Surely, we can do better than this.

I’m not quite sure where to begin this post, as I’ve started it now about a hundred times in as many different ways, so I’ll simply get right to it.  It’s superfluous to say that what has happened in Newtown, Connecticut, this past week has thoroughly horrified me, and has prompted more tears than I’ve shed in a very long time.  The whole ordeal is both beyond words (so many fall so short and then make me cringe) and, I think, (simultaneously, contradictorily) demanding of words.  To say the very, very least, it is confusing.

During one of the short stints of news-watching that I’ve permitted myself, two things were said by two different people in quick succession that bypassed my ears entirely and instead lodged themselves directly into my gut.  The first was spoken by President Obama during his address at Sunday’s vigil in Newtown: “Surely, we can do better than this.”  Then the newscaster glanced over to camera two, where she ‘went to’ a psychologist who was offering advice to parents, children and colleagues on processing their many emotional responses, saying some people become very post-traumatically active, while others retreat.  Then the psychologist said: “Some other people, the lucky artists in the world, can create some very provocative, compassionate art.”

I quickly wrote both of these lines down on the little flowery notepad on my desk, where they looked a bit odd and too important for all of those pink and green and yellow posies around them — though writing them down proved to be unnecessary, as they have taken up permanent residence in that spot in my gut.

Here’s the thing: it just so happens that eleven (eleven!) women in my life are, at this very moment, pregnant or have had a baby in the last couple of months.  Counted among these eleven women are some of my very closest, very dearest friends — and their babies, both born and not quite yet born, have by extension become decidedly important little beings in my life.  I feel fiercely protective of them (much less, I’m sure, than their mothers and fathers, but still), marvel and wonder at the lives they have ahead of them, feel a nerve (an auntie nerve? a maternal nerve?) freshly exposed.  And this monumental disaster in Newtown has touched that nerve.  Suddenly ‘we’ (and by ‘we’ I mean both my immediate circle and our generation) are responsible for creating a safe, meaningful space in which these sparklingly new people can grow.  We have come out from under the shelter, or at least the buffer, of our own parents and now become that shelter ourselves.

There, at the end of that tender nerve in my gut, is where the President’s words and that psychologist’s words stung. Surely, we — literally, us, me, my husband, our parent-to-be friends — can do better than this.  I don’t believe that there is one solution to be offered, as there is no way to solve what’s happened, and the systemic problems implicated are too complex and varied and controversial to be simply answered. (Though I have all the same gone on several tirades in the past few days about all manner of subjects — gun control, mental healthcare, education reform, video games — just like everyone else looking for something rational to blame.)  It’s just this: surely, we can figure out a way to nourish what’s human in us and in these new little people in our care.

And then there’s the matter of the lucky artists in the world.  A few years ago, I attended a panel discussion titled, “Can Art Save the World?” in which Philip Gourevitch, author of the haunting We Wish To Inform You that Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Familiespassionately answered: no.  And I agree.  The point here is not to save the world, but to access our selves, to connect, to be reminded of those fragile beating hearts in us.  I love the way Picasso put it: “Art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life,” leaving, we assume, something more central, more lasting.  (Take a few people simply singing or a street scene by the painter Michel Delacroix in my parents’ kitchen.) And it seems to me that there is at least a small amount of respite there.

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7 thoughts on “Surely, we can do better than this.

  1. i’m going to sound so selfish for saying this, and it’s not like events like this haven’t horrified me in the past, but it’s been interesting to listen to the reaction of friends who are parents respond to this, and to turn this event inwards on myself in projection of my impending motherhood. Actually, it’s impossible to imagine. I cannot fathom what it would mean, how even tears could seem apt enough. I hope never to know.

  2. It’s so hard to know what to say about this and I thank you for articulating your thoughts and feelings so eloquently. I was shocked to my bones when I heard this news. It’s so sad. And like you, having parents and by association – little people – in my life who I care about – I feel touched by it too. I think about it happening to kids I know- and I can’t begin to imagine the Everest of grief and anger the loved ones of these kids have to struggle with.

    I agree with you that art can’t save the world, but I think it can help us to figure out what we’re feeling and sometimes to heal ourselves and others, or at least to help us feel that we aren’t alone. Thanks for writing this!

  3. Thank you for taking on this story and for sharing how moved you were. There have been times in my life when I’ve wished to decidedly unplug from the world, to refrain from hearing news stories, because it felt like I was feeling the grief of the world. I am not happy for your sorrow but I am comforted in knowing that other people experience this too from time to time!

    I really liked your comment about “becoming the shelter ourselves” for children, our own or those of friends and family. I get wrapped up in my own life and I forget how influential I am in creating the world these children will live in. At least I vote! But I think it was when I started volunteering that I realized my community – all of it – was created by people like me. And truthfully, sometimes I was kind of shocked by how incredibly brilliant they could be in some ways and incredibly stupid in others. But seriously, then I started working with people in UN agencies and meeting former MPs and senior government officials and… it was always the same. They were no different! Which makes me believe that the conversations that happen nationally or even internationally might not be that different than the conversations that went on around my kitchen table. It sounds naive but truthfully, I think it’s just baldly realistic. The issues may be complex but it’s just regular folk working through them, crafting solutions to the world’s toughest problems.

    I was also struck by what you said about art, “The point here is not to save the world, but to access our selves, to connect, to be reminded of those fragile beating hearts in us.” But… is this not what art is? At least in part? And the older and crazier I get, the more I think that this too is saving the world. When I think back on the people I’ve met who’ve had the most profoundly positive impact, those people have also been profoundly connected to themselves and profoundly insightful about the “fragile beating hearts” around them. They weren’t always warm and fuzzy but they definitely knew themselves and understood others. Then the people who’ve had the most profoundly negative impact have been those who are profoundly disconnected from themselves and often wilfully from others. And some of them have been pretty likeable at the same time… which is scary. Maybe this all comes back to your point about mental health but, in so far as art cultivates our abilities to really “see” ourselves and others, maybe (nutter, I may be) it is already saving the world.

  4. As many have already mentioned, two lines really ring true here: “We have come out from under the shelter, or at least the buffer, of our own parents and now become that shelter ourselves.” This is terrifying and so very real for me. I cannot imagine being the shelter for a tiny person just yet. What do I know? What do any of us know? And yet, we try to form the world in a kind, gentle way.

    Also: “The point here is not to save the world, but to access our selves, to connect, to be reminded of those fragile beating hearts in us.” Yes– I think this is akin to Joan saying “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” We make art in order to understand our place and meaning on earth, to be more open and loving and aware. If that changes someone, great, but it cannot be the only goal.

    Thank you for this — gorgeous and raw.

  5. Just saw this post. Poignant words, but precious. I needed to hear that — especially the last. I may not be able to save the world, but I can share my heart with my little corner of the world. Thank you.

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