I don’t know how to start, so I will start by telling you what I did not manage to do. I did not manage to write a post about the recent shooting in Newtown, Connecticut at Sandy Hook school. My co-blogger, Chinglican wrote a very good sermon on the matter, considering the tragedy in terms of the joy we were liturgically supposed to feel last Sunday. Do read it if you haven’t.
I, however, was left confused. I had the impulse to write something – after all, why have I spent twelve years of post-secondary education studying the theological problem of evil and other related matters if not to say something about such things? But there was something staying my hand – a vague and nagging feeling of something wrong about the way I was approaching the subject. Eventually, I gave up. But I did learn something valuable from my fruitless attempts, and I share it in the hope that it can be helpful to others as they think about this tragedy.
What I learned was something I ought to have learned from St. Augustine long ago; there is selfishness in my mourning. What I mean by this is that as soon as I started thinking about the topic, I got caught up in the best way to present things, the references I could make, the format I could use, and, yes, the cleverness I could exhibit – I am that vain when it comes to writing. And it struck me how selfish that was, to use the tragedy of others as a platform and base for my own interests. Moreover, I felt the pull to say something, almost as a status symbol. Society makes us feel we ought to say something – even if it is a lie – to show how very far away we are from being a monster like Adam Lanza. The problem is that I’m not sure we are. One of the better articles on the subject that has been trending the web is from the perspective of a parent of a child who has a mental illness that very well could cause him to behave in the same way Lanza. This was followed by a similar response from a psychiatrist. As far as I know, we do not know whether mental illness was responsible for the shootings. But at least these articles didn’t treat the events as a simple instance of incomprehensible alterity that could be solved by simplistic answer X, where X can stand for putting prayer back in schools, controlling guns, or whatever favorite catch-all answer suits your fancy.
In any case, what I learned from my failed attempts is that, contra the cliche, there is in fact a wrong way to mourn, because mixed into our mourning is selfishness, and this selfishness is wired to take the tragedy of others, flip it over, and use it as a soapbox for our narcissism. It is immune to critique, because no one questions mourning (there is no wrong way to do it, right?), and it even allows us to look heroic even as we become manipulators and false witnesses to the pain of others. Deep in our hearts we like tragedy because it is an opportunity to show off, to show that we are in fact in control of things whether politically or spiritually. And for all our bravado, there are twenty empty children’s beds that are not filled tonight.
In any case, seeing this deep selfishness in myself reminded me of the following quotation from Augustine’s Confessions, in which he mourns the death of his friend:
O madness, which knowest not how to love men, like men! O foolish man that I then was, enduring impatiently the lot of man! I fretted then, sighed, wept, was distracted; had neither rest nor counsel. For I bore about a shattered and bleeding soul, impatient of being borne by me, yet where to repose it, I found not. Not in a calm groves, not in games and music, nor in fragrant spots, nor in curious banquettings, nor in the pleasures of the bed and the couch; nor (finally) in books or poesy, found it repose. All things look ghastly, yea, the very light; whatsoever was not what he was, was revolting and hateful, except groaning and tears. For in those alone found I little refreshment. But when my soul was withdrawn from them, a huge load of misery weighed me down. To Thee, O Lord, it ought to have been raised, for Thee to lighten; I knew it; but neither could nor would; the more, since, when I thought of Thee, Thou wert not to me any solid or substantial thing. For Thou wert not Thyself, but a mere phantom, and my error was my God. If I offered to discharge my load thereon, that it might rest, it glided through the void, and came rushing down again on me; and I had remained to myself hapless spot, where I could neither be, nor be from thence. For whither should my heart flee from my heart? Whither should I flee from myself? Whither not follow myself? And yet I fled out of my country; for so should mine eyes less look for him, where they were not wont to see him.
What resonates most with me about this passage is the way that Augustine perceives his sin and selfishness thoroughly intermixed with his mourning – in the very midst of his sorrow, there is a sinful and selfish self that requires salvation. For Augustine, the answer to this is the God who intrudes into every nook and cranny of his text and turns even his most selfish groans into prayers. It is what we – what I particularly – need as we think about the Sandy Hook incident.
I don’t know how to end this post really, so I will end by referring you to another blog that I have been finding helpful, and this for a variety of reasons; I have been meaning to bring attention to it for a while, and the matter at hand seems to offer a particularly apt opportunity. The first reason I bring it to your attention is because it is designed to do what I am increasingly discovering I am bad at – to listen. One of my favorite passages of James says we should be quick to listen and slow to speak, and it seems to me that this is something we could use more than ever now in the current sociopolitical and religious climate, not only with regard to the recent shootings, but in many other matters as well. I also draw your attention to it because there is a particularly apt post on dealing not just with the terrorists and murderers inconceivably “out there” somewhere, but also with the sinners that are ourselves. I will not summarize, as it is best read firsthand; you can find it here, at Merrys Cloister.