The day after the horrific shootings in Newtown, Conn., at the busy Trader Joe's near my home in Pennsylvania, a well-dressed, middle-aged man behind me in line had a large button on that read "Freedom First. NRA." I couldn't ignore it and asked him: "Has anyone commented on that button you're wearing?"
He said "Only the nutters" (I think he meant the "nut jobs"), then he said "you anti-gun people [assuming that I was; my question only asked if he'd been called out on that very loud statement he was wearing] ignore the 22 kids stabbed with a knife in China." I said "Not one of those people is dead."
He then said accusingly, "You're a liberal." By then, a few people around the crowded store were looking on, but no one else spoke up. So I said, "I'm not arguing with you about guns here, but you need to consider people's feelings today. This is a very difficult day; that pin rubs it in our faces." He didn't say anything else, and I was thinking: "Freedom first? Not children first?!" but I couldn't get the words out of my mouth.
Dialogue Not Fear
Though he was the one wearing the pin extolling guns, I didn't feel threatened by the man at the check-out line. I sensed fear from him, though -- by his name-calling, quick judgment and choice to wear his politics on his chest that particular day.
My desire for dialogue may have been keener since my 9-year-old daughter was with me. A few hours earlier we had told her the basics of what had occurred at Sandy Hook elementary. Fresh in our thoughts (and after assessing it would be safe to engage him in conversation), I wanted her to see that we are not helpless; and that even among those who may disagree, we can and must talk to each other.
Back in the car, Sophia and I took our time processing what had just happened. I hoped to leave her with a bigger idea, one I've turned to often over the past decade of unimaginable tragedy:"Love is a light that never dwelleth in a heart possessed by fear." To get beyond shock, love -- not fear -- needs to guide me. Thanks to that exchange in the store which probably lasted fewer than five minutes, I have been thinking about some powerful lessons of the heart for moving forward after the tragedy in Newtown.
Start With Quiet
Like millions of others, while anguish seized my heart, I wrote to my Congressman to urge stricter gun laws. But I needed to do more. Somewhat counter-intuitively, for a multi-tasking, extroverted, type-A person, I sought quiet. I needed to calm my thoughts, open my heart and reflect on what my personal response to the tragedy could be. Then I had coffee.
Before heading out that morning of the exchange at the check-out line I had meditated on this Baha'i prayer for children:
O Thou kind Lord! These lovely children are the handiwork of the fingers of Thy might and the wondrous signs of Thy greatness. O God! Protect these children, graciously assist them to be educated and enable them to render service to the world of humanity. O God! These children are pearls, cause them to be nurtured within the shell of Thy loving-kindness. Thou art the Bountiful, the All-Loving.
As I prayed for those 20 first graders, the slain educators and their families, my thoughts turned to children near and far, and the urgent need for their physical, emotional, mental and spiritual care. How transformed our world might be if we treated each precious child as a pearl of great value, actually putting "children first."
What Happens When We're All So Connected?
The horror at Sandy Hook shines a hard light on the reality that we are more connected now than we ever thought possible. The whole world learned of the tragedy together, starting with 2 billion people on Facebook almost instantly sharing not just the facts, but how the news made us feel. And the connection goes deeper. Collectively, our hearts were shattered; at the same time, among vast swaths of people, hearts are opening up and determined to be better than we were before this nightmare occurred. Of necessity, connection calls for compassion: "We belong to an organic unit and when one part of the organism suffers all the rest of the body will feel its consequence."
While Wal-Mart quickly sold out their inventory of assault weapons and gun sales set a record in 2012, overall gun ownership is actually declining and many times more people are engaging in meaningful conversations, demanding changed gun and mental health policies and performing countless Acts of Kindness. The power of oneness, or connection, has been unleashed, and we see it reflected in responses ranging from the bellicose to the beneficent. While some embrace it, others will do all they can to shut it out and put up higher, more fortified walls for as long as they can.
Acting Locally (And Globally)
Among those who actively try to live out their understanding of the principle of the oneness of humanity are Dr. John and Margo Deselin-Woodall. The Unity Project they founded was asked by the City of New York to conduct resilience programs for youth after 9/11. They've worked in Bosnia, New Orleans and most recently, with children devastated by a brutal civil war in in Northern Uganda. Of all the ironies, The Unity Project is based in ... Newtown, Conn., home of the Woodall's. As if preparing their whole lives for this, they've been able to instantly shift focus to Newtown; arming young people with the most powerful weapons known to man: an arsenal of dialogue, compassion, creativity and resilience.
The Woodall's experience drives home to me the need to consider how each of us can be of service, wherever the need, whatever our circumstances. Baking a pie, taking the time to visit a neighbor, paying a stranger's utility bill, joining the kid who sits alone at the lunch table can create a ripple effect of good, even if it remains invisible to us.
With my teen-aged daughter we facilitate a character-building/spiritual-empowerment group among a dozen fourth graders from diverse religious affiliations that's inspired by a worldwide effort of local community building. What we do doesn't fit neatly into a traditional box, but the impact has been profound. When we started last year, the girls weren't sure what the word "unity" meant. Today, they articulate implications for ideas like "So powerful is the light of unity that it can illuminate the whole earth;" are ready to write a script around it and offer a service project at a moment's notice. We've confronted issues of inclusion, prejudice, honesty, justice, materialism and responsibility, and while we're just getting started, the children's incredible capacity to do great things is clear.
What I've witnessed following this recent tragedy convinces me that the social and spiritual ills encircling our world can be solved through concerted efforts at dialogue, inclusion and compassion, on whatever scale we can handle. Try love, not fear, not cursing the darkness -- or shooting at it.
This piece originally appeared at www.BahaiTeachings.org and expresses the author's personal views.