One of the gifts I got for my birthday was time.
It’s something I always ask for and Ginger takes my request quite seriously. After a marvelous birthday breakfast together at Guglhuph, a wonderful German bakery and restaurant here in Durham, Ginger and Rachel, my mother-in-law, left me there with over three hours of time to read and write. I’ve been working on Victor Hugo’s masterpiece Les Miserables, hoping to get through all fifteen hundred pages before the movie comes out. I’m not sure I’m going to make it. Part of the reason is the beauty of his language, even in translation, preempts me from moving quickly through the book. Here’s an example of a paragraph that comes after a chapter that describes little more than a meal:
History ignores almost all these minutiae; it cannot do otherwise; it is under the dominion of infinity. Nonetheless, these details, which are incorrectly termed little — there are neither little facts in humanity not little leave in vegetation — are useful. It is the features of the years that make up the face of the century. (119)
I thought about his words Wednesday night when our friends circled around me and Kelly, a friend who was also born on December 12, in the dark under a strange giant spaceship-looking canopy and read twelve word poems (on 12/12/12) in our honor: birthday-ku, if you will.No little facts. No little leaves. No little words. No little loves.
I thought about it again today as I read some of the stories emerging from Sandy Hook: what the adults in the school did to protect the children, what the children did, and who those were who died. I also thought about the stabbing of the twenty children at the school in China that occurred on the same day and was barely mentioned on any American news outlet. No little lives.
The past two days at the computer store have been a parade of children either on their way to or from getting their picture made with Santa. The obvious bargain was they would get to play at the iPad table if they were good for the portrait. I kept thinking of President Obama’s words as he spoke of those who were killed:
The majority of those who died today were children — beautiful, little kids between the ages of 5 and 10 years old. They had their entire lives ahead of them — birthdays, graduations, weddings, kids of their own. And I have continued to wonder what features of these years — or perhaps I should say the years I have been alive — have done to shape the face of the century ahead. One feature strikes me as particularly difficult to own: since 1982 — thirty years — there have been at least 61 mass murders carried out with firearms in our country. We finish our national anthem singing about the land of the free and the home of the brave, yet we have let three decades go by and have done little or nothing to take a stand against the greed and fear that keeps killing us. We are not who we think we are.
How then, should we live so that we do not continue to kill one another?
When I was a youth minister in Fort Worth, Texas, I used to tell my kids that “I don’t have time” was a euphemism for “That is not important to me.” When something matters, we find time. We make time. When we don’t have time to do something, the reality is it has fallen from our priorities. Thirty years on, we have not had time (or in the parlance of our elected officials, the “the political will”) to come to terms with the roles violence and firearms play in our lives. Our politicians prioritize power and money over meaningful change that would create a safer society. They are more concerned with getting reelected and keeping their respective parties in control of the committee chairs than seeking effective governance.
I have to pause here because this is where my anger kicks in. I want to take time to mention a story I heard on NPR that came back to me as I began writing. Kiera Knightley was interviewed about her role in the new film adaptation of Anna Karenina. As she talked about how she came to acting, she spoke of the role her parents had played in helping her shape her craft — particularly her father. She talked about one of the most helpful notes her father had given her:
He said, “Beware of playing anger.” He said, “Anger isn’t very interesting. If you think you’re going to go there, really think about it because maybe there’s a more interesting route.”
I quote her that I might take the words to heart. I want to do something other than rant here. And so I will wonder aloud what might be the more interesting route through this tragedy. One of the scripture passages I saw quoted several times over the last couple of days is Jeremiah 31:15:
“A voice is heard in Ramah, lamentation and bitter weeping. Rachel is weeping for her children; she refuses to be comforted for her children, because they are no more.”
Though it was also one of the first to strike me, another verse out of the Hebrew scripture has kept coming to mind alongside of Rachel’s grief, one that goes back to the first act of human violence against another human. After Cain murdered his brother,
God said to Cain, “Where is Abel your brother?” He said, “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?” (Gen. 4:9)
The story keeps coming to mind, for me, because I think Cain’s question is emblematic of much of contemporary American society. We spend much of our time talking about what our rights are; we spend excessive amounts of energy protecting those rights, about what “I” deserve, what is “mine,” what belongs to “me.” We are a working paradox: a society that values the individual above all else. I think a modern American reading of Cain’s question sees it as rhetorical: of course we’re not our brother’s keeper, nor our sisters. We are a nation of self-made people, of boot strap puller-uppers, of accomplishers. The American Dream is about being anything I want to be, not about giving up my rights. We have chosen freedom over community and, in that choice, confused freedom and license. Being free does not mean being able to do whatever the hell I want to do. Freedom — true freedom — holds within itself a sense of consequence. There are things I can do, which I may even be allowed to do, but when I exercise those rights and do damage to those around me I am not free, nor am I promoting freedom. When I temper my choices by looking through the lenses of community and humanity and weigh the consequences of my actions, then I am free and I allow room for others to be free as well.
Jesus didn’t say, “Exercising your rights will make you free.” He said, “The truth will make you free.” And the truth is love is what frees us most of all. Freedom grows out of our lives together, not by our glorifying our individualism. We are most free when we commit our lives to the best for one another. All the one anothers. Together we must stare down the greed that keeps assault weapons in production and gun industry lobbyists paying off politicians. Together we must face the fear that keeps politicians from telling the truth and then living it out, that frightens people into thinking they must arm themselves to be safe, that fools us into believing that violence as a response to violence has ever solved anything. Together we must foster patience and determination that lasts longer than the twenty-four hour news cycle to figure out how to care for the mentally ill in our togetherness. Together, we must make time to do more than lament and blame.
Let us do more with the features of our years than trace the face of cowardice on our century.
So powerfully put, Milton. I thank you so very much and I am sharing this on Facebook and Twitter and sending it to my family. This is the truth and we so need to speak the truth.
Milton, I do not know you, but I cannot let this pass without saying thank you for putting into beautiful words the very things I wish I could have expressed. This is a gift. Thank you.
Nell Carvell (Dallas TX)