As hard as it is, the only way for me to sort through what happened in Newtown, Conn., is to put myself in the middle of the tragedy.
Because I am a parent, I imagine I am the perpetrator's mother, who looks at her son in the instant before he shoots her. I die before I can even think.
I am a teacher, and I shudder at what those charged with caring for those children thought in their last minutes.
I am a child in one of those first grade classrooms. Perhaps I have a fleeting blip of time to fear this man. Maybe I am the first to die, or maybe I am one of the other 19 children. In this case, I think, "Will he shoot me? Can I run away? He hurt my friend! Will someone save me?"
Now, I am a parent who hears my child has died. I feel blinding pain, hopelessness, anger, among so many other emotions — all of them searing. I think, "My child is gone forever? I sent my child to school, and he never came back. How can that be? How can I keep breathing? Please tell me this is not real."
By the grace of God, I am none of these participants. Yet, I am still a parent, a teacher, an American, a human being. And I feel so many things.
As I write this, the news is still horrifyingly fresh. There are so many unanswered questions. Some things, we will never know. What could have been in the head of a young man, barely out of his teens, that would prompt him to slay 20 innocent children and six adult staff members at Sandy Hook Elementary?
Even though we may never understand, I feel motivated, more than I ever have been, to work to prevent this kind of tragedy from ever happening again. I fiercely believe this requires long-term thinking, and I worry too many people lack the patience and dedication to commit to that. Already, we are caught up in debates over whether better gun control will stop madmen from doing what they want to do. While I believe we have to improve background checks before selling guns to anyone, I want to focus on something we can all agree on.
We have to care more about the well-being of people than we do now. We may never be able to stop a madman hellbent on destruction, but we can try much, much harder. More than that, we have to turn the discussion around so that we are not just acting to prevent tragedy but working to promote goodness.
I know that to some, this may sound like Pollyanna. I know I am flirting with idealism and optimism. So be it. What good is constantly reacting defensively about the way the world works? Let's go on the offensive to crush the kind of disconnection that makes outcasts of the mentally ill and socially misfit. We do woefully little to help those we cannot understand and then we cry and shout when they hurt us. As adults, we have a duty to fashion a world that's safer and healthier for our children. We must make things better.
Among the strategies are making mental health checkups as normal as physical checkups. They need to be affordable and not stigmatized. As a society, we are so averse to having anyone question whether we're equipped to handle the ups and downs of life. We're still supposed to fight through it without well-trained health professionals, and that's not working — especially in an age where the resources exist but are not nearly as accessible or socially accepted as they should be. Then, there are even more painstaking tasks we, as parents, have to tackle with firm commitment.
On a regular basis, we need to talk with our kids about their friends. We need to teach them how to be fair and caring. We must work with them on the nuances of resolving conflicts and understanding each other's feelings. We must help our sons and daughters recognize and reach out to those who seem alone, and educate them about physical and mental differences that make people unique but no less worthy of our attention. In these ways, we might help our kids at the ground level to improve society's connectedness.
We need to speak with the parents of our kids' friends and classmates about their children. We should take notice when they are in need of support. We often get so wrapped up with our own needs, we fail to reach out the way our parents or grandparents did when society seemed smaller and more manageable. We have to create a village-like atmosphere where we help each other so that no parent or child feels outside the circle. If we encounter parents or children who resist social connection, then we should seek counsel or assistance to ascertain what might be causing it and do something to assist them.
We must be willing to seek help rely on each other and on the professionals who can make our lives better. Children come with a wide range of emotional and physical challenges. What matters is that we be proactive. This may result in our children needing therapy or medication — or even in us needing those things ourselves. If we make the effort to get help and act in our children's best interest, we will not only be aiding them and ourselves, but the society around us.
It could take years, even decades for these strategies to take effect. But I have to believe that if we work together, we can create a better world for our children. The alternative is just too horrible.
Gregory Keer is an award-winning columnist, teacher, and publisher of a fatherhood website, www.familymanonline.com.