by Alexa on December 18, 2012

I wrote this last night and didn’t post it. It seems impossible to write about the events in Newtown without offending someone, whether through misunderstanding or otherwise, and I hate offending people. And if it seems impossible in general, it is certainly impossible in the specific instance of an unedited, stream-of-consciousness-type Internet meandering. However I am trying to worry less about being liked (and succeeding, which is a whole other topic for another day), and if this isn’t the place to write about what is preoccupying my thoughts, I don’t know what is.


I have nothing new or useful to say about what happened in Connecticut last Friday, but I also can’t say nothing about it at all (SURE YOU CAN, I hear you remarking, wit that you are).
I have never reacted so strongly to a tragedy that was not, after all, not really, my own. After hearing the news I had a full-scale panic attack, and was largely unable to cope for some time as a result—having, in my infinite wisdom, allowed my anti-anxiety prescription to lapse sometime over the summer. I cried, I clutched at my throat with clammy, shaking hands, I was physically sick to my stomach. And I was rather disgusted with myself over the whole episode, because it felt a trifle self-indulgent, falling so thoroughly to useless pieces over someone else’s horror, so undone by it that I banned myself, for a while (on doctor’s orders!) from reading the coverage—how nice that you have that luxury, said a dry voice from somewhere between my ears.

This voice had a field day all weekend, remarking upon the toothlessness of my fury and the self-centered way in which the tragedies that affect us most viscerally are the ones in which we can most easily imagine ourselves starring. It is understandable that I find the mass murder of first-graders (my god, how is that a phrase that exists?) even more upsetting now than I would have before I became a parent, but the fact that I am the parent of similarly aged children doesn’t make it any more horrible that those 20 children in Newtown died. Why does it feel so much worse?
Maybe it is only because I am better able to imagine and feel empathy for the pain of those parents. Simone will be five in just over a month; I understand what a six-year-old is like, in an immediate way that makes it easier to construct a picture of what those children must have been like, what their families’ daily realities were made of. I can see the shape of that horrible absence more clearly than I might have been able to a decade ago, can more clearly imagine the behavior and reactions and reality of a six or seven year old during that awful morning.
Maybe, though, the fact that it feels worse suggests that my reaction is not as pure and compassionate and other-directed as I’d like to think. Maybe some of my tears were for our family, not theirs. Because isn’t there some small part of the reaction we have as parents, that gut-felt horror, that says it could have been us, and weeps for that possibility? Isn’t that part of the ease of imagining yourself in the shoes of the grieving—imagining yourselves in the shoes of the grieving?
Then there is the…well, let’s call it The Hug-Your-Kids Corollary, the thoughts that pop up about how From Now On, I Will Be More Present, and I Must Never Forget How Lucky I Am For Every Moment, and so on and so forth. There is something undeniably queasy-making about the moment that reduced one person’s life to smoking rubble being another person’s catalyst for self-reflection. At the same time, it is human and natural that an event like this would make us reevaluate and reaffirm, would make us feel grateful for what we have, even if there is an inevitable, uncomfortable undercurrent of thankful-it-wasn’t-us-ness to that gratitude. We DO hug our children a bit tighter after a reminder of the parents who never will again, how could we not? But still, it pricks at me. Are we honoring the lives of the children who died, are we remembering them, or are we making it about us? Could it be any other way? I find it revolting when the people talking about gratitude are doing so at a profit (“In Wake of Tragedy We Deplore, 10 Ways to Live More Mindfully,” via paid-per-click slideshow), but even the justification for that revulsion seems slippery when examined more closely, the line between what is exploiting a tragedy and what is journalism less clear than I would like. What do I want them to cover instead? Not talking about it feels wrong. Talking about it feels wrong, too.

It bothers me, and bothered me, all of this, and then it bothered me that I was self-centered enough to spend time examining my own reaction for self-centeredness when I could have been using that time to write to my elected representatives about gun control, or doing something else (what?) with a veneer of the productive. Historically, I have spent far too much time feeling bad about things, and not nearly enough time taking meaningful action. Feeling bad helps no one and solves nothing, and while sometimes there is nothing we can do to make a thing better, more often, I suspect, there is. It may not be—almost certainly is not—enough, but it has to be more useful than one’s own private woe. Thoughts are not magic. Even sending a card is at least a tangible action. So is lobbying for change, or donating time or money. Weeping? Nope.

This is what my head is full of. It is a stew of grief and fear and self-recrimination and oh, my god, those poor children and their families.

It should be quite obvious that I have no wisdom or comfort to offer, but I needed to write it out, stew and all. Usually, doing so brings me a measure of clarity. Not this time.

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