Some days you just aren’t prepared for.
I’ve mentioned before that I work in a bookstore. Recently, my store hosted a signing for author and Fox News personality Greg Gutfeld, and after the event, we had a large number of signed books to display. Because of the number of books, because they were signed, because of the high interest our community had in the book, we displayed them prominently in the front of the store. It’s a political book, one that’s sharply divisive, one that will make its readers feel either vindicated or vilified.
It’s called The Joy of Hate.
Why am I talking about this?
Because today, while I was working near the front of the store, a very nice, well-intentioned older woman approached me and said she was concerned “about the message you’re sending” by having “such a book” in front of the doors where everyone can see it. At first I didn’t think anything of it. It’s a political book- we always get complaints about political books. We get complaints about the books we have and the books we don’t have. Conservatives accuse us of having a liberal agenda, liberals accuse of a conservative agenda, and there’s simply no way to arrange things in a way that makes everyone happy. We’ve long since given up trying. So, thinking this was a complaint like any other, I politely explained that the books were displayed so prominently because we’d just had an event with the author, and autographed books often make very nice Christmas gifts.
And she shook her head, and said “but spreading hate, especially after that shooting today…all those children. You should be better people.”
It felt like a physical blow, largely because I had no idea what the hell she was talking about. I thought about explaining that the book is not, as far as I know, about encouraging hate, but rather (if the description is anything to go by) about the insincerity of enforced tolerance and the dangers of being ‘politically correct’ at the expense of being honest. I have not read the book- I don’t intend to read the book- but from the preparation for the event, that was the impression I got. And you know, it doesn’t actually matter what the book is about, because that’s not really the point. I didn’t even know what shooting the woman was talking about, didn’t know what she meant about ‘all those children’, but I was baffled that the first thought of someone in the wake of what I assumed was a tragedy was to censor and judge others based on incomplete and inaccurate information.
Then I came home, turned on my computer, and the first thing I saw when I pulled up my browser was the wikipedia headline about the attack at Sandy Hook Elementary.
I’m not sure what it says- about me, about our country, about our times- that my first thought was “Please God, won’t these ever end?” but my first feeling was shock. Pure, unadulterated shock and pain.
We live in a country of guns, and where there are guns, there will be accidents, there will be deaths, and sometimes there will be massacres. It’s horrible, but there’s also a certain degree of inevitability to it. People die every single day from gunshot wounds that come from a variety of reasons. Whether guns are legal or not, no matter how tightly or loosely they’re regulated, the simple fact that we can access guns means that people will die from gunshot wounds. We expect that.
But we never expect them to be children.
Someone on my facebook feed posted a question: why is everyone so shocked, since this sort of thing seems to happen all the time in the USA? It should be noted, though this really doesn’t change the comment, that this person is not American. And yes, incidents involving schools and guns do happen here more than in other countries- the reasons for that are enormous and largely obvious and the focus of many, MANY battles, battles to which you can contribute. It isn’t just that we have access to guns, it’s that we have EASY access to guns, and guns make it very easy to kill large numbers of people in small measures of time. As long as we live in a gun culture, as long as it’s easier to get a gun than to get a job or basic healthcare, people will get guns and other people will die because of it. Even if we hate it, we expect it.
But even if it happened every day (and thank God it doesn’t), we should always, ALWAYS be shocked.
Schools are supposed to be safe places. Our parents send us to schools on the expectation that we’ll be safe, that we’ll be supervised and cared for. Schools are shelters in times of trouble- in natural disasters, in community need- and schools act as one of the strongest influences in a child’s life. Our education in large part helps to define who we are as people, shapes our outlook and our prospects and our expectations. As traumatic as school can be- with bullies in the form of both teachers and students, with cliques, with puberty, with lessons we don’t always understand and work we can’t always stay on top of, with all the personal entanglements that crushes of people bring- schools are supposed to be safe.
It should always be a shock to be confronted with the fact that they’re not always.
It should always be a shock when people make the decision to walk into a school and open fire.
It should always be a shock when people die in what should be a safe place.
I remember Paducah. I remember Jonesboro. I remember Springfield. I remember sitting in my middle school cafeteria, laughing and joking with my friends, and falling still when the loudspeaker called for our attention to announce that there was a shooting in progress in Columbine High School. I remember sitting there and shaking because I had cousins in Littleton, one of them in high school, and I didn’t know what high school he went to. A month or so later, I was part of a staged reading of an incredibly powerful play called Bang, Band, You’re Dead, and I remember the fierce parental opposition of large portions of the student body because they didn’t want their children scared and scarred by such a play, and I remember why we finally won permission to put on the reading: because we were already scared, and we were already scarred. Now we were just trying to understand.
And I remember Virginia Tech, remember trying to make sense of it in the only way I nearly every made sense of incomprehensible things: through writing. I was in a playwriting class at the time, where through the course of the semester we wrote three ten minute plays, and it was through one of those assignments that I tried to make sense of it.
Tried to understand.
And finally had to accept that I could spend the rest of my life exploring it, but I would never, ever understand.
Everyone has heard “Write what you know” but we go far beyond that. We don’t know what it is to have magic, to ride a dragon, to travel for generations on a space ship. We don’t know what it is to have genetic mutations that give us extra powers. Most of us will never know what it’s like to be in jail, to have the mind-shattering trauma that too many people experience. I’ve often that that saying should be adjusted. Start with what you know- then write what you don’t know. Writing is an exploration, a tentative probe into the realm of all we don’t know or understand, and we hopefully come away from the words on the page with comprehension, or at least a better acquaintance.
I’ve written madness and murder, death and destruction, rape and war, given them life on the page and tried to understand why some of my characters would do these things.
And then I read the news, and I know that my characters do them because real people do them.
But I don’t, and will never, understand why real people do them.
I will never understand why someone would open fire in public, killing people he or she has never even met. I am incapable of understanding why anyone would kill children.
I’ve grown up around guns, I live in a county where guns are common, where hunting is a Big Thing, where gun racks are less accessory than interpreted necessity. I’ve shot guns, and I’ve lived with guns in the house. I will never understand why we make it so easy to get them, why we can’t look at numbers and facts and immutable data and not come to the conclusion that something has to be done- and I don’t understand why we don’t simply do it. I will never understand how, when massacre is a regular part of our situational language, people can look at dead children (or dead of any age) and not want to do anything they can to prevent it from happening again.
But I am in awe of the way people pull together in the wake of tragedies, how they reach out with love and support and aid. I am in awe of how people from around the world share their sorrow. I am in awe of the strength, of the capacity for compassion and kindness innate in mankind. In the midst of so much horror and violence and ugliness, in the midst of the devestation a single incomprehensible mind can create, I am awed by the beauty of the better aspects of man’s soul.
I’m grateful for the awe.
But I’m also grateful for the shock- not for the events that cause it, but for the fact that, despite how battered we are by tragedy and death, we are still stunned by it. We still don’t expect it.
And that gives me hope, even if it’s small and frail. Some things we will never understand, but it is to our credit that we unite and stand against them.
To all those who lost friends, family, students, or teachers today, to all those who’ve been affected by today’s events, my thoughts and prayers are with you all, as are the well-wishes and deep support of countless others around the world.