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Talking It Through: For the Anniversary, Launching A Year of Service

The anniversary is approaching. Discussions have been going on across town about how best to approach the day. Taking the wishes of the families into account who have asked to not have a commemorative event that would repeat the media circus they lived through last year, there won’t be a townwide event on 12/14/13.

Instead of a single commemorative event that comes and goes, a much more carefully thought through vision and mission has been endorsed by families, our first selectman, the superintendent of schools, the Interfaith Council and civic leaders throughout our town. That is to set in motion a positive resilient momentum that will serve us for years to come. We are naming it A Year of Service. We have chosen kindness and compassion as the lessons we want to derive from the tragedy. Now we are manifesting that kindness in action in the form of a commitment to service to one another throughout the coming year and hopefully for many more years to come.

When we speak about resilience, we are talking about taking the power away from things that lead to bad outcomes and giving power to things that create growth.     

On the one hand, a steady stream of beautiful, inspiring and unifying examples of kindness in action are occurring from an increasing number of individuals along with well established and newly minted organizations around Newtown. A town that has already been rich in the spirit of service to others has become much more so since 12/14/12. The “We Are Sandy Hook / We Choose Love” signs are still up. These many acts of kindness have begun to give form to that vision and mission. Over the past year, the number of people has mushroomed who want a more cooperative, compassionate and unifying style to take hold in town and who are taking action to make it so. Our innovations along this path have not only raised hopes here, but have already been an inspiration to communities across the country.

On the other hand, we have all heard friends describe feeling physically exhausted, mentally spent and emotionally overtaxed. Perhaps it has been a desire to recapture a sense of control over all that was unleashed and what rendered us so powerless that ultimately resulted in an increase in bitterness and anger in conversations and in local social media. That helpless place in us can spawn a creeping suspicion that sours into negativity and leads to wrongly judging the motives of others and assigning unwarranted blame to those who don’t deserve it. But that’s not who we are.

We committed ourselves to not allow this terrible event and subsequent fear, anger and bitterness to define us. We committed ourselves to let compassion and kindness rule our lives. For such a commitment to kindness to mean anything, it has to take form in action. Kindness in action is service. It is a powerful force for personal rejuvenation and growth. Service to others provides a vision worth working toward. It mobilizes the best in us. It energizes our motivation. Service to others breaks the isolation and disempowerment that are the corrosive factors in dysfunctional grief. Service brings out the best in us and transforms our grief into commitment to the best in others. Ultimately, to be healthy, grief must become a commitment to be of help to others.

In that light, instead of a single commemorative event, 12/14/13 will be the first day of A Year of Service in town in which we all dedicate ourselves to transforming our sorrow, fear and anger into a commitment to a better way. As Lincoln said to another generation, “that we here highly resolve that these honored dead will not have died in vain.”

Let December 14, 2013, mark the first day of A Year of Service in which each of us commits to still the fearful and angry currents in our hearts. Let this Year of Service be a time when we practice more mature cooperative and respectful ways of speaking and problem solving. Let this Year of Service be a time to practice new habits that put the welfare of others before our own. A year will allow new personal and social habits to develop and for a new and elevated norm to emerge and solidify in the town culture that benefits us all. Obviously, the practice should extend beyond the year. But, this initial time frame shows our resolve to see our way through to a better way.

How and where does it start? Start intimately, close to home and closer to the heart. Help those closest to you. A child can help a sibling with homework. Help a neighbor when convention says to turn away. Small acts or large, one time or long term, the point is to get started and keep going. We said we wanted to be known as the town that produced resilient role models and better citizens of the world as a result of the horror that visited us. This Year of Service will provide a context for that vision to take shape.

No one event or series of activities will be the balm we all seek. But, a web of people committed to bringing out the best in each other through repeated acts of service can set a new and elevated tone for the town. The legacy we leave for those who have left us will be our own lives richly lived in service to each other on their behalf.

(John Woodall, MD, is a Board Certified psychiatrist who lives in Newtown. His blog, The Resilient Life, is at www.johnwoodall.net and contains videos specially made for Newtown residents.)

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