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Archive for December, 2012

Last night, in one of those interesting confluences of events, I found myself at my church, helping to mentor a group of 9th and 10th grade students who are part of our Coming of Age class.  This program, one of the crown jewels of the Unitarian Universalist religious education program, guides high school students as they contemplate their personal ethics, morals, faith, and vision for themselves, both now and in the future.  And, in an ironic and timely coincidence, the evening’s theme was on good and evil.

Is there inherent good in the world, we were asked?  Or inherent evil?  Or does it take people for either, or both, to exist?  Why do people do good things, and have you ever experienced them?  And why is it that evil occurs?  The youth, and we, their advisers and mentors, wrestled with those very big questions, all in light of the tragedy that had occurred at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT.

After class was over, Ben and I went on to meet our nephew and niece at the movie theater to escape the weekend’s headlines.  There, we watched “The Hobbit:  An Unexpected Journey,” and I was pulled in once again to the story of Gollum, the tormented creature who engages Bilbo Baggins in riddles and struggles with his inner selves…part good, part evil…unsure which way to go.

Face of Gollum

Gollum, who struggles with good and evil in Tolkien’s stories.

I do believe — have always believed — that it takes people to cause good in the world, that good exists because of what we do, because of how we experience it through our eyes.  And I also believe that people cause evil to exist in the world.  The sick or twisted mind loses its way, causes pain and suffering and hatred to be visited on others.  If a tree falls in the forest, it must be witnessed in some way to be known.

So while Gollum, alone on his island imagines what he might do to feed his lost soul, it requires the presence of another — in this case, Baggins — to push him to action.  And, returning to the realities of our own nightmarish existence of the last several days, it seems clear that Adam Lanza’s warped sensibilities sought out the lives of innocents to carry out his mission in the horrible, desperate way that he did on Friday.

In the Coming of Age class on Sunday night, the question was asked:  “What have you done that was good?”  People thought hard as they struggled to answer that question.  My own response was pretty simple:  This weekend I wrote a letter to a very good friend who lives in Newtown, telling her that I was thinking of her.  And at church yesterday, I sought out a woman — with two beautiful children of her own — who teaches kindergarten in our town, and thanked her for what she does.

Someone I know wrote, in an email to others, that we might not be able to do much right now for the people of Newtown, but that we can be kind to one another.  True, we can sign online petitions to the White House, the National Rifle Association and public interest lobbies — and that is important.  We can write to our elected representatives and the President of the United States, and that is required, I think.  But if we do those things and we are pushed, in a moment of anger, to scratch the door of someone at the parking lot because they parked too close, or to cut someone off in traffic, or push to the front of the line at the movie theater, we might have missed the bigger point.

Child lighting candle Make no mistake:  I am no Pollyanna.  As my friends — and some who are not — will tell you, I have been known to proclaim someone an ass—e on plenty of occasions, and I certainly don’t get it right every time in my life.  But long ago, I resolved to try to treat people with kindness; to live out what I held on to when I was a teenager, about the same age as these kids who I now seek to mentor:  I chose to believe that people are, as Anne Frank once said, really good at heart.  And that we should try to treat one another with kindness and do good where we can, even in small ways.

Right now, as we thread our way through the thorns and blossoms that reside next to one another in the garden of good and evil, that seems like it might be a pretty important goal — and the one that we can all work toward, no matter where we are on our society’s power ladder.

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It’s less than two weeks before Christmas, a time when the pressure on parents to think about how they can fulfill their children’s wishes and dreams mounts apace.  It’s a time of holiday parties, of too much to do and too little time, of baking treats, visiting with friends and — in our house, anyway — thinking about the arrival home of our adored younger child, whose face we last saw (at least, without the aid of Skype) on August 29 as we drove away from New Orleans.

She’s had a good first semester at Tulane, and we’ve survived empty nest syndrome reasonably well.  And now, it’s time for a reunion.  And while my head has been filled with all the things we might do when she comes home — all the things I’ll cook for her, the Zumba class we’ll go to together, picking out the Christmas tree and decorating it, with eggnog in hand — the illusion was shattered today.

I’m from Connecticut, you see.  A dear friend lives in Newtown;  I know where Sandy Hook is.  More than that, the elementary school where our younger child was educated is right down the street from us.  Many days, Ben or I would walk her there, say goodbye as she went in the door, wave to the principal, thank her teachers for all they offered her.  So I really can not imagine what nightmare the parents of Newtown are living through right now.  How in the world could you have been planning for the holidays with your five- or eight-year-old one minute and find out, in the next, that the child has been blown away by a gunman?

What do we say, collectively, to those parents?  What do we say to the families of those who have lost a loved one…those families of educators who devoted themselves to our children, so that they would have the opportunity to grow and contribute and flower in their lives?  And why, in the name of all that is valuable in life, do we continue to believe that — because of this country’s struggle for liberty and the value of individual rights — we must have the right to bear firearms, allowing this catastrophe to happen over and over again?

By heaven’s grace, it wasn’t either of my children who died today.  By heaven’s grace, it wasn’t my nephew, who teaches in a charter school, or an extended family member’s second grade son, or my cousin, who is a school librarian.  But it could have been.  And it should not be.  Not ever.

We proudly proclaim that, as a country, we are the most powerful nation on earth.  And then, people who suffer from mental illness or who have lost their way in life use the rights we continue to proudly claim, to buy firearms and in one horrible moment, blow away the lives, the futures, of twenty small children and the teachers who cared for them.

Too often, we take our lives and our existence for granted, take our privileges as citizens of this country as ‘inalienable rights’ that can lead us astray.  There must be another way.  Because, for those good people of Newtown and for us as a nation, life as we know it will not be the same.  And we owe it to the memory of those children and teachers to make sure that the gun laws in this country are different so that this sad drama does not keep repeating.

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