It’s Christmas Eve as I write this, a quiet day here. I’m in the middle of my last two work shifts of the week. This is a difficult post for me to write. I’ve started over a few times. I know I won’t do it justice, so part of me says why even bother? What do I bring to the discussion that hasn’t been hashed out a million times already. I don’t know, probably nothing. I only know that trying to figure out how to best write this post has been keeping me awake at night, so that alone tells me I need to do it.
If you haven’t guessed already, I’m talking about the heartbreaking events in Connecticut. If you are alive, I’m sure you’ve heard about the devastating school shooting, the children and teachers killed and the young shooter who finally took his own life. After the first day, when the news was breaking and I stood in front of the TV as if I were watching a massive train wreck and couldn’t seem to push a button that would change the channel and take me back to the relative peace of unsellable houses or restaurants about to fail, I haven’t watched much of it. After ten minutes or so, all news reports say the same thing, the cliches get tired, and the false sympathy of the news anchors whose bosses are making a fortune out of one town’s exquisite agony becomes tiresome. But just because I didn’t watch doesn’t mean I haven’t thought (and thought and thought) about it.
My viewpoint, I’d venture to say, is probably 180 degrees from most of the folks I know. Given what’s drifted across my Facebook page, it’s pretty safe to say that a lot of people are making this a gun issue. We need guns. We don’t need guns. We need armed guards in schools. We don’t need them. Teachers should be armed, or they shouldn’t. Hang around any social media long enough and you’ll go deaf with all the screaming about weapons, ownership, safety, concealed carry permits, who, what, when, where and why. Very simple, it’s all about guns, right?
No. I’m taking the guns right out of this equation. Guns and gun violence are only a symptom. That’s also been said, along with pleas for more and better mental health, easier access to help for parents, more Big Brother cameras everywhere, and other things to monitor our behavior. So, it’s about weeding out the crazy people, right?
No. I’m taking mental health out of the equation too. Having easy and affordable access to mental health is certainly a good thing, but once a person reaches adulthood as defined by the law, if they don’t think they have a mental health problem (or even if they do, but aren’t willing to admit it) and they aren’t doing anything that’s openly illegal or incompetent, access and affordability become moot.
So what is this post about, then, if I’m not going to debate guns or mental health?
I want to talk about refuge. The thought of refuge came to me last night as I tried to relax and get some sleep before having to jump up and work again. I thought about the Connecticut shooter and how frightened, lost, alone, detatched and abandoned he must have felt.
The dictionary defines refuge, in part, as “a place of shelter, protection, or safety, or anything to which one has recourse for aid, relief, or escape.” I don’t think Adam Lanza had any of that, not for a long time. And I think that is, finally, what drove him to do what he did. A simple lack of refuge. When you find no recourse for “aid, relief or escape”, then perhaps you make your own in any way you can.
I’ve talked to the grandsons only a couple of times since they moved to Denver. Both times, GS2 called and wanted to chat. He’s turned into quite a talker. He told me about his new school, his grades, what his mom was doing, what the house was like, and then he said, “GS1 wants to talk to you,” and turned over the phone.
“Hi, Gramma.” I hardly recognized his voice.
“Hi, sweetie, how are you?” He answered as he has since he could talk, “Good.” And then nothing. Except I knew he wasn’t “good”. I asked if everything was okay and he just broke down. He was trying to keep quiet, but he was sobbing, only nearly 13-year-old boys aren’t supposed to sob, right?
I finally got him calmed down and we talked. He missed us, he missed Pueblo. Yes, he liked his new school and he was doing well (true), but he didn’t like living with his mom anymore and he wanted to come back and live with us. Fortunately, this time around, I had both distance and experience. I commiserated with him. I told him I knew what it was like to go to a new school and live in a new place, that I was proud of him for doing so well in school, because his mom and told me about how the teachers thought he was a real star, his grades were good, etc. He told me he was always getting yelled at. I told him I understood that, too, because like him, I was the oldest and I got yelled at a lot too, that I had to do most of the chores, that my sibs had blamed lots of stuff on me–or my parents had said I should have known better than to let them do things, even if it wasn’t really my fault. I also told him there was a big difference between visiting here and living here and if he lived here, he most definitely WOULD have chores and ex-Army gramma wouldn’t take no for an answer. I asked him what his chores were. I asked him if they were the same most of the time, if he knew what he was supposed to do. He said yes. I told him that, if for one week, he did his chores FIRST, before anyone asked him, that I bet he would see that his mom would have a much different attitude. I told him that learning how to do these things isn’t just so his mom didn’t have to do them–it was teaching him how to take care of himself so that when he got grown, he could live in an apartment and know what to do. I told him that everyone, girl, boy, man, woman, needs to know how to cook a meal, wash their clothes, make their beds. It was very important, and just what people did when they lived together as a family.
He talked about other stuff too, and I let him. I listened. I didn’t yell at him, or tell him he was wrong or silly or that he had to shape up and act better. In other words, I was his refuge, his place of safety. My two grandsons have experienced first-hand the whole gun thing. They have had their refuge ripped right out from under them brutally. We were all incredibly lucky that it didn’t turn out any worse, and that has made me very grateful and almost hyper aware of how this sort of thing can affect a kid. It starts so early and it’s so easy to miss. Raising a child is hard. If you’re burdened with low income, a partner who is absent, or worse, actively tries to cut you down or belittle your efforts, it becomes exponentially more difficult to keep up morale and provide any kind of safe haven for your offspring. Kids are resilient, it’s true, but no one knows how they’re going to react in a threatening situation and for too many kids, the place that is supposed to provide peace and safety, is the place where they feel most vulnerable.
The really sad thing is, kids, or any of us, don’t need all that much to feel safe. A consistent place to call home. Enough food every day. A kind voice and a pair of arms to offer a real hug, and being told they’re loved. A genuine smile. The right clothes for the weather. Shoes that fit. And really? If all they had was the third one, it would be okay. The rest comes from that.
But we get so caught up in all the media hype about gidgets and gadgets and logos and Legos that we forget what’s real. We forget to be refuges for each other. And people get lost and scared and they want to make other people hurt they way they’re hurting. And they begin to make a plan. And they look for a gun, and other people who are even more scared and vulnerable than they are.
We can stop this. We can. And it has nothing to do with gun control or “mental health”. We simply have to begin to look at each other. We have to see every single person we encounter each day AS a person. We have to look into their eyes and see that no matter how aggravating or annoying they might be at that moment, no matter that they are a stranger that you’ll never see again, they need a refuge. They need to feel safe and protected. They need aid and relief and escape from the exact same stuff that you need relief from. And you can offer it. With real eye contact, with a smile in the face of a frown, with a kind word, with an offer to let someone else go in front of you or take that parking spot, or however you choose to do it, you can be someone’s refuge. And with each small gesture, the tide will begin to turn and somewhere, one lost child will hear a kind word and begin to think they are better than they were the day before, and disaster will be averted. And that’s how we change the world.