Besides trying to figure out how to create another sidebar on my blog, I spent a good part of the evening reading how various folks have responded to the killings at Virginia Tech. My heart aches for the families and friends of those who were killed, for all the VT students who never imagined their college days would be so indelibly marked by such an horrific tragedy, and for the school and city officials who have become the targets of so much of the rage that can’t find any other resting place.
We woke up this morning to Matt and Meredith sitting on the campus lawn in Blacksburg with a “special report.” They, along with who knows how many different media outlets, both large and small, descended on the college so we all could have up to the minute coverage. They went to commercial with a special logo and subdued music. One of the reporters did a small piece interviewing a handful of students and closed by saying something like, “They are still trying to figure out how to get on with their lives.” They’re going to be trying to figure that out for a long, long time.
The phrase that hung with me was one I heard repeated several times today: this was the largest killing spree in our nation’s history. Hyperbole or not, the statement is jarring. In all our years as a nation, not until 2007 did we have a day when a person killed over thirty people at once and then killed himself. For all practical purposes, he was a suicide bomber. Blacksburg, it seems, is not that far from Baghdad.
Our local news tonight began drawing lines from Boston to Blacksburg, making note of the kids from New England who were killed. Part of what the news people incarnate is our desire to not let those folks hurt alone. We want them to know this is our pain, not just theirs. Some from our neighborhood died too, we say. In a week that marks the anniversaries of the deaths at the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City, and the shootings at Columbine, we are all working hard to be galvanized by our pain, to share the weight of sorrow, to walk together through the valley of the shadow.
It’s good and important work.
We come together because we find comfort and strength, because we can incarnate love and grace to one another; because it hurts too damn much to be alone. Here, at the heart of our pain, comes the call to widen the circle of those who hurt like we do. Hardly a day goes by that thirty people don’t die in Iraq because of a suicide bomber. The people in Jerusalem and Gaza live with the same fear. This week the same thing has happened in Algiers and Afghanistan. Three hundred and thirty die everyday in Darfur. Everyone who dies is someone’s daughter, mother, son, father, friend. Our shared grief is the common denominator.
Since I grew up far away from my extended family, I didn’t go to a family funeral until I was almost out of high school. My first funeral during my seminary pastorate was only the second funeral I had ever attended. The funeral director in town was a retired minister and a great guy. He saw the raw fear in my eyes as I met with him and the family. “Come by in the morning,” he said, “and I’ll show you what to do.”
The man who died was a poor country man. His wife found him on the floor when she came back in from the garden. They were dirt poor. If they had lived in the city they would have been homeless. In the country, they lived in a shanty that was falling down around them. I drove up to their house and the widow met me at the door. I was at a loss as to what to do and, as she expressed her sorrow, I blurted, “I know how you feel.”
She stopped crying and looked up at me with astonishment. “Do you really?”
“No,” I stammered. “I don’t. I just didn’t know what to say.”
About that time, one of the women of the church – a widow for twenty years – knocked on the door and came in all in one motion. She kept moving until she was sitting next to the woman and had her arm around her shoulder. “Vergie,” she said.
“Thank you,” said the woman.
I watched the two women hold the sorrow like an infant, as though they had given birth to hope in that moment. After a little while, the woman looked up at me and said, “He was a good man.” And she began to tell me stories.
I have no idea what it feels like to be a student at Virginia Tech any more than I can grasp what it feels like to live in Baghdad or Darfur. In the past couple of years, I’ve stood with two close friends at their parents’ funerals. I don’t know what that feels like either. What I do know, from being with those friends, is it mattered I was there. It mattered that I called, that I noticed, that I reached out. I’ve missed some of those moments in the lives of other friends and it mattered when I didn’t show up as well.
When we talk about Darfur, the prevailing response, often, is we feel overwhelmed by the distance, by the problem, by our own pain. That we can feel a sense of solidarity with the students in Blacksburg gives me hope that we can find a sense of connection and commitment to the pain beyond our comfort zone. Grief does not have to drive us to fear or isolation. Clamoring for safety doesn’t bring much in the way of comfort. Compassion – voluntarily entering one another’s pain – is how we both grow and heal.