July 21, 2012. 11:30AM Eastern Standard Time
Having just completed a morning of offering spiritual direction to 8-day retreatants, it was time to get my morning internet fix. Alright, it was time to check Facebook. What I didn’t know, what I couldn’t have known, was that the night before a gunman had opened fire into a theatre in Aurora, Colorado, killing a dozen people and wounded many more. And Facebook was full of reactions.
Most were simply reactions of pain and confusion, notations of prayers, thoughts, and memorial ribbons. But more than a few had something to say about the cause of the tragedy. “This is what gun-free zones create,” declared one Facebook friend, “places where law-abiding citizens can’t defend themselves from criminals.” Another took the opposite tack: “What is wrong with Americans?! How can people keep defending gun ownership when something like this happens?” A third friend relied on YouTube and the satire of British comedian Eddie Izzard’s “Guns don’t kill people, people do… but I think the gun helps!” to add to the conversation.
Having spent the morning listening to others’ prayer, it will not surprise that I came to such statements a little raw. My first reaction after being plunged into the pain and frustration brought on by the news of the shooting was to react fast, to plaster my own opinion about guns and gun control on my Facebook status and to furiously “like” and share everything that seemed to agree with what I happened to think.
My second reaction was better: too soon, I thought. Too terribly, awfully, soon.
Scanning my Facebook feed at 11:30 AM Eastern Standard Time, I was reading reactions to a shooting that had happened some nine hours earlier. Nine hours. Not even an hour had elapsed for each death, and already I was indulging in speculations about cause and effect, questions of policy and politics. And this is a problem for me.
I have no idea what was in my friends’ hearts as they posted the things that they did. That’s for them to assess. But I do know what was going on in my own heart, which was simply this: I didn’t want to absorb the tragedy. I didn’t want to face more vulnerability, the pain and sorrow I would have to confront to pray with the victims. I didn’t want to acknowledge, interiorly, that 12 people were dead in an apparently senseless act of violence. It was easier, far easier, to sit at my computer and rail about questions of gun control policy, or to question what small children were doing at a midnight showing of a movie. At a time when I knew good and well that I didn’t like what I was feeling, it was easier, far easier, to think than to feel.
I have opinions on lots of things. And as it turns out I have pretty strong opinions about gun policy and questions of violence. And social discourse is a good thing, a necessary thing even. And there is a time and a place to share my thoughts and opinions. But. But that time is not nine hours after a tragedy on this scale. And for this reason: when my first reaction is to think, to return to the familiar grounds of argument and policy, then I risk losing sight of the humanity of the victims of this terrible crime. Rather than letting myself experience some faint echo of the pain and confusion of the victims, and their families, and the Aurora community, instead I reduce the deaths of human beings to an instrument, a punchline for my preexisting opinion.
Reacting is easy. It’s harder for me to let myself feel pain, to ask the insoluble question: “Where is God in all this?” But taking a breath and entering that experience is also the only way that I even have a chance of engaging an event that includes the most important parts of my humanity.