I signal right, take the off ramp, steel myself as I wait at the light. Once more into the pain. Once more into the sadness. My husband, an ex-military survivalist, is fond of the quote “Once more into the fray.” I hear his whisper as I prepare to see my next client, to go once more into the fray and the sadness.
A few weeks ago, I had to testify against a former client. Only when I was seated on the witness stand and was peppered with questions did I realize how gut-wrenching the experience can be. To sit and state, for the record, truth and whole truth sworn, that this client has failed. This one can’t manage to do what they’ve been asked to do. If one cares about their work - if one cares about the people for whom one does the work - it’s nauseating. I drove home shaking. That evening I consulted with my cohort, who validated my stress.
“I cried the first time I had to do it.”
“I cry every time.”
“I can never sleep the night before.”
It was cathartic, this sharing of the sadness.
As I drove to the courthouse the second morning, I passed an older woman, ever so slowly moving down the sidewalk. “Walking” would not be an accurate term. She stood with a walker, and every footstep appeared to be agony. Each small movement lasted perhaps 20 or 25 seconds. I sat able-bodied in the car, and the slowness and the pain in her movements nearly brought me to tears. This world just hurts too much, I thought, as the light turned green and I drove past. It was only three blocks later, the image of her laborious footsteps a sad GIF playing in my head, that it occurred to me - she was not in a wheelchair. Had she been immobile and reliant on a device, I would not have given her existence a second thought. It was the struggle against the pain, not the surrender to it, that had caught my attention.
When I heard the news out of Texas on Sunday, this same sadness swept over me again. I did not bubble with anger, as I did after Sandy Hook or Las Vegas or Boston. I did not feel the despair and the disorientation that struck when I was younger, after 9/11 and Oklahoma City. This time, just sadness. Too much. This hurts too much.
This time, I did not respond with solutions, with angry declarations about necessary changes to gun control or mental health treatment - all warranted, but they felt wrong. Off. Callous. Premature.
I am a fixer of things, my husband and my best friend and my children and my family and my clients will tell you. Problem? Pain? Here, let me offer my suggestions. Here’s a band-aid. Let’s make it so we don’t have to see this sadness, m’kay? Let’s just make that go away. Quickly, please.
It’s only natural that when we see pain and suffering, we want to make it go away. This is, perhaps, one of the better parts of human nature.
But on Sunday afternoon, as the darkness descended early, the sadness felt right. The country was hurt and crying again. Children were lost to violence in a building where they came to learn about love and hope, about the someday restoration of all things. In the quiet, rainy night, allowing my heart to break open over this circumstance felt like the only appropriate response.
It would be wrong to stay there, I think. Hopes and prayers and warm thoughts and the world moving on would be just as unacceptable as offering a pat policy solution to make myself feel in control.
But - maybe - we have to mourn before we can make real change. Maybe our rush to fix rather than feel is an impediment to lasting solutions.
Personally, when I rush to fix, whether it’s for clients or loved ones, it’s an effort to maintain my safety and security. It is entirely self-motivated. I don’t like the idea of you being homeless, so let’s find you a place to live. It’s unsettling to see you so depressed. Here, take these pills. You relapsed? Let’s get you into a program today.
Don’t feel ready? Don’t care.
Do they need housing? Do they need medication, and counseling, and treatment? Unequivocally, yes. But when I try to fix too soon, so I can feel accomplished and return to my baseline of comfort and security, there are underlying problems I might miss. There are bigger issues in play, that I choose to ignore, because I feel overwhelmed and powerless to solve them.
Rather, I am powerless to solve them.
What I have learned, in the aftermath of nauseating court testimony and the image of that woman on the sidewalk, is that this sense of powerlessness can be appropriate and necessary. That tears and silence are, for a brief time, just the response that’s needed.
I do believe in the someday restoration of all things. I do not believe that restoration, and love and hope, became any less true for children in Texas this weekend, though it certainly feels a long way off. I believe, to my core, that we are responsible for bringing about that restoration, in partnership with Something / Someone larger and more powerful and more capable of restoration than any of us could be on our own.
And in the meantime, I do believe in policy reforms. This was, clearly, a preventable tragedy. The anger is justified. But let me not rush through the process to a half-assed restoration and a handful of policy changes without first being in the sadness. As the pain comes in, real and undeniable, let that motivate us for change.
Let us start by going into the fray.