I’m supposed to be working on a draft of DIVINERS BOOK #2 this morning, but I’m finding it hard to concentrate after hearing the news out of Aurora, Colorado. Last night—or early this morning, rather—a gunman walked into a midnight showing of BATMAN: THE DARK KNIGHT RISES, threw canisters of tear gas and in the ensuing confusion and chaos, began gunning people down. As of this morning, there are twelve reported dead and thirty wounded, with the youngest victim being only three months old.
This happened far from me. It did not happen to anyone I know personally. But that doesn’t mean I don’t feel loss and sadness about it. And it is a loss, not just for those families, for that community, but for the larger world, for we are all touched by such terrible acts. We lose a sense of safety and security, yes. But we also feel small chips scraped away from our collective humanity. How could such a thing happen? What does this say about us? What is wrong with the world?
It is very hard to understand what makes someone open fire in a crowded movie theater filled with people just wanting to watch a movie, an activity that most of us consider not only safe but downright cozy. It is something we do for pleasure. It is a coming together for a common purpose, a communal enjoyment. The answer, of course, is that someone who commits such an atrocious act is not in his right mind. He is sick. Agonizingly unwell. And, hard as it is to conjure, he needs our compassion. The world needs our compassion. Not a shirking of justice, of course. But compassion? Yes.
True confession: There is violence in my soul. When some seemingly entitled asshole cuts me off in the airport kiosk line, my initial feeling isn’t, “Why, sir, I can see that you are harried and in your harried-ness, you have forgotten the rules of polite society. Please, do go first so that you may feel less anxious. Safe travels to you, good sir!” No. My inner Samuel L. Jackson boils up in full “Pulp Fiction” mode, and in my head, I am squinting daggers at the dude while shouting, “EZEKIEL 25: 17, ‘The path of the righteous man is beset on all sides by the iniquities of the selfish and the tyranny of evil men!’” And then the martial arts start, because in this fantasy, I can climb walls and hang in the air for a full thirty seconds of lag time before unleashing a "Matrix"-worthy six-pack of whup-ass.
That is my feeling. That is my reaction. Part of what civilization compels us to do is to whisper to that gut reaction: “Lawyers. Jail. Body cavity search.” That’s what keeps us in line, sure. But then, there is a step further—the thing I call B.E.A.D.: The Bad-Ass Evolutionary Development. And that is not just a stifling of the impulse but the taking of a deep breath (because this is very, very hard sometimes. Okay, most of the time) allowing me to step outside of my own head, my own selfish world, and try to offer that person whatever understanding and kindness I’ve got on tap at that moment.
Empathy and compassion might just be the most bad-ass moves we’ve got.
It doesn’t mean we don’t have the “I will cut a bitch!” feelings. It doesn’t mean we don’t feel angry, annoyed, even violent. What it means is that we make a choice. We examine our responses. We try, though it is very, very, very hard, to understand that the other person has a whole world going on inside him that has nothing to do with us: A plane that if not caught will mean missing the school play. A romance on the verge of collapse. A sick child. A cup of coffee spilled on a shirt that was just dry-cleaned for naught. A hundred small paper cuts of daily living, perhaps. It takes extraordinary strength to respond in such instances instead with the most genuine smile you can muster and a kind, “You look like you’re really in a hurry. You go first.”
It is—and I am ashamed to admit this—rather like that Liberty Mutual commercial (I think it’s for insurance. Please don’t let it be for a bank.) in which witnessing one small act of kindness inspires kindness in the observer and so on and so on, a contagion of kindness. Kindness, empathy, compassion, love—these things can be learned. In fact, they have to be learned. They have to be practiced. They are, in fact, the true mark of a superhero. As my pal Jo Knowles said recently, “Make love your superpower.”
Where am I going with this? What does this have to do with a terrible shooting in Colorado?
When terrible things happen, when we feel lost in the face of such senseless violence, but we are still not powerless in the world. We have choices. We have understanding. We have love. We have empathy and compassion. We have the ability not to be lost to the undertow of violence and terror. That is the stronger arsenal. It’s a little like a moment from the last "Batman" movie in which a prisoner on a ferry, given a detonator and the choice to blow up another ferry in order to save himself and his fellow passengers, opts instead for the only sane choice: He throws the detonator overboard thereby safeguarding his humanity and the humanity of everyone on that ferry.
I suppose this is what I’m thinking about this morning as I try to clear my head enough to put words on paper, to tell a story, which is always how I try to make sense of an often senseless world and of my own chaotic, warring soul. I’m thinking about kindness. About trying to find the strength to respond to the world with as much love and understanding as we can personally muster, whatever that may be, whether that is taking an opportunity to let the possible asshole with the attitude problem go first in line or volunteering to mentor kids at a homeless shelter or offering hugs to our downhearted comrades or even when waking to news of horrific violence, choosing to go about the day with a renewed sense of love and empathy.
For today, we must be the superheroes of kindness a weary world needs.