(It took me a while to put my thoughts down into writing. The tragedies of Newtown, Connecticut touched us all deeply, and I did not want my response to you, dear readers, to be glib, insensitive, or careless in any way. From many whom I've listened to, I understand this strikes a chord within each of us, and hopefully we can offer one another some support in learning how to deal with some of the major issues we have in our society...issues that directly affect the safety and security of our children and grandchildren. I hope you will respond with your own ideas and thoughts. Dr. Catherine Al-Meten)
As 2013 begins and 2012 has drawn to an end, we reflect upon the major events of last year--what caught our attention, happened in our own and the lives of others, and what has left a lasting impression. What do we carry forward with us from 2012? For those of us with young children and grandchildren, we will be spending time reflecting on how the year has been for their lives. With the tragic events in early December in Connecticut’s community of Newtown, we are all too aware of how fragile and precious life is.Newtown is just one tragic event in a series of events that reflect the underlying problems we experience when we use violence as a form of solving problems and as a form of entertainment.
We live in times when we still use war as a means to an end in political and economic disputes. We live in a time when people can and do carry and amass arsenals of weapons for their own use and pleasure. We still live in a time when criminals terrorize innocents to achieve their selfish and desperate goals. How do those of us who suffer because of violence, live with such tragedy? How do we help ourselves and our children and grandchildren cope with such senseless violence and the aftermath of trauma?
Before the events at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, I was talking with my granddaughter about why we still celebrate the birthday of the baby Jesus. When I told her it was because of what he taught people about living in peace and treating each other with love and kindness, she at the tender age of six, responded, “Well why do people still do bad things to each other?” My response has been ongoing, for of course her question was one that gets to the heart of most religious doctrine and practices. Each great religious tradition celebrates the great events of its founders and origins, including the births, and the miraculous events that help define each tradition. Each tradition also memorializes the tragedies as well, for our lives are made up of both the wonderful and tragic events of life. How then do we guide, support, protect, and teach our children and grandchildren about such tragic events in our own lives and those of others--strangers, those in distant lands, and the faceless ‘others’ who suffer?
In observing the media coverage of yet another American tragedy in Newtown, I was overwhelmed like many people, with the utter sense of sadness, despair, and compassion for those families who were and are suffering from their losses. Arguments started immediately between people over what the underlying reasons were, how to stop gun violence, how to get to the heart of what had caused such an event, how to solve mental health problems so as to head off such events, and other endless speculation of what could be done to prevent this from happening again. Other people spoke of needing to turn off the news for the endless stories about the tragedy were depressing and seemed to serve no purpose. In time, other events have and will take over the headlines and breaking news media coverage. What won’t change however, is the trauma left in the aftermath of tragedy and violence.
How does our own behavior affect our children and grandchildren? Before we can help our children and grandchildren, we need to be aware of how we handle and talk about such events. Our children and grandchildren model our behavior, whether we are conscious of it or not. We cannot sit for hours in front of the computer or television watching news and documentaries, discussions and arguments about gun violence or mental health, without it setting an example for our children and grandchildren.
We cannot dismiss tragic events, including ongoing wars, political violence, crime, and other tragic events as something out there, beyond our own experience, especially if we spend our time fascinated and entertained by traumatic events and violence. For those of us who believe we can watch hours of crime dramas, war movies, and political terror films without being either desensitized to violence and its aftermath or energized by it, are kidding ourselves. All that we read, watch, discuss, and focus our time and attention on, affects us. If we participate in violent activities ourselves, we at least need to understand that over time it affects our perspective on life, our thinking, and our behavior. For those of us who are in the military or come from families who are, we need to have conversations with our children and grandchildren that do more than just glorify and justify war.
What do our children and grandchildren need from us?
We need to help ourselves and our children and grandchildren find a basis for living and coping with whatever happens. To focus only on the terror, violence, and tragedies of life is to live in imbalance and disharmony. Nearly all of us are confronted on an ongoing basis with events in our lives we have no control over. Sometimes the events happen within our own sphere, but more often than not, they happen outside of it. From my work with trauma and stress, I have come to understand that when we are traumatized by an event in our lives or in the sphere of influence for us, we are forced to respond to a situation that makes no sense. For children, who still believe they are the center of the sphere of cause and effect (and they are when they are very young and still need constant care, supervision, and guidance), children believe themselves responsible for whatever is happening; this includes the negative events. Children feel responsible for whatever occurs, and it is our responsibility to help them maintain a core sense of safety and happiness.
To talk about happiness when there is tragedy in our lives, is to begin to seek balance and harmony in a world that has turned upside down. In the words of one who suffered, “I keep my ideals, because in spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart. I simply can’t build up my hopes on a foundation consisting of confusion, misery, and death.” These words were written by Anne Frank, one who suffered and died during the Nazi Holocaust of the 1940s. Even in the midst of tragedy and loss, we humans need to seek harmony in order to carry on. For children, the need is for us to help them.
We find as we focus on supporting our children and grandchildren that they in turn help us. We watch children as they are able to find balance even in the worst of times. Children are innately hopeful and seekers of harmony. Only when we, the adults in their lives, insist or oppress their natural tendencies to seek balance, do they learn to dwell on the morbid or fail to heal from tragedy and sorrow. To a very young child, a terrible event will be like the end of the world, and then shortly afterward, their attention moves onto something else. Usually, children look for simple answers and easy ways to form new connections. When our precious and well-loved cat, Zelda died, my granddaughter was upset like the rest of us, and then came up with the idea to get a new pet. We, adults who take our time grieving, might be shocked by such a switch in moods, but it’s quite normal for children to seek harmony.
One recent study done on our innate need, as human beings, to be optimistic, In study, the results of which were published in Nature Neuroscience October, 2012, researchers discovered “clues to the brain’s predilection for the positive, identifying regions that may fuel this “optimism bias” by preferentially responding to rosier information.” The study done by University College London researcher Tali Sharot and her associates, worked with a group of young adults, age 19-27. In addition to the surprising find that most participants were overwhelmingly optimistic in their outlook, both with information and without it, the study also used brain scans (MRI) and noted a significant change and links in brain activity. Increased activity in the prefrontal cortex of the brain was noted when the participants received good news. This area of the brain is where conscious reasoning takes place, and researchers inferred that the participants were making a connection that contributes to their ability to make positive correlations and corrections with errors. In the right inferior frontal gyrus, activity was stronger when there was discouraging news. This part of the brain is basically responsible for the “go/no go” response to choices a person has to make. This indicates, an ability to take in negative information and use it to synthesize one’s attitude and outlook.
According to Sharot (and other researchers and studies), over 80% of the population has a bias towards optimism. It may be that optimism is a gift for survival, given the dangerous and tenuous nature of human life. If we didn’t believe that things would get better, we would be less likely to be hopeful about the future. Optimism is not just an innate trait. It is also a learned behavior. While our personality tends to be hard-wired to a great extent, we can all learn to be more optimistic. “All men [humans] seek happiness. This is without exception. Whatever different means they employ, they all tend to this end. The cause of some going to war, and of others avoiding it, is the same desire in both, attended with different views. They will never takes the least step but to this object. This is the motive of every man [human], even those who hang themselves” (Blaise Pascal, mathematician and philosopher). Of course Blaise Pascal was not the first to mention happiness as a human goal.
How do we help our children cope with grief and trauma?
Nearly all of us are confronted on an ongoing basis with events in our lives we have no control over. We also have some control over many areas of our lives, especially in the choices we make concerning how we raise and care for our children. We also have a choice over how we choose to respond to tragic events. We have enough research and experience in dealing with trauma and tragedy to know that doing nothing is not an option. Our responsibilities begin with becoming more mindful, intentional, and responsive to the way we, ourselves react and respond. In turn, we are setting examples for the children in our lives, and our ability to support, guide, and help provide them with a greater sense of safety, well being, and care will help.
Areas where we have control.
We can control the areas of our lives where we expose ourselves and our children to violence and where we encourage violent behavior. The obvious choices we make in discipline and our use of corporal punishment. In our times, acts of hitting a child are forbidden and illegal, and rightly so. We no longer treat our grandchildren and children as if they had no rights. We also have a choice about how we talk to our children and grandchildren, and about how we talk in front of them. If our choice of words are hurtful, intolerant, crude, or abusive, we are not only harming our children but also ourselves. I recall early in my career in education, hearing one of my peers talk about children as if they had no brains, rights, or autonomy. That wasn’t long ago, and hopefully that person was never let loose in a classroom, but those of us who think it doesn’t matter what we say or how we unleash our emotional tirades on children are causing harm. Parents and grandparents alike need to be aware of how they speak, act, and express themselves to children.
We also have choices about what we allow our children to view on the media, in video games, and film. Traumatic events, played over and over on the media, has a detrimental effect. As the old computer adage goes, “garbage in, garbage out.” Also, when children are overexposed to traumatic events directly or indirectly, it can either desensitize children to violence and its aftermath. It can also result in retraumatizing a child who has suffered from some for of abuse or trauma. Even adults are affected negatively by the constant replaying and hyper focus on traumatic events.
We also have the responsibility of helping ground our children with a set of sound ideals, ethics, and codes for behavior. The image we help create of the Divine Creator is what sets the foundation for a child’s life. Using sound theological and spiritual ideas rather than frightening, judgmental, images of a wrathful one, can provide children with a greater sense of hope, safety, and caring. If we act and live from a place of fear and anger, we do ourselves and our children no real good.
When we and our children have experienced trauma, there are ways we can cope with what we have experienced. Everyone will react or respond to trauma in a healthy way or unhealthy ways. The healthy ways include: Finding non-traumatizing activities to deal with the stress so as not to trigger more stress and cause ongoing. When a traumatic event occurs, those who are affected experience an initial impact or shock. “In order to cope with the trauma, ego awareness splits in order to cope with whatever one is doing, and at the same time, to disassociate from the experience that causes too much pain.” (Al-Meten, 2004).
People respond differently, some withdrawing or repressing feelings and responses in order to cope, others reacting with anger, hyperactivity, and other forms of acting out to cope.
Some seek ways to bring about healing and find meaning as a way to cope. We all have different ways of coping. As adults, we are in some ways, better equipped to cope with stress if for no other reason than we have lived more of life and have a broader perspective. We can be more self reflective, and can learn to observe our own behavior over time. We have learned to make healthy adjustments to difficult and challenging situations. And we can certainly help our children and grandchildren develop healthy habits and perspectives as well. We can encourage them to be optimistic as well as wise in considering a variety of possibilities, options, and choices. While we may find it difficult at times to maintain our optimism and sense of hope, most of us know that in order to heal into wholeness, we have to move into a new sense of normalcy. For more ideas about the importance of addressing tragedy and trauma in a healthy way, read the article in the Scientific American.
What I have learned after many years of teaching, spiritual counseling, and living is that we all have our share of challenges, trauma, and loss. What helps in healing and recovering from the difficult times and experiences is not some external fluke or bit of luck. People who recover, heal, and go on to live productive, happy lives, learn to face their losses, continually work to balance the bad with the good in their lives, help other people who have problems too, and accept that whatever challenge they faced allowed them to survive and find new meaning and purpose with their lives. Last week, Former Senator Gabrielle Gifford, a woman who was brutally attacked and traumatized just a short time ago, travelled to Newtown, Connecticut to offer her support and caring to the parents, families, and community who have suffered so greatly. We can each do something right where we are with the children and grandchildren who live here in our San Francisco Community, and who need all the kind and loving support we can offer to make them happier, healthier, and stronger people. As the Deuteronimist said thousands of years ago, "Before you, you have the choice of life and death. Choose life."
The following is a chant of healing and wholeness, Yeha Noha. May we heal into wholeness within ourselves, our families, and our communities.