Our country is grieving the loss of innocence this week: the loss of the lives of children and their teachers, but also a loss of our own innocence. Before this week we had never dreamed this kind of tragedy possible. A young man, so clearly in some kind of pain of his own, took the lives of twenty children and six adults in a place that symbolizes innocence, hope, and possibility for us. In this world, which is riddled with tragedy and despair, an elementary school is a place of refuge where we can breathe in hope for the future. An elementary school is a sacred place, a sanctuary, one of the few remaining in our country; and now even it is not untouched by the tragedy of the world. We will remember the children who have died and the teachers who died trying to keep them safe.
I am no stranger to grief, nor is our country. Though it does not get easier to wrap our heads around senseless violence and killing, this is not the first time that we’ve tried. While we remember these children and adults, we must also remember the children and adults from the horribly long list of those lost to community violence. We remember the losses that made the news and entered into the eye of the American public and we remember the loss of those whose stories remain unpublished.
The call for remembrance does not stop there, however; we must also remember the children and adults who are still here. We have to make this a better, safer, more loving place for them, for ourselves.
I am reminded of a story I read in Ronald Rolheiser’s book, The Holy Longing: The Search for Christian Spirituality:
Once upon time there was a town that was built just beyond the bend of large river. One day some of the children from the town were playing beside the river when they noticed three bodies floating in the water. They ran for help and the townsfolk quickly pulled the bodies out of the river.
One body was dead so they buried it. One was alive, but quite ill, so they put that person into the hospital. The third turned out to be a healthy child, who they then placed with a family who cared for it and who took it to school.
From that day on, every day a number of bodies came floating down the river and, every day, the good people of the town would pull them out and tend to them—taking the sick to hospitals, placing the children with families, and burying those who were dead.
This went on for years; each day brought its quota of bodies, and the townsfolk not only came to expect a number of bodies each day but also worked at developing more elaborate systems for picking them out of the river and tending to them. Some of the townsfolk became quite generous in tending to these bodies and a few extraordinary ones even gave up their jobs so that they could tend to this concern full-time. And the town itself felt a certain healthy pride in its generosity.
However, during all these years and despite all that generosity and effort, nobody thought to go up the river, beyond the bend that hid from their sight what was above them, and find out why, daily, those bodies came floating down the river.
In the midst of our grief and remembrance, we must also ask the questions that beg to be asked. Why does this keep happening? What can we do to stop violence in our communities? I do not pretend to know the answers, but I continue to ask the questions and to seek change because what I do know is that what we are doing isn’t working.
And when that becomes overwhelming (because from time to time it does), I remind myself of the simplicity and power of love.