I hear people saying the shooting that occurred in Sandy Hook Elementary School on Friday is unthinkable.
They say they can’t wrap their minds around it.
I say it is unthinkable only in the sense that the idea of the world ending is unthinkable, when you come right down to it. Before Friday’s shooting, the biggest thing on the horizon seemed to be December 21st, the apocalypse at the end of the Mayan calendar. We joked about it. We speculated. We reassured each other.
If an apocalypse that ushered in the end of the world (whatever that means) actually happened, right here and now, it would knock us so far out of comprehended reality that we wouldn’t be able to tell what had happened until weeks, if not months, later.
Post-traumatic shock. It’s what happens when the unthinkable happens, when you are raped, when your child is murdered, when you lose your home and can never, never go back. The event has occurred, and each time you remember your mind recoils afresh, not wanting to have to know the shape, the heft, the unforgiving contours of a world where it is true.
I hear people saying they cannot understand why anyone would kill innocent children.
I hear people saying they cannot even imagine what would lead someone to do such a thing.
I can. I can imagine it.
That part isn’t unthinkable to me. I will not speak of the shooter as though I were safely in one group of humanity and he were in another. As though only those who carry out a murder could possibly imagine one.
I rage. I am cruel. Sometimes very cruel. I feel a rush of power when I push and push at another person, trying to make him or her do something. I feel it even in seemingly unimportant situations, like when I deliberately slow to a crawl so the driver behind me will change lanes and stop tailgating me.
Once I found myself getting out of bed at three in the morning, taking a rock, and pounding it over and over on top of someone’s written name as I simultaneously screamed that I hated her. It did nothing to heal or change the relationship or me, and even though no one else was witness, I am sure that ripples of negativity were radiating out from my action just as surely as they would have if I had cast that rock into a lake and ripples were forming in the water.
I can imagine the rush of power Adam Lanza might have felt. I do not claim to know exactly what he was feeling and thinking, but I cannot say that what he did is outside the realm of my imagination.
I have often imagined alternate versions of myself, versions that live in parallel futures where the horrible things that didn’t happen actually did happen. The future where I didn’t stop and instead drove over the edge. The future where I lit the match that burned the house down. The future where I walked out into the water and drowned.
What is the difference between me and a murderer? The murderer chose death, and I choose life, again and again.
What separates me from the Adam Lanzas of this world is my continuing, active choice to turn again to community, to turn again to bright, warm home and relationships where there is no betrayal because I did not betray.
I could have. I know that I have it in me to betray everyone who has ever believed in me, to snuff out the candle of trust and optimism that has kindled and burned in my relationships with other humans.
I will not.
This is also my power: this act of will, this choice. Restraint is just as much a live thing as the unleashing of brutal energies. So, too, is the active turning the other way.
The converse of the horror we feel when we look at the unthinkable that has happened is the relief we might feel if we were to look at all the horror that might have happened but didn’t. Someone turned aside at the last minute. Someone, fist raised in the air, found an internal stopping point and didn’t hit the baby after all. Someone intervened at just the right moment.
I hear people asking how there can be hope for the future when children are murdered.
To me, hope is the tough fiber that holds humanity together.
It is not tough because our community is guaranteed. It is not tough because everything will turn out all right no matter what.
Hope is tough because it is woven strand by strand by those who each moment choose, and choose again, for life and connection rather than annihilation and separation. It is a live, active thing. It may seem thin and frail because of how bare the margin is between each choice and its opposite, but the truth is:
We always, always get to choose.
Each choice is a gift to all of us. Each choice builds a world where the horror could have happened but did not. What we have is all the more precious when we see how easily it could not have been.
Believing I am somehow inherently different from Adam Lanza, or any murderer, that what went on in his psyche is so qualitatively different from what goes on in mine that imagining myself in his place is unthinkable, actually keeps me from weaving hope. When I deny the darkness and the cruelty in me, I do not see the priceless nature of the choices I make to protect and preserve life.
There is a hair-thin space between the world of horror and the world of innocence. As long as I have breath and heart and brain, I will keep building that world where it is safe to be innocent, where it is safe to believe everything is going to be all right.
Jayleigh Lewis is a writer who will one day write a book. She currently works as a spiritual advisor to college students as well as a freelance editor. She has a dream that one day humans will remember the integral role ceremony has in our lives and will learn to create sacred spaces within which intention may manifest. Learn more about her dream and read more of her words on her blog.
Ed: Kate B.