Season of Grief

Thursday, April 19th, 2007

The news went straight to the Dad Zone of my heart and I thought about my 20-year-old daughter finishing up her junior year in St. Paul, Minn. I thought about book bags and attitude, tentative career plans and those uncomfortable plastic chairs with the flip-up elbow rests — the stuff of a young person’s becoming — and then I went numb with grief.

On the most ordinary of ordinary days this week, on a different campus but in my mind the same campus, the future was shattered with a methodical popping noise.

While the horror is still fresh, before we have satisfied ourselves with superficial understanding and moved on — oh yeah, another loner with a gun — I invoke this prayerful meditation from Rainer Maria Rilke’s “Letters to a Young Poet”:

“I would like to beg you, dear Sir, as well as I can, to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.”

Do we have the courage to live the questions right now, rather than slam the door shut on them? The questions are so piercing. Multiply a despairing “why?” by 32 — no, by 33 — and you have the latest tragedy. But where do we stop? Virginia Tech last Monday morning was just another day at the market in Baghdad; and in our own inner cities children are caught in the crossfire of someone else’s alienated malice on a regular basis. Unless the death count is enormous (“record setting”), the ongoing slaughter of innocents has almost ceased being news. It’s just more collateral damage.

“The next decade will have no rules; the Virginia Tech tragedy is just a sign of things to come. There will be terrorists’ acts that will kill ten to twenty times this amount in the next few years. The only hope is for ordinary Americans to arm themselves.”

Well, OK . . .

This is an excerpt from the first press release I received in the wake of the Virginia Tech shootings (from a right-wing PR organization called Special Guests), so close on the heels of and intertwined with the unfolding news accounts it seemed like part of the event: the instant specter of a locked-down, fear-based, armed society. Get your Glock and get used to it!

I offer it here as another piece of ground glass in our meditation. We have to sit with this vision because it’s trying hard to become reality, and will succeed unless we begin the growing-up process Rilke prescribed for his young correspondent.

The first bit of insight we might gain about our violent world is that it’s ours — our immense and terrible creation. Do you see that yet? If you’re still busy trying to pen off “us” from “them” — terrorists, insurgents, disturbed English majors — you’ll succeed only in building smaller and smaller cells, each finally with an occupant of one, armed and dangerous.

“We live in a culture where people are very much disconnected from each other. I think that’s incredibly dangerous,” Lauren Abramson told me. “The more connected we are, the safer we’ll be.”

Abramson is executive director of Baltimore’s Community Conferencing Center, a 10-year-old organization that is quietly part of what you might call the global healing network, the emerging culture of peace.

“What we do is build connections,” she said. Specifically, the organization makes it possible for both victims and perpetrators of crimes to have a conversation with each other — a system of “restorative justice,” as opposed to retributive justice, based on a similar program in Australia and originally adapted from the Maori of New Zealand. It allows actual healing to occur. “We tend to put a lot of systems between people,” she said. “When you give people a chance to talk to each other, how powerful it can be.”

Programs such as this are barely known to the media, their transformative power undiscovered by pop culture, their value a secret from most politicians. Yet I couldn’t be more certain that our safety and security lie in the direction of opening the blocked passages of connection we have to each other, and forging new ones — particularly into the hearts of bitter, despairing young men. It can be done. Most conflict can be defused well before it explodes.

“This is budding,” said Dot Maver, executive director of The Peace Alliance, one of the organizations working tirelessly to get Department of Peace legislation (HR 808) passed in Congress. “Humanity is just shifting into this mindset.”

In this season of fresh grief, I pray for peace to bud in the hearts of the grieving and in the halls of Congress.