This past Friday morning, I sent my children off to school with an extra hug and kiss, telling them good-bye, as they were about to embark on a two-week Christmas road trip with their father. They’ve made the trek to Michigan and back multiple times, but each journey tests my nerves. Twenty-five hours is a long time to have them at the mercy of wintry roads and holiday drivers. In a typical year, a part of my heart is sealed in a panic room until they return. By Friday afternoon, however, I had to just put the entire thing in lock-down.
One of the most terrifying realizations parents make is how much of our children’s safety is completely out of our control. It’s a truth we try to swaddle in waffled cotton and tighten down in five-point harnesses, but the reality is that we are all one fallen oak limb, one slippery intersection, one frayed wire away from potential disaster. But unless we’re willing to live in a solar-powered underground allergen-free bomb shelter, there isn’t much that can be done to eliminate every risk. We have to do our best and then send them out into the world. And hope for the best. Every day we hope.
Last Friday's school shooting in Newtown struck so many parents so deeply in part, I think, because it represented the very worst, the bottom of the dread barrel that we don’t dare to scrape. It was a violation of the contract we make with humanity every day, a main point of which is: I’ll place this small, helpless, innocent being in the care of my community because doing so will someday serve us all. All it takes is one person’s aberrance from that contract to destroy our faith in it, at least for a time.
I’m no expert on human behavior, but one of the basics I learned in Intro to Psychology is that it’s a natural desire to dehumanize those among us whose behavior is too abhorrent to comprehend. Ever since then, I’ve avoided using the term “monster” to describe criminals, no matter how unnatural their behavior may seem. I’ve tried to remember that, somewhere in their deepest reaches, they are still people, albeit people gone terribly wrong, and by seeing them as such, we’re better able to minimize future risk.
But over the last few days, with talk of every possible factor that could go into creating a person capable of the unimaginable horror experienced in Newtown, CT, I gave up. There’s no reason, I thought. He’s a monster. That’s all.
I’ve spent nearly 10 years telling my children that monsters aren’t real, that their imaginations shouldn’t get the best of them, that the real world is a pretty decent place. And even though I know, logically, that all those things are still true, the reminder of the random cruelty and unfairness humans are able to unleash on each other is deeply disturbing.
It’s worth having the conversations and asking the questions about what causes tragedies like the one at Sandy Hook Elementary, and hopefully they’ll result in a safer, healthier society, but I think it’s misguided to believe that we can legislate or medicate or even culturally revolutionize our way out of danger. The monster is chaos, and it can’t be destroyed.
And yet, we face it. We make breakfast and pack lunches. We help with homework and oversee piano practice. We live our lives. Because no matter what unknown forces may be out there trying to take what’s most precious from us, we have to give our children the lives they deserve. And that means accepting some risk, having some hope, and keeping the monster under our own beds.