I am an alumnus of Sandy Hook Elementary School. While I have not lived in that little town for more than 30 years, the shootings brought me back home. Like others, I have been swept over by feelings of overwhelming grief. Although I know no one related to the school, I experienced this event as if it were happening to me, to my community, and to my friends and neighbors. It was not simply an abstraction occurring elsewhere. I can imagine the long driveway leading up to the school on the hill; the hallways through which I walked; the friendly feeling of this small, safe school. It was steps away from the volunteer fire house, a neighborhood grocery, and John’s Barber Shop, where John himself cut my hair.
Previous acts of violence had left me angry, but not grief-stricken. It is with some shame that I recall, after 9/11, saying to a colleague, “As a nation, we are so distraught; but this type of thing is happening all around the world. Our pain is not larger than that of others.” My colleague — infinitely more wise than I — replied, “But it’s different when it happens to you. This is our pain, and we must grieve.”
Those wise words contain seeds for addressing our cultural problem of violence: We will seek real solutions to our collective problems when we begin to take them personally. We must come to experience violence not as something happening to someone else, but as something happening to our community, to our children, to us. We must resurrect our individual and collective responsibilities to each other; we must work to see ourselves as each other’s keepers.
How can we do this? First, we must become a more benevolent and compassionate people. We can do this by restoring a sense of public virtue to our culture. What are the qualities that we wish to cultivate in ourselves and in our children? Despite our differences, we should be able to agree that compassion, empathy, kindness, understanding, and caring for others are virtues to which we should aspire. What would it be like if we taught our children to ask, “What can I do today to become a better person?” rather than “What will bring me the most pleasure?”