Innocence and Senselessness


There are times in our lives that events happen, so we question everything that is good and right and we come away feeling powerless to make a difference. Recent events in Kansas City, Dallas and now Connecticut have served as recent reminders of our own humanity and make us question “why?”. The senseless taking of innocent lives at Sandy Hook Elementary including the murder of 20 Kindergarten aged children further makes us wonder about how such barbarity could possibly happen in 2012.

After all, there was a ringer on the locked front door at Sandy Hook and each daytime guest was buzzed into the building following a video inspection. 20 year old Adam Lanza just shot his way through the doors.

Now the cries go out from all over the country and world. Parents hug their kids tighter than ever and wonder what if.

I sent a text on Friday to my own grown daughter who has young children of her own, “I Love you so very much and always will.” She responded, “I never imagined I would think how lucky my parents are that I have made it through my childhood.”

One friend suggested that this is the end of the world. It certainly is the end of the world as we have known it to be.

So, what does that even mean?

I grew up 30 miles outside of Los Angeles. My parents used to leave the windows of our car rolled down and the doors unlocked at night with the car parked out on the street right in front of our house. There were times when we’d wake up in the morning and our own front door was left wide open by the last person who went to bed. No big deal.

Then, at some point something changed. This change took place over time of course but for sure, life changed.

It was 1961 and I was maybe 8 years old when we returned from a vacation to find our house had been robbed. The memory I had of that event for years was that my parents just kept saying the “vandals” had been there. The “vandals” had been there. Well, as it so happens we had visited people my parents knew, earlier in life, the previous summer, who I remember their last name as being the “Vandals.” So, I assumed they were saying this family had stopped by to see us but, I always wondered how they knew the Vandals had been there — did they leave a note or something.

A couple of years later when the robbery came up in conversation my parents spelled it out a little more clearly but, even then I didn’t think much of it. I mean, I never once thought any of us were in any kind of danger whatsoever.

Now 60 and being a novice singer-songwriter over the years I’ve made the comment to friends regularly that I thought we’d grown up in the best era for music — the folk-rock era. Now, it’s clear to me that it was also an innocent era. However, as Don Henley suggested in his 1980s song, this is the “End of the Innocence.”

In 1978, Harold Kushner wrote a book called “When Bad Things Happen to Good People.” I read this book in the early 80s in response to a divorce I’d gone through. Personally, the book was meaningful, because it helped me direct my energies toward matters that were helpful, instead of creating more hurt, where there already was a plethora. Today I count my ex-wife as a close friend.

Kushner, a rabbi who had suffered through the nonsensical death of a his own son by progeria (premature aging) and his resulting state of mind — endlessly asking why, why, why. Kushner points out through his experience that asking “why” in the long term produced certain unsavory answers. He also points out that his book was not named, “WHY Bad Things Happen to Good People”, but instead, “WHEN Bad Things Happen to Good People” directing those who are suffering to examine and focus upon how they will respond to the situation. Kushner suggests that HOW we respond produced favorable results, more than asking WHY.

WHY can leave us trapped in an endless black hole while looking at HOW we respond can ultimately point us in positive directions.

In the case of Jovan Belcher I’ve learned that we will never understand “why” this had to happen. James Brown, host for the FOX NFL Sunday pointed out that sometimes men are raised with certain attitudes toward women and until they grow up and get into a relationship their deep seated feelings about how they think a woman “must” act, don’t surface.

While I find Brown’s suggestion an over simplification there will never be a way to climb inside of Belcher’s mind on that fateful Saturday morning.

The following weekend in Dallas, the Cowboys NT Josh Brent got behind the wheel of a car with his blood alcohol level twice the legal limit and his ensuing accident resulted in the senseless death of Cowboys teammate Jerry Brown Jr.. After decades of public campaigning by organizations like Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) you’d think adults and drinking and driving would have ceased by now. Also, just when I didn’t think my opinion of Jerry Jones could sink any lower he allowed Josh Brent, currently out of jail on bond, from alleged manslaughter charges, to roam the Cowboys sideline during the game. What were you thinking Jerry?

Like Kushner has suggested, all this questioning leads down the same path called “why?” While it can be productive at times to do that, the bottom line is now — what are we each going to do next?

While I have come to accept that the innocent age I grew up in has gone by the way of the Dodo bird, I hold every hope that we can preserve an innocence for our youth and especially our very young children.

Loss is difficult and the pain from the kind of loss in Newtown, Connecticut is devastating and can be followed by years of depression. Depression is essentially, “a loss of sense of self” according to Dr. John Bradshaw. When a parent loses a child it changes everything about family, identity and personal destiny.  For me, an outsider looking in, after 35 years of teaching and spending my life as a child advocate, it is this loss of innocence, for children everywhere, that hurts as much as anything else.

Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

During my teaching career I’ve witnessed, first hand, the gradual and even methodical shrinking of the age of innocence for our youth.

I remember my parents not allowing my sister to wear jeans to school, only dresses. I’m not suggesting we go back to rules so out dated but, with our young children we should provide a period of time when they can maintain a sense of wonder and amazement, feeling safe and secure and consequently vulnerable, not having to feel self conscious instead of ego driven like older teens can get.

It is senseless for us to let go of such ideals for our children.

No. One senseless act does not deserve another.

Let’s not become jaded by the horrific acts of a few, even though those acts have affected us all.

Am I wanting us all to live in a Disneyland state of mind. Not really but, a little more innocence wouldn’t hurt a lot of us.

So, when we say innocence, what are we really talking about. Innocence is a down home recipe of sincerity, virtue, harmlessness, integrity, simple goodwill towards our fellow humans and the desire to protect. Even most all species in the animal kingdom will protect their young.

Protecting our “innocence” has become a difficult task in this day and age of:

  • “I’m Bad” and I’m glorified for it,
  • I can act out my violent fantasies through games like “Call of Duty: Black Ops” or thug it up in “Grand Theft Auto,”
  • I could get all the attention in the world if I’m willing to act like a complete fool and sign my life away to a reality show like “Jersey Shore” or how about a show called “Buckwild” based in Virginia which is being protested by Virginia Senator Joe Manchin who is requesting that MTV reconsider airing the production because it is actually encouraging antisocial and illegal behavior. I guess many people these days would do anything for money.

Of course, that’s not something I would do. However, it’s not so much about what a person “would” do… as it is what they “should” do.

I recall an essential educational text for my graduate degree in reading instruction was presented as a long list of… a “teachers should” this or that… and every chapter was research based on “shoulds.”

Our civilized society hangs together on an agreeable set of shoulds. Without these shoulds it all falls apart.

Is that what’s going on now? Is it all falling apart? I don’t believe so but, there are influences now that have changed the game of believing in and perceiving life as goodness and innocence.

Here’s Morgan Freeman’s take about why the event at Sandy Hook took place:

"“You want to know why? This may sound cynical, but here’s why. It’s because of the way the media reports it. Flip on the news and watch how we treat the Batman theater shooter and the Oregon mall shooter like celebrities. Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris are household names, but do you know the name of a single *victim* of Columbine? Disturbed people who would otherwise just off themselves in their basements see the news and want to top it by doing something worse, and going out in a memorable way. Why a grade school? Why children? Because he’ll be remembered as a horrible monster, instead of a sad nobody.CNN’s article says that if the body count “holds up”, this will rank as the second deadliest shooting behind Virginia Tech, as if statistics somehow make one shooting worse than another. Then they post a video interview of third-graders for all the details of what they saw and heard while the shootings were happening. Fox News has plastered the killer’s face on all their reports for hours. Any articles or news stories yet that focus on the victims and ignore the killer’s identity? None that I’ve seen yet. Because they don’t sell. So congratulations, sensationalist media, you’ve just lit the fire for someone to top this and knock off a day care center or a maternity ward next.You can help by forgetting you ever read this man’s name, and remembering the name of at least one victim. You can help by donating to mental health research instead of pointing to gun control as the problem. You can help by turning off the news.”"

I share in most of Mr. Freeman’s admittedly cynical message. However, the school I instruct at has been participating in a program called Rachel’s Challenge which encourages and challenges kids to be kind to each other and was named for Rachel Scott, a victim of the Columbine shootings.  If not for that program, I believe Freeman would be right about me as well.*

*Editors Note: The above text was not written by Morgan Freeman. Since the writing of this article, Mr. Freeman’s representatives have released a statement that Mr. Freeman had nothing to do with the above text. The text went viral and Mr. Freeman’s representatives are trying to figure out where it came from. We’ve left the text in this article because the words were important to the author, regardless of who write them.

He certainly is right about the way we digest our news.

So, what should we do about dealing with each senseless incident like this? Like Harold Kushner, we should look at what we do to positively respond to situations like that.

  • A group of children in Pakistan lit candles and prayed for the Americans lost.
  • Students in Frisco Texas spontaneously gathered on Friday evening to sing and pray.
  • The president responded with tears and pledges.
  • Thousands gathered at churches in California to pray for the survivors and Newton community.
  • Newton neighbors made wooden Angels for each lost child and teacher, others donated Christmas trees that lined the road to the school, and yet others began baking and cooking for grieving families while other gave white teddy bears to the surviving children.
  • NFL teams everywhere stopped for  moment of silence and the Patriots wore a black ribbon symbol on their helmets to honor the lost.

The list goes on and on. If this is what Kushner meant by choosing to respond instead of merely asking why — then so much more good is surfacing than the negative. What else can we do?

We can also choose to remember the heroes. Heroes like Victoria Soto (in the center of the picture above). reports,

"“Victoria Soto, a 27-year-old teacher at Sandy Hook Elementary School, has emerged as hero in the wake of the tragedy that took place Friday morning.According to reports, Soto told her first-grade students to hide in closets and cabinets (7 were able to hide and 6 were not) as soon as she heard the gunfire. When the shooter approached her classroom, she told him her class had gone to the gym.”"

Having killed Soto and the six visible children, the gunman moved on.

So, I don’t know the answer to this next question but, I will pose it anyway: what would Victoria want us to do now? Give up on innocence? No, because there’s too, too much good going on in our everyday lives to think the world is going to hell in a handbasket.

And… we’ve so much to be thankful for.

Try this experiment: during the day today, look for ten things you are personally thankful for and when you get home tonight, sometime before you go to bed, write them down. Now, I know this sounds strange but, as you’re writing about these things you are truly thankful for, just try and feel depressed at the same time. You can’t, can you? That’s because — and you will find — it’s not possible. Thankfulness is one of the powerful forces and resources in our lives and we can tap it — if we so choose.

One of the great games in my life that I’m thankful for is football. Grown men playing a game on a big grassy field every Sunday afternoon is an ideal I’ve been chasing my whole life. Is there any innocence involved there? You bet, and it’s an innocence I adore.

The world does not belong to those who hurt, abuse and mame. Ours is the brightest future of all futures of any society and country that has ever inhabited this planet. Embrace it. We are it.

I don’t want to turn this piece into a referendum on gun control. That being said, I did hear someone say, “I can’t think of one good reason why anyone needs  to own assault weapons.”

No matter what happens in that regard, what I’m more concerned about is our power to choose how we respond. Just as Victor Frankl who outlined in his famous book, “Man’s Search for Meaning” following his release from four different WWII death camps, including Auschwitz, that although humans are destined to suffer, they are at liberty to determine how they deal with it, make meaning of it and then move forward with a renewed sense of purpose.

There was once an old lady planting flowers in her garden by the front sidewalk. As she kneeled and dug the earth for another bulb, she was confronted by some boys with guns who said to her, “Go in the house and get all your money and we won’t kill you.” The old lady kept whistling and planting bulbs. This infuriated the boys and so they yelled at her a second time then a third, “Go in the house and get all your money and we won’t kill you.” Finally, the old lady stopped, lifted her head and said to the boys, “I love flowers… and planting them, so if you’re going to shoot me you go right ahead and do that because I’m busy!” The boys ran away.

We each need the gumption and resolve of this old lady. Remember who you are. Remember what you love. Don’t let anyone move you from your place of happiness.

That old lady didn’t step aside and neither did Victoria Soto.

The sacrificial love of a young teacher like Victoria Soto gives me hope, makes my heart swell and in the face of pain and loss can restore the human psyche to wellness and even provide a bit of solitude.

And, born of this solitude is the belief in innocence, like the innocent individuals that Victoria Soto stood to protect and gave her life for.

Senselessness will come and go.

We should resolve to preserve childhood innocence — as well as our own innocence — if for no other reason than to honor one as courageous as Victoria Soto. But, especially to renew our date with the American dream… the continued pursuit of life, love and happiness.