My son: Why are you crying, Mommy?
Me: Because of all the shootings. There was another one last night.
My son looks at me with confusion.
My husband: Do you know what a shooting is?
My son: No.
My son is growing up in a world where this is normal, but until today the word “shooting” remained undefined for him.
I remember when I learned what a “mass shooting” was. I was fourteen-years-old and I lived in Monument, Colorado. I had gone to algebra class like I was supposed to, but my teacher, a frizzy redhead with no love for me, hadn’t showed. The class was getting restless, and no one knew if we were supposed to sit around waiting for her or call the office, mutiny or follow orders. There was a window in the classroom that lead out onto a courtyard. From there, I could look into the teacher’s lounge. They all wanted me to climb out and go see if she was still in there, just sitting around, getting drunk on her break. We wondered if this was some experiment the faculty was conducting, seeing how long we would take to react, would be behave. These were the expectations we had, a bunch of kids with no real experience in the world.
I unlatched the window to climb out, and just as the crook of my knee curled around the edge of the windowsill, a voice came on the intercom calling me down to the office and ordering me to bring my backpack.
I was certain they’d seen me on some camera they had in the classroom and I was done for.
When I arrived at the office, instead of my teacher or the assistant principal, I found my Dad standing in front of the window, running his hands through his silver hair.
“I was just messing ar—” I started.
My dad turned, his face red, his icy blue eyes shiny. “There’s been a mass shooting.”
“What do you mean?”
“There is a school up the road, not far, in Columbine. Someone opened fire in the classroom.” My dad swallowed hard. “I’m taking you home.”
At that time, no one knew if the shooter was on a rampage, if there were other shooters in the area making teenagers with backpacks their targets. But my father knew one thing: this is too close, I’m taking you to safety.
I learned something else that day, besides the meaning of “mass shooting”. I learned that even if my father took me away from the violence, he couldn’t prevent me from experiencing the terror of it. There was, never again, a day that I woke without the knowledge that if someone is hurt, angry, hate filled and they have access to a gun, they can kill without mercy.
I was a reader. I understood societal violence from books. At fourteen, I was obsessed with the Holocaust, consumed by the reality that one man filled with prejudice could rally an army to brutally murder the people group he despised. I was even more obsessed with the thought that he was defeated, in the end, by his own hatred of himself, because he was a coward, and hatred will only lead to death.
At fourteen, I watched as hate and sadness consumed two teenagers and others were the victims. Now, murderous hate was no longer an abstract concept. It was right down the street from me. Not multiple generations in the past. Not a world away in Europe.
My son watched me cry this morning. My son got an explanation for why. My son will be raised in a world where shootings have become almost commonplace, but my son has so far been sheltered from the violence of it.
My son: Mommy, is Dallas far away or close?
Me: Dallas is thirty minutes from us.
And I cried again. I cried as I had to explain why the cops in Dallas were killed. I cried as I told him about the events in Louisiana, in Minnesota. I spared him details, a gift I can still give him as his mother. A gift like my father gave me.
My father couldn’t prevent the violence from happening, but when he picked me up from school the day of the Columbine shooting he shielded me from that unknown danger, the fear of hate. He told me, later, when the details came out about the shooters, that I wasn’t ever in danger, not really. He wanted me to feel safe again.
But the thing was, and I knew it then, in my own school there were kids living at the edge, hurting and hating and angry. I knew that I was always in danger, every time I walked out the door to go to school because now none of us were safe. Now, my world had been changed. We had seen something we’d never seen before, and we knew it was real.
Hate is like a flame. It burns through everything else until all that remains is a pit that cannot be filled with anything but violence. Hate is an idea that turns into a movement. Hate is words spoken that cannot be taken back. Hate is blame. Hate is assumed superiority. Hate is the little thought in the back of your mind that designates what is other.
Hate is what happened in Dallas. In Louisiana. In Minnesota. At Sandy Hook. At Columbine. On September 11th. In Orlando. In South Carolina. In San Bernadino. In Paris. In Istanbul. In Israel for generations. All over the world for as long as humans have walked it.
It is not enough to talk about Love, the abstract concept. I sit here crying, and it isn’t because I personally knew the people killed by this violence. It is because my heart swells with love for my son, my state, my country, my world. It is me feeling the pain all at once, all through my body, and not shutting it down. It is longing to hold those hurting close just like I held my son close as I cried.
It is NOT longing for a better world. I have lived in this world, this version, most of my life. This is the world I have been given. This is the world I must love. This is the world I must try to be a voice in, a light in, a willing heart in. This is my son’s world. And wishing it was different will not make it so.
BEING different in it is my only defense. Teaching my son to be different is my only safeguard. Writing my passion onto the page in the hope it will touch someone’s heart, make them soften, give them hope, is my action for change.
No one wins if we will not allow our own hearts to be changed first. If we cannot see every single human— even the ones voting for a candidate you hate, or living a lifestyle you disapprove of, or not doing whatever you think they should and therefor not doing enough– as equal and valuable and worthy of love. Right now, we are not winning. Not one side or the other. There may never be a point in our lifetime that we do win.
The best we can hope for is this: a willing heart hearing a cry for understanding. Someone else, and ourselves, our children and their friends reaching out to say I don’t know the answer, but let me hold your hand, let me cry with you, let me be with you, let me fight with you.
Let me really, actively, without condemnation or hate, without condition, LOVE you.