[The day before our blog was set to launch, explosions at the 2013 Boston Marathon finish line killed three people and injured at least 100. Our scheduled first post, on awakening our environmental stewardship on Earth Day, will appear later this week. —Editors]
My son Owen, who lives in Atlanta and was following Internet news and commentary, noted something important yesterday. “It’s different this time,” he said, “Different from 9/11. It seems to be more about those hurt than who's responsible."
Owen was in seventh grade on September 11, 2001. His teachers struggled mightily with how to talk about what had happened. I was a religious educator serving a congregation north of Boston. I struggled mightily, as well: What was the right message and response for the children and youth who came to church looking for help?
The language of war and violence was everywhere about us. Some children of our parish, invited to make cards of sympathy and friendship for the children of those who had died, drew pictures of bombs and burning buildings, and wrote messages like, “Don’t worry. Our president will protect us.”
In times of great trauma and grief, both individual and collective, we need a story to hold the fragments of images and feelings together. Our human-ness requires a story. Our brains can only hold that which we can fit into the narrative. It is up to us--as parents, educators, religious professionals, and caring adults--to offer our kids a story that provides a frame to hold what they are hearing and seeing.
Owen had put his finger on something essential. The frame being offered in our public discourse is different this time than it was twelve years ago. Then, there were stories of heroism and compassion and prayers and love, but they were the sidebars to the main story line: “This horrible thing happened to us and we are going to get the bad guys and all will be well again.” This time, the main story is of people helping one another in every possible way, forming community together. This time, it seems we are collectively deciding to breathe deeply and wait before rushing to create a narrative about who has perpetrated this terrible act of violence. Together, we have offered to one another an invitation to, in Adrienne Rich’s words, “…cast [our] lot with those who, age after age, perversely, with no extraordinary power, reconstitute the world.”
While now is the time to offer to children a narrative to hold, we cannot always do it directly. Many children will have been shielded from the horrible details. They may only know that all is not well. Yet they, too, are desperately seeking a way to make sense of what is happening. Share music and a story that give children a little distance from the horror, and at the same time offer them a way to feel their feelings, respond, and move forward.
One such story is Tolstoy’s "The Three Questions," in which a king learns that the most important thing to do is what is good, the most important people are those nearby, and the most important time is now. With children, use the lovely picture book adaptation by Jon Muth.
Do what is good: Care for those children and youth who are with you and around you, help them process what has happened, if an opportunity to do this work presents itself. Be sure to tell them the story you want them to hold deeply. And do not forget to send them forth to act with love and compassion. There is little more empowering or comforting--for a child, a youth, or an adult--than to believe one is called to be the hands, feet, and voices of God and of Love in this world of ours.