It was the evening of the day the threatening call was made to the Hawley School. We were gathering for our resilience workshop when I heard a quote I had used two weeks ago come back to me.
A Sandy Hook resident who was the object of some pretty cruel attacks by hoaxers pulled me close to say, “My calamity is my providence. Outwardly, it is fire and vengeance, but inwardly, it is light and mercy…”
He then went on to tell me that he had been through hell since that horrible day in December. Emerging over time, and much to his surprise, he was finding in himself an increased sense of openness to others, and with it, a sense of gratitude for being more available to others. And it was true. I had seen this deeper heartfelt connection to others, and gratitude for it, unfold in him over the past six months. He said he could not have anticipated this, but that he experienced this change as a gift. Was this the “light and mercy” Baha’u’llah was talking about in his quote?
I recalled Pat Llodra’s words from two nights before, when she addressed the “Within Our Reach” concert. She said that she felt and saw more kindness since that day in December and that she was grateful for it. This kind of change was the theme of the concert, that a better way to be, and a better way to be with each other in our beautiful town was within our reach. This theme has played out in innumerable, stirring and poetic ways across town. We’ve all seen the signs in the windows, posted in front yards and heard the words spoken in various ways this past half year acknowledging in one way or the other the light and the mercy.
Our group was anxious to talk about the day. Each spoke of their reaction to the call to the school and what they had seen in their children. “I feel angry at the person.” “I’m frustrated.” “I feel powerless dread.” “I’m scared.”
Below these emotions we all noticed was an even more basic feeling we shared. “I feel powerless,” “I don’t know what I can do.” “The world feels like it’s spinning out of control.” We agreed that we are powerless over the acts of the socially inadequate and emotionally stunted people who only feel alive when they hurt others. The question is: what do we do with this sense of powerlessness? Unless we are vigilant, we instinctively become fearful or angry when overcome with feelings of powerlessness. But, we then have a choice.
I told the group how, after my wife told me about the perverted call, in a few minutes I found myself on Facebook posting a righteously indignant comment about a medical issue. I noticed how revved up I was over this issue. “What am I doing?” I asked myself. I realized that I had turned my sense of powerlessness over the call into something I felt I actually could control: a medical debate. It was the undertone of righteous anger that tipped me off that I was going overboard. I was letting the call control me. So, I recognized my powerlessness over the emotionally stunted caller and made the choice to not emotionally stunt myself by getting stuck in my own fear and anger. I could choose. So, I chose compassion and went about my work.
This led to one woman saying, “My 6-year-old son came home from school and he immediately announced he didn’t want to talk about the call. But, I noticed he kept mentioning his friend who died in December. I remembered how we talked in the group about how the two biggest enemies in a situation like this are feeling powerless and the isolation that comes from that. There he was feeling powerless and lonely! My heart was breaking for him!”
“Then, I also remembered how we talked about grief being a form of love. Grief is not an illness to “get over.” Grief is love looking for fulfillment in a new form. So, I asked him what he loved best about his friend. He said, “He was so nice! And funny!” ‘OK,’ I said to him, ‘let’s do something really nice and funny and we’ll do it for him!”
This was perfect. By focusing on the special quality of love that he missed and doing something together with her to keep that love alive, she had, in an instant, given her son the sense of power he needs and strengthened her bond with him. If that bond is strong and the child sees the empowerment that exists in that bond, the child learns the basic elements that are at the core of resilience. It matters far less then, what the cruel do.
Even a young child can endure the anguish of grief if they know that they are acting to keep the love for the one they lost alive in some way. This is especially so if this effort is done with others.
I said, “Let your child know you felt fear too, but that you made a choice to keep love alive and to connect with him because you love him. You will show him what real courage looks like. It’s about making a choice to connect and about the better part of ourselves that can act. Resilience is not so much about “healing” pain as it is about acquiring wisdom, courage and healthy relationships despite suffering.”
As we went around the room sharing thoughts about the day, one woman mentioned that life is a series of pains to be endured. At that, another woman in the group got up, came to her and hugged her. It was a simple gesture that was packed with the power to transform. The pain of powerlessness over life all-too-often leads to a debilitating sense of isolation. Next to learning that we can choose to rise above fear and anger, the choice to turn to another when feeling isolated is the next most important element of resilience. In a few minutes, we had seen both of these strengths demonstrated in our group. It made me even more hopeful for our town.
We all suffer. The question is, will we suffer successfully and grow in resilient strength by making the compassionate choice to calm our fears and anger to give the love for those who are gone a chance to find a new form. Suffering unsuccessfully occurs when we are emotionally stunted, stuck in our fear and anger and isolated as a result. In the perverted extreme, this looks like the caller whose out of control anger has run amok and been perverted into the delusion that cruelty will substitute for the empowerment that comes from the mature choice to connect in a healthy way to others. It is never too late for any of us to begin to practice that choice.
There are abundant and wonderful examples of a transformation everywhere we look in town. People are choosing acts of kindness, choosing compassion when they first feel fear or anger, choosing to connect on a deeper level despite troublesome events. Make no mistake. This is a social force to be reckoned with. Over time, it can soften our public discourse to allow for real differences of opinion to be discussed in town about budgets and politics without reckless demonizing and blaming that paralyze our civic debates.
Perhaps in the midst of the stinging grief and loss, there is also something to be grateful for. The suffering we have endured shows us what Jim Allyn’s song tells us when the Newtown Youth Voices sing, “anything can be!” From such brokenness can come a rebuilding of our choosing. Perhaps we are already well along the road to extract from this ongoing fire and vengeance our share of light and mercy. Perhaps our intimate efforts here along this path can be a light to a country hungry for the hope of a better way.
(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.)