When words get in the way
It is a conundrum of wordsmiths that sometimes events are so horrible that words escape us. Bereft of the tools of our trade, we are left with what is perhaps the only appropriate response to something as heart-stopping as the massacre of children: Silence.
If I could get away with it, I might leave the rest of this space vacant. Call it a day. For this seems the sanest response to the horror. Out of respect for the living and the dead, we simply keep quiet, at least for a while.
But America isn’t much comfortable with silence or vacancy. We are all about the talk. We love our talk radio and our talk TV. We thrive on talking points and talk therapy. Talking things through is a religious ritual in the post-Oprah world.
I understand the impulse, of course. Hostage to my own revulsion, I write about the very things I rail against. Like so many, I can’t seem to land anywhere else. The “fiscal cliff,” the new African-American senator from South Carolina, new Cabinet picks — all are important, but suddenly seem trivial.
And so we ramble and sputter and repeat ourselves trying to find words that will make it possible to put this awful thing to rest.
Uneasily, we circle a too-familiar narrative. We’ve seen this movie before and know the characters well: The cops who speak in the terse, dispassionate language of the clinical investigator. The psychologists who burble banalities: Hug your children a little tighter and tell them you love them. The broadcast media whobabble inanities about tragedy, punctuated with corrections of misinformation uttered in previous time-filling excavations.
Meanwhile the scavengers of doom convene — volunteer prophets, prayer leaders and profiteers declaiming the evils of guns or violent games — or finding some way to insert themselves into the drama. Strangest of these was the mother who got herself on TV by proclaiming on her blog: “I am Adam Lanza’s mother.”
Liza Long, who has blogged about her life as an often-despairing mother, explained that her 13-year-old son, “Michael,” is mentally ill and likely to become the next mass murderer. Regardless of how daunting it must be to fear your son might be headed for serious trouble, Michael surely won’t be helped by seeing his mother telling the world about it. Nevertheless, Long was heralded by many as a heroine for finally launching the Long Overdue Honest Conversation about Mental Health in America. This, in the talking-est, confessing-est, sharing-est nation in the history of mankind.
Perhaps Long has reached a breaking point and is terrified, as she insists. But her foray into the public square, injecting her own child into the conversation as other parents are reeling from devastating loss, feels like stagecraft born of narcissism rather than maternal concern.
Of course Long wouldn’t have been more than a viral blip had the media not engaged her to — God help us — share her story. She was the “get” of the day — a blogospheric phenomenon that captured the zeitgeist. Why, everyone was tweeting about her!
In the midst of all this madness were the legions of parents who wisely turned off the television and tossed the newspapers, who averted their gazes and protected their children from the photographs of those other little ones. I’ve spoken to dozens of such parents who uniformly say, “It’s too much. I can’t bear it.”
Instead, they bundle up their children and place their faith in the abundance of goodness that usually surrounds them, sending them on their way. In time the talk will turn back to the cliff, the senator and the Cabinet, even as we resign ourselves to the inevitability of the next tragedy. This is because we know that though laws and policies can make small differences in the total tallies of the dead, the only thing that can displace evil is, as President Obama put it, love. Even this word sounds trite because we have trivialized it, substituting sentiment for meaning with our confections and paper cutouts.
Love is not just a valentine. It is a covenant with the greater good. It involves charity, compassion, empathy, self-sacrifice and, yes, listening. I don’t have any final words of wisdom, but do submit that the more yakking we do, the less likely we are to find the clarity we seek.