In the Wake of Tragedy

Last night the deadliest mass shooting the United States has ever seen took place.  I think most of our country is still processing the tragedy.  I cannot even fathom the magnitude of this shooting; tonight, when my son asked how many people died, I had to be vague. “Um, I don’t really think they’re sure yet,” I said.

Because I could not bear to tell my ten-year-old the numbers.

Our country needs to have a conversation about gun control–a conversation that doesn’t simply contain knee-jerk reactions on either side.  We need to listen and learn from each other.  We need to respect opinions that differ from our own, admit that we have a problem (the first step is always admitting that there’s a problem; curiously, our country continues to exist in a state of denial).  And then we need to figure out how to make our communities safer.  We need to do this together.

I don’t know anything about the shooter’s mental health, but I do think it’s safe to assume that he was not mentally well.  So I can’t make any conclusions about his particular situation, but I do think in general we must de-stigmatize mental illness.

If my child were diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes or cancer, I would spring into action. I would learn about treatments, consult with doctors, research options, pursue plans.  I would do anything I could to give my child the healthiest life possible.  Our community would rally around us to help us during our time of need.  Our church would pray.

Mental illness is illness. It deserves prayers, treatment plans, community support, medications, and options.  And no one suffering from mental illness should be shamed.  Do you shame a Type 1 diabetic?

The other issue that a (male) friend of mine pointed out is that we need to start figuring out what’s wrong with men.  What’s the root cause of this type of violence?  Sandy Hook, Virginia Tech, Columbine, Aurora, Las Vegas, Oklahoma City…..why is it that men are violent in this way?  As the mother of a son, I find this question urgent and important.  Is it due to cultural expectations?  Are we not raising our sons to be compassionate and kind?  Are we disconnecting from them at key developmental points in their lives–when they need caring and involved parents?  I don’t know.

Can we have conversations about gun control, mental illness, and raising boys?  And can we do it respectfully?  Can we set aside our own prejudices and ideologies long enough to listen to what our aching culture is saying?

The World Needs You

Tonight my six-year-old daughter and I were chatting after bedtime.  We were lounging in the dark on my bed, and she asked about a conversation she overhead between my father and me this weekend.  He’s reading a book about China and the United States. She had questions; we talked about how we purchase many, many things from China.  We also talked about China’s government and human rights violations.

“I know!” she said, “we’ll just stop buying stuff from China and then they’ll have to change the things they do.”

I was surprised that she came up with the idea of a boycott on her own. I told her that was an approach that we can sometimes take with countries, companies, or organizations we disagree with: we can boycott them.

“Or,” she continued, “we could also make better things here so we wouldn’t have to buy so much stuff from over there.”  I told her that yes, that was another approach.  “OR,” she continued–clearly now on a brainstorming roll–“there could be war. But I don’t think we should do that.  That’s not a good option.” I asked her why not, and her response was “because people die, and it’s sad.”

We talked about helping people and where we could devote our time, money, and energy in our own backyard and globally.  She bubbled over with ideas.  I told her that I’m glad to hear her ideas because “the world needs helpers–the world needs people like you.”

She paused.

“What? You mean the world needs ME?” She seemed incredulous. And thrilled.

This made me think about how a child probably feels powerless in the world.  But realizing that we are needed to do good, in some capacity, wherever we’re called to do it, really is exciting and empowering.  Even for a six-year-old girl.

So tonight, remember: the world needs you.

Surrender

My son suffers from migraines.  For a while I kept a careful headache journal and tried to identify triggers.  In fact, I drove myself crazy attempting to finger the culprit.  Dairy? Sleep deprivation? Dehydration? Watching a screen? Too much reading?  Not enough riboflavin? Ice cream? Frustration? Barometric pressure?

His migraines became one of my triggers.  I got angry, I got sad, I got anxious.  I told myself it was because I felt helpless.  I was helpless in the face of my child’s suffering.  I was helpless when we had to cancel schoolwork–yet again–due to a migraine.  I was helpless when a migraine prevented us from going to art or piano lesson, or to a playdate, or to another planned excursion.

I also told myself I was flexible.  In practice, I was flexible: I set aside the schoolwork, rescheduled the lessons, cancelled the playdates and outings.  But internally I seethed.  I wasn’t angry at my child, although occasionally I’d chastise him (“how long have you known it was developing? why didn’t you tell me?” or ” drink more water!” or “THIS IS WHAT HAPPENS WHEN WE GO TO BED TOO LATE!”).  The truth is, I was angry at myself. I placed the blame for migraines on my own shoulders: I wasn’t attentive enough….lunch was too late…..I should make him drink more water….I wasn’t giving him enough vitamins…I was letting him get too frustrated….I should be able to control my child’s environment…and all of these control issues led to a judgment: I’m a bad mother…..

I recently realized that helplessness is not the problem; it’s control.  The migraines feel beyond my control.  As a result, I hate them.  They make me anxious.  They make me angry.  They make me seethe. But I’m not helpless.

 

I can help him.  I can sit with him while he vomits.  I can offer a cool washcloth.  I can show love. I can make sure he feels that it’s okay to be sick and that we’re not missing out on something more important–because illness is as much a part of life as wellness.  I can smile.  I give excellent hugs.  I can just do the next right thing to do, whatever that thing is.  Tonight when he came to me just as I was turning in for an early bedtime (for once!), I stayed with him in his room for an hour and a half, riding the wave of migraine out until he could sleep once more.  And I didn’t resent the migraine for messing up my schedule and throwing a wrench into my plans.

This perspective applies to more than migraines, doesn’t it?  If I’m constantly attempting to control situations, it’s hard to see the places where I can be genuinely helpful.  The natural result of striving for continuous control is just despair. But surrendering control (and the judgment of self and others that accompanies control) and hunting for the little ways to help….I can do that.

And I shall.

Murdered by Minutiae

“Life is what happens to you while you are busy making other plans.”  -John Lennon

“The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” -Thoreau


I encountered both of these quotes when I was an idealistic teenager trying to carve meaning out of life.  For years I had shielded myself from pain by fixating on school, or my weight, or books.  I felt like a square peg in high school: a sensitive introvert surrounded by Aqua Net and acid-washed jeans.  One thing was clear: I wasn’t going to lead a life of quiet desperation (whatever that was).  And I wasn’t going to get so busy making other plans that life happened while I wasn’t looking. I went off to college and invested four years in unraveling the complex knot of Meaning. When I finished college I had an eating disorder, an engagement ring, and a degree in philosophy.

Setting up housekeeping as a young married woman while attending graduate school kept me busy. I beat back my vague restlessness with term papers, poetry seminars, and watching early-morning junk TV.  I gained weight.  I lost weight.  My mother died suddenly, right in front of me, and life immediately overwhelmed me.  There was no time for self-reflection; all the postmortem work consumed my life. I lost more weight, moved into my mother’s house, cared for my younger sister, started law school. I commuted, studied, forgot to exercise, obsessed over fashion magazines, forgot to read poetry or fiction, gained weight, and let the weeds grow in the flower beds.  After law school, I worked briefly and then we began our family.  Our son was born three months before I turned 30; our daughter was born three years later.

This autumn I will turn 40.  I have come to see just how easy it is to be murdered by the minutiae of life.  It’s not just the meals, dishes, and laundry; it’s returning phone calls to the piano tuner and the car repairman, managing the pieces of clutter, keeping up with the relentless details of adult life.  My goal is responsibility, but responsibility takes energy.  And when we’re not Being Responsible for the Details, there’s the distraction of the television and the internet and the omnipresence of social media. These distractions help us fritter away our remaining minutes.

The minutiae are often necessary and frequently lovely. A well-prepared meal, fresh laundry, and a clean home are their own rewards.  We have to go to the dentist and fill the car with gas and balance the checkbook.  We should weed the garden, teach the children to ride a bike, send the graduation gift, call the piano tuner.  Connecting with friends or family over social media is sometimes fulfilling.

So what beats back the quiet desperation? What saves us from murder by minutiae? I think it’s attentiveness and awareness.  I think that’s what Thoreau set out for Walden to do: to pay attention, to stay aware.  And to write it down.

As I stand on the edge of a new decade and survey the landscape ahead of me, I see a thick fog below; I don’t know what the future holds. I don’t have a career trajectory or major professional goals to accomplish.  But I know the clock ticks. Life is happening.  So I’ll use this corner of the world to write about paying attention and staying aware, and about joy in the midst of the minutiae.