July 23, 2012

Not Ready To Forgive.

I am sick of hearing about how we need compassion.

Maybe it’s time to get pissed off?

Today, Colorado, my new home, burns to the ground. The first attack came in waves of red and orange as fire struck the mountains left vulnerable by the pine beetle. Then this week the mass murderer, whose name I will not mention, walked into a movie theater just a mile or two from my house and opened fire on hundreds of unsuspecting children, teenagers and young adults sitting in the dark.

Helpless does not begin to cover how many of us feel. On a family vacation in the East Coast, we read the papers and watch the news hoping to find the names of those injured in the attack. Who do we recognize? What can we do from thousands of miles away?

But most of all we want to know, is everyone all right?  The answer is no. None of us will ever be “all right” again.

Tragedies, disasters and heartbreaks have the capacity to change us forever. That is the meaning of dissolution. From the ashes in the Colorado mountains, a new forest will grow. From the pain and loss in our hearts, a new person will emerge.

I am starting to believe that asking for compassion is a spiritual bypass of the worst order. Oh I feel so terrible for the poor children, and even the confused young man who did this. Let’s get a latte and meditate.

We have all survived a terror in our lives. If we are awake, if we are open to it, it will change us. We will probably feel sadness, fear, anger and/or depression. I am starting to believe that only in a kind of numbness will we skip all those stages and go directly to compassion.

Years ago, I was a young reporter on vacation in Florida when I looked up into the sky to watch the launch of the Space Shuttle Challenger. Watching the explosion unfold it was hard to understand what we were seeing. Is that smoke normal? Are there supposed to be puffy white plumes circling down from the sky?

This is how tragedies happen: v.e.r.y. s.l.o.w.l.y. Even the tragedies that take just seconds to unfurl, those seconds will turn into eons in your life where nothing is ever the same again. I watched the smoke in the sky not understanding it at all. Then the phone rang; it was my editor. He wanted to know how fast could I get my copy into Knight Ridder, and all I could think in my numbness was “For what?”

The initial story took just a few minutes to write. There was a space shuttle carrying seven people and the hopes and dreams of a nation. Then it was gone.

Overwhelmed by grief and confusion, I went down to the ocean the next day to sit and digest what I had seen. There were children playing on the sand as the waves lapped up debris to the shore. A little boy held up something and said, “Daddy, what’s this?” We turned to look at the prize in his chubby little hand. Then we realized it was a finger.

That was an award winning story for me. Yes, I capitalized on the body parts of the Challenger crew as they washed to shore. But there was a big price to pay for having been there. Again, once you survive something like this, you are never “all right” again.

The photographers were the first to suffer Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD, as they trained their lenses on the unfolding tragedy for days and days. The reporters were next. I had nightmares and anxiety for years. To this day, I am not the same person for watching planes in the sky, or the waves at the shore. I see the possibility of very bad things. I am not “all right.”

Tragedies become part of us, they are interwoven in the fabric of who we are. I doubt there is a person in the world that will walk into a movie premiere in a mall again without looking over their shoulder or around the room for, what? The boogey man? It is hard to know what he or she will look like, or why the smoke unfurls in the sky, or why the sea gulls gather frantically at the waves.

People are saying we need compassion, and better gun control laws. I actually agree. But first, it’s okay to admit that we are not alright. I am mad, and sad and terrified to let my children go to the movies. Frankly, I’m overwhelmed with grief that Colorado, one of the most beautiful places on Earth, seems to be burning to the ground.

Before I’m ready to offer up compassion, I hope I learn something from this terrible mess. From the pain and loss in our hearts, I hope something better, wiser and stronger emerges. That would be the lesson of dissolution, so that the lives of all those young people are not wasted as we bypass the messiness of life in our eagerness to be “okay.”


Editor: Kate Bartolotta

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