How We Can Break the Cycle of Pain From Mass Violence

The following article first appeared on Colorlines. 

I’m not a religious person, but I often turn to a Rainer Maria Rilke poem about God, which has these lines:

Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror
Just keep going. No feeling is final

It’s easier to follow this advice when it’s beauty we’re talking about. No one wants to let terror happen to them, yet it throws itself into our lives and threatens to shove aside our better selves. The Boston Marathon, an event that was dedicated to the victims of Newtown, became a site of terror at the very place that it should have generated a triumphant feeling instead. Terror is also present today in Arab, South Asian and Muslim communities that fear the aftermath of this particular brand of horror.

When I heard about Boston, I wanted to push it away. I’m so exhausted from the cycle of sorrow, panic, defense and more sorrow that every incident of mass violence evokes in our national consciousness. There is beauty there, in the heroic actions of people who tried to take care of others, but I was too tired even for those stories. I didn’t want to let any of it happen to me.

But there’s no getting around it. The likelihood of some good emerging is strongest if we allow ourselves to live in this moment for all that it offers. The likelihood of not taking a wrong collective turn is strongest if we live with the grief long enough, deeply enough, to really feel it. The likelihood of uniting ourselves as members of the same community is strongest if we let that compassion extend to all those who will feel the ripple effects of this attack for long months and years, if we hold in our hearts both the victims and those who will be accused of causing their pain. Our only hope for pulling ourselves back together is to name the cycle and change its pattern.

Here’s what has to happen after such an attack. First, we have to take care of the people who have been hurt; they will feel this trauma for the rest of their lives. Then we have to protect the people who may suffer collateral loss from retaliation by vigilantes. The Twitter feed Yes You’re Racist was very busy last night retweeting accusations and threats against Muslims and Arabs.

Then we have to resist attempts to use the incident to rationalize war, restriction of civil liberties, and who knows what else American politicians will come up with. As Seth Freed Wessler reported earlier today, the meaning Congress made out of 9/11 was to vilify all immigrants as potential terrorists, derailing all promising movement toward comprehensive immigration reform for a dozen years. This would be a terrible moment to repeat that failure.

I’m exhausted from doing this again and again, but it has to be done until the day that we all believe and act on the notion that every human life is precious, not to be destroyed for any reason. Not for any reason. That day wasn’t yesterday, and it probably won’t be tomorrow. But I have to believe that it is possible. We have to keep going, keep living, keep caring for each other. We are not gods, only humans, but we can follow this advice from whatever spirit guides us. For me, it’s the spirit of humanity itself that might be telling me, via Rilke:

You, sent out beyond your recall
go to the limits of your longing.
Embody me.

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