwards. But, despite several opportunities, I have never had to confront violent death.

The beloved and loving survivors of war casualties know this next part very well -- and I can assert that because I have yet to meet such a person who didn't know it. We dishonor our dead if we refuse to recognize their manner of death in the time and place -- the context -- in which it happened. When a soldier dies in combat, this recognition is easy. When children are gunned down by a psycopath in the context of everyday life, that recognition can be beyond difficult... but it is no less important than the recognition we offer our soldiers who die in combat.

So, for all of us who are grieving, at whatever proximity or remove, the death of children at Virginia Tech, we must -- for their sake -- understand the context of their deaths.

We must avoid quick judgment of the situation. We must withold judgment of the murderer until his background and motivation can be ascertained; and, with that, we must refrain from speculative conclusions about him and his motivation if we fail to obtain the necessary facts to come to a rational conclusion about him.

Above all, we must avoid stereotyping the situation or the people involved. The British author J.R.R. Tolkien has entered the mass consciousness in recent years, with the Peter Jackson movies being so widely seen, so I won't hesitate to use a quote from his novel The Lord of the Rings:

“Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgment. For even the very wise cannot see all ends.”

This expresses the importance in both ways. We can, not because we think he deserved it, offer the murderer compassion. We may never know for certain, but that he was a student at the school narrows the possibilities of his motivation. Was he a social scapegoat? Was he under more pressure than he could handle? Was he that rare case of a psychotic just waiting to explode? These and other, similar, possibilities point to one thing: there is nothing anyone could have done to prevent his actions. If we can, as is appropriate, console the survivor of a suicide in like fashion, we must extend this notion to our college campuses, because the real crime would be if we turned them into armed fortresses, made them into gated communities cut off from the surrounding culture. I promise every parent who might say, "yeah, I want that" one thing: it will happen again despite the best of any such effort.

If we do nothing else, we must teach our children one thing: to live life to its fullest, to confront all that life might bring, and to never let fear rule life.

I will end with one other bit of wisdom from Tolkien's pen. I offer it as both solace and recognition of our grief.

"I will not say: do not weep; for not all tears are an evil."

May the Great Mother take you to her warm and loving embrace.


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