Today in Orlando, 50 people were murdered. That makes June 12, 2016 the date of the worst mass shooting in our nation’s history. Coincidentally, my friend Shannon McNamara was murdered on this same day, 15 years ago.
Right after her death I founded Girls Fight Back, and became a reluctant expert on violence. Between 2001-2013, my personal and professional mission was to educate and empower people to learn how to predict, prevent and if necessary – fight back against violent people.
My work was my hope and my despair, my sanity and my frustration. I heard some of the darkest stories told by the most inspiring people. I was in awe of the simultaneous fragility and resilience of the human spirit.
For 15 years I have grappled with the question of how people can live in a world where such terrible things happen. Each year on June 12, the anniversary of Shannon’s death, my response would be different. Some years I’d spring awake in revolution mode. Other years I’d be hurting so much that I couldn’t get out of bed.
Today I bought a bunch of baby roses (one of Shannon’s favorite flowers) and passed them out to random strangers downtown Boulder. Upon receiving the flowers, one college student with ear buds blasting in her ears was puzzled and looked at me like I was nuts. One elderly woman smiled, like she needed nothing more than a yellow baby rose at that exact moment. One young man laughed and said thank you.
And then there was the goofy female clown standing at the corner of Pearl St. and 9th St. in full costume, who burst into tears while looking at me and asking, “Why?” I told her she gave so much joy to others, it’s only right that joy come back to her.
Then I just walked away. I wasn’t there to make a friend or change her life. I just wanted to pay some love forward that Shannon once gave me.
We can all do this. (not just on tragic days)
How I got through each anniversary of a year without Shannon was never “right” or “wrong”, just as no stranger who received a flower was right or wrong in their response. It’s just a reaction, and it’s normal. Just like your reaction to today’s events are normal, however they occur.
Coping and compassion in the aftermath of murder does not come with a manual. It just requires we walk through the pain. Sometimes alone, sometimes together – but always with a destination in mind: a more peaceful world.
I will never, ever stop envisioning a safer society for you and your children.
When murder is committed, it’s confronting. It’s terrifying. And it makes us question everything.
Our mortality. Our humanity.
I saw many people’s posts on Facebook today wondering how to raise their kids in a violent world. Others were distraught, angry, sad, traumatized. Folks who live more in their heads are just trying to figure it out, intellectually. (spoiler alert: they never will, but analyzing is how some people cope)
So how do we LIVE like this? The way I see it, there are two things we can do.
The first thing is for your own well-being: Learn to see both the light AND the dark – often in the same moment. (This is more challenging than it sounds, and I’m still learning.)
The dark that occurred today is the hateful motive, the pre-meditation, the planning, the drive to the club, the unloading of weapons, the vicious act…
Dark, dark, dark.
Go there. Feel it. Grieve. Cry. Punch a pillow. Stay there for awhile if you need to.
But staying in the dark too long without seeing the light, we start to lose hope. We lose faith. So we must choose to see the light, even in the midst of the downright awfulness.
Suggesting you look for the light amidst darkness is not minimizing a tragedy, or being naive. It’s a critical element of human survival during a time where humans kill other humans at an alarming rate on a regular basis. (like right now) We need to believe, even on the bad days, that good days are ahead.
We need to have faith that somehow peace will prevail and love always wins. This is powerful mojo to put into the universe. On bad days like today, we see the cop cars and body bags on TV – but we must choose to also see the hugs and the heroes in the street.
We need to acknowledge the 6-hour-long lines of people lined up to donate blood in Florida. We need to embrace hashtags like #OrlandoStrong and the outpouring of activism and ambition to eradicate such events in the future – politically, socially and legally.
The challenging part is to hold both the light and dark in the exact same moment. To know this tragedy was inexcusable and horrific, but also to see the humankind emerge from the crime scene. Holding both light and dark simultaneously is using your voice and your vote to FIGHT, but in the same instant feel the current of raw human connection that often lies dormant during safer and saner times.
The second thing we can do is learn to hold space for others who are also going through this pain – both as individuals and as a collective human race. It requires a softness that is not often heralded in our culture as being productive.
While on the road with Girls Fight Back for 12 years, thousands of people told me their stories of violence. I remember many nights after speaking to full auditoriums, I’d have 100+ people waiting in line to talk to me afterwards. They weren’t there to ask questions, they wanted to share their horror stories.
So many nights after I got “home” from these events to the comfort of my Hampton Inn in some random city, I’d think I finally hit the edge. I’d hear a story and think it couldn’t get any worse. Until the next night, and I was proved wrong. This cycle continued for over a decade, and it was the hardest part of my job. To this day, I still think about those stories, and those people.
My role was not to end their pain. Instead, it was to hold space.
Holding space is simply being able to be present and not fix when someone is processing violence. Listen and not solve. Love from a place of being vs doing. Holding space is simply being there, allowing the unfixable, unbearable howl of grief – without the need to believe it is anything less than perfect.
This is what many survivors want in the aftermath of violent incidents. For you to be there, to hold their pain and not need to do anything but love them, even if you don’t know them.
I’ve held countless sobbing strangers in my arms. It doesn’t matter who they are or what their names are. People are people, and pain is pain. We all bleed the same. There is a collective consciousness of pain that washes over the world when terrible things happen, and you can hold space even without a direct connection.
But in order to truly hold space, we must first learn to feel helpless.
Helplessness is one of the most difficult emotions to grapple with as a human being. And it doesn’t mean the future can’t be better, or that terrible things cannot be prevented, or there is nothing to be done. Helplessness means the past cannot be changed and there is no way to delete human suffering in the present…and just being with that.
With mass killings, there is also mass helplessness that washes over the rest of us who aren’t directly involved. Some people can accept their helplessness and hold space, while others attack the shooter, the President, the NRA, etc.
There is a big difference between using a voice for rage, and using a voice for change.
So when you see unproductive/misguided anger after violent crimes, know it’s often misplaced helplessness. Observe it and have compassion. Maybe see it in yourself. People want to do something after these tragedies, and sometimes in those first days or weeks there is no positive outlet yet. So they lash out or freak out, internally or externally.
It’s challenging to be so human, to have a tender heart, and to care so damn much. When murder happens, it hurts. What most of us have in common is a deep love of our imperfect lives and a paralyzing fear of losing them. This duality is what being human is all about.
Even on my darkest days of hearing the most terrible stories that show us the very worst of humanity…I believe this roller coaster of life is worth it.
I’m so sorry this was a hard day.
But helpless doesn’t mean hopeless.
And I’ll never stop believing in humankind.
Love always wins.