Like for many of you, the school shooting in Parkland, Florida last week on Valentines Day evoked a cacophany of intense feelings and thoughts for me. The initial shock and revulsion joined confusion, questions, grief, and anger over the next 48 hours. Not having a TV, the radio and Internet were my news sources. There was a sickening deja vu to it all; haven’t we gone through this before? How could it happen again, and so soon? We seem powerless to prevent these seeming bizarre exceptions to “normal” life in the US. I both wanted to shut it out and hang on every word as more information was shared.
The next day I happened to be going with a friend to Costco. Striding through the store, I saw a little boy no more than 3 standing in a cart holding a toy assault rifle and pretending to shoot a black man a few feet away. The toy had lots of flashing lights and made shooting sounds to accompany the boy’s own passionate sound effects as he “shot” the man over and over as the man calmly looked back at him. The mom was talking to a vendor and seemed to be paying no attention. I gasped in mid-stride as I sailed past, looking back over my shoulder in disbelief. I was dumfounded at the irony. Only 24 hours before, school children were slaughtered by a gunman and here was a preschooler with a gun. Tears welled up in my eyes and I turned down an aisle to find a quiet place to weep. I realized my gut was twisting and nausea was creeping up in hot tendrils. First I tried pressing my forehead against a cold metal pole to quell the urge to vomit. A stack of kitchen mats under a warehouse shelf was the first place I found to sit down and fumble for a tissue. Oh God. Oh God. What should I do? Snatch the toy away? Tell the mother how it affected me? Ask the black man how it affected him? Take a picture and post it to FB in disgust? I did none of those things; as the occasional cart rolled by, I sat and wept.
That “day after”, I’m sorry to say, I also joined the social media arguments. My Facebook posts were mostly re-posts that I agreed with from news media, friends, and faith leaders. I read others’ posts, followed some links to additional articles, and exhausted myself again with grief overload. I’m glad to say there were a number of respectful discussions in spite of differences in opinion on how to respond. But I noticed that the majority of posts, including mine, started with a very strong statement either for or against gun control. Many blasted the NRA and the politicians who receive large donations from it. Others expressed outrage or despair that we as a country keep repeating this tragedy yet do nothing substantial to prevent the next one. And the next one, and the next one.
Nowhere did I see a post that started on common ground: we all want our schools to be safe. Nowhere did I see a request for deep conversation to better understand the other side’s world– oh there was certainly questioning, polite and otherwise, of facts and statements, but no curiosity or moving toward the other for greater empathy. I now regret my own impassioned posts, not because I wasn’t honest, but because they likely brought no one towards me to work together. And we so need each other to collaborate on this!
So what do we have to lose in trying something different, something creative? Is anyone else utterly tired of being on this predictable treadmill, that gets us absolutely nowhere new (it’s a treadmill after all) ? Here’s what I’m going to try out: I’m going to ask my friends who are on the opposite side of the gun control issue to help me understand their position. Not just a soundbite’s worth, but an in-depth conversation. I don’t want to assume I know already; I’m quite sure they have nuanced beliefs and real-life experiences that have lead them to think the way they do. Just like me.
I want to try this as my own humble experiment in peacemaking. “Peace” is not a warm fuzzy emotion, the absence of conflict or differences where everyone joins hands around a campfire and sings Kumbaya. Peace is actively inclusive, a transformation of estrangement into connection. Yes, it might be uncomfortable sometimes. I don’t have any illusion that opinions will change. My goal is to start and end with what we have in common: our shared humanity and desire for safe schools. And I just might learn something… if not about gun control, then about my friends and my own ability to respectfully listen to what I disagree with. I expect my empathy muscles to grow.
Who’s with me? Is anyone else up for dipping a toe in the waters of inquisitive conversation? There is truly nothing to lose, and much to be gained. Let’s get off the treadmill and take a walk together.