It’s been a rough weekend, hasn’t it? At the same time that historians, psychologists and pundits tell us that we are more divided as a nation than we have been in a hundred years, though our dialogue has coarsened and our treatment of each other can sometimes lack a recognition of each other’s basic humanity, an event like the Aurora movie theater shooting unites us instantly. The immediacy of the internet has brought us all so close to each other. I’m not talking about the ability to get news updates every few minutes, but rather the fact that our friends and “neighbors” might live not the next street over, as they did when I was growing up, but in another state or another country thousands of miles away. When I woke to the news on Friday morning, my first thought was for my sister and her family who all live in the Denver area. Following a split second after that was concern for the Bedlington Terrier parents I’ve come to know, though never met. Judging by the emails and posts of support and condolence that came in through the social media networks, many of us were thinking the same way.
There are so many elements to this story that have a visceral impact. The movies, for all of us, are a place to escape the world. During the Great Depression and World War II, movies were enormously popular. For a coin or two, you could leave behind the worries and fears of daily life and immerse yourself in the world of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, Myrna Loy and William Powell (and Asta), Walter Pidgeon and Greer Garson. It’s true today as well. Even with hundreds of channels on our televisions and myriad entertainment options on our computers, we still go to the movies in droves. But I think it’s the timing that we also find so breathtaking. Who is the audience that usually goes to the midnight showing, opening day, of a summer blockbuster? Teenagers and twenty-somethings. My students plan outings weeks in advance of a big opening. They talk about it non-stop. The excitement carries them through the slog of a summer job. It is an unavoidable conclusion that the shooter purposely targeted kids. At our very deepest human core, aren’t we hard-wired to protect kids? Whether we are parents or not, I don’t believe there is a single one of us who doesn’t want to grab a couple of nearby children, teenagers, young people, and hold them tight for a minute simply to express thanks that they are alive and unharmed.
When we hear about something like this, we understandably become a bit obsessed with trying to comprehend the perpetrator. What led him to this action? What was amiss inside him? How did no one know that he was planning this? We wonder if there will be copy-cats, if there are others like him lurking just below the surface of our awareness. We begin to believe that we live in a time that is somehow broken in which events like this are common or inevitable, and that we will never come out of it. But the truth is that these events are rare. In reality, we look around at our friends and neighbors, be they nearby or thousands of miles away, and see fellow human beings who love and worry and care and sometimes feel alone and scared, just like we do. They, like us, are seeking ways to connect, looking for chances, not to make our lives more difficult, but to ease our burdens, to make our lives happier. They are training therapy dogs to take into hospitals or nursing homes. They are making crib caps and baby blankets to give to new parents who can’t afford them. They are volunteering on suicide hotlines. They are performing daily small kindnesses like smiling at the grocery store checker, or holding a cab door for the passenger getting in after they’ve gotten out, or exchanging a pleasantry with a stranger while they both wait for their lattes. Human beings are bridge builders if you give us half a chance.
In this act of violence, there was one deeply shattered psyche. There were so many others who exemplify real humanity. What it truly means to be a human being is embodied by Jarell Brooks who was wounded in the thigh because he stopped to help a mother and her two small children to escape from the theater, by Nick Yowler who leapt to protect his sister and eventually pulled her out of the theater, by Matthew McQuinn and Jonathan Blunk who died because they used their bodies to shield their girlfriends from harm. Reality is that we are far more likely to be heroes than villains.
As we go about our coming weeks, I hope we’ll all take a moment to build a bridge with someone. I hope we’ll remember to live our lives in ways that make us proud. I hope the families and friends begin to heal.
In the last few days, I’ve heard a surprising new refrain from people whom Cleo and I meet. “If she were my dog, I’d never put her down. I’d want to cuddle with her all the time.” Well, they don’t know how pointy her paws can become when she is ready to be put down. A squirming, flailing Bedlington is capable of delivering a very clear message. But I have found it exceptionally therapeutic to bury my nose in her side and breathe in that distinctive Bedlington smell, to pat the sproingy hair on her head, feel her warmth, and even to be poked in the back by four pointy feet each morning. I look into her laughing face and I’m reminded of the honest, simple goodness of Cleo, of her love of all humankind. That eases my heart.
May fortune so smile on all of us.