I remember exactly where I was when the Columbine massacre happened. I was a sophomore in high school, and we were in the middle of taking a typing test in computer class. Another staff came into the room and pulled our teacher out into the hallway. When she returned, she immediately stopped the test, and we turned on the television in the room to watch news coverage of what had happened.
My life, up until that point, had a unique absence of trauma. I grew up in a stable household, one where mom and dad stayed together and where we went to church every Sunday. Going to school didn’t feel dangerous, and on the weekends, my friends and I were allowed to wander deep into the forest for hours at a time, where we would build forts and smoke cigarettes. We were not afraid.
I had the normal struggles of growing up, of course - stitches, broken bones, acne, and even a few fist fights, but never could I have imagined the evil of what I witnessed on the screen that morning. Something in me changed that day. I couldn’t have articulated it then, but a seed of fear was planted, one that would continue to grow in the coming years. I learned that at any given moment on any given day, someone can enter into your space and spray chaos into the order of things.
A couple of years after Columbine, when I was a freshly graduated young man on a waiting list for the University I had chosen, I woke up to another horror. I had just gotten dressed to go to work at the local garden center, and I walked into the living room to find my mom glued to the television. On the screen, I saw a tall building burning. She informed me that a plane had flown into one of the towers of the World Trade Center. I sat down beside her to finish my breakfast bar.
Initially, nobody knew much of anything about what had happened. Not reporters, not police officers, and definitely not us. Although there was the very real possibility of foul play, there was also some wiggle room for hope. Maybe it was an accident? we thought. That’d be tragic, yes, but accidents aren’t inherently evil. Perhaps we could stomach an accident, even on such a grand scale.
But then the second plane hit. Fires consumed the skies of NYC, and on live television, we all got a glimpse of hell on earth. As we watched two of the tallest buildings in the world turn into ashes, our confidence in the stability of things began to erode. From the comfort of my childhood home, almost a thousand miles from any real danger, I learned that the America I had come to know had gone up in smoke.
A couple of weeks ago my two oldest kids, who are both in elementary school, told us they had had an active shooter drill at school that day. They said, without much emotion, that they had to be prepared in case someone came into the school with a gun. The students were taught to crawl under their desks, put their arms around their heads, and remain completely quiet. This remaining quiet was so an active shooter wouldn’t hear them and open fire in the classroom - my six year old daughter informed me of this.
Although I am thankful that our children are being taught how to respond to situations like these, I am also sad that we live in a world where elementary age children have to learn how to crawl underneath their desks and hide. I don’t think I knew just how violent the human heart could be until high school. My kids, who love taking pictures with Mickey Mouse and still believe in Santa Clause, also now know that it’s possible to die from gunfire at school.
I asked my children if practicing an active shooter scenario was a scary thing to do. My third grader said, ‘Not really.’ Although this broke my heart, the truth is that my answer would probably be the exact same. Shootings have become all too commonplace in our society, a sort of white noise that we quickly scroll past on Apple News without fully digesting. Other than the Pulse Nightclub shooting, which was down the road from where we live, I’ve had quite a few degrees of separation from any gunfire.
It’s easy to become numb to it all. In the same way you eventually get used to the needle when sitting for a tattoo, the pain lessens and dulls until you can eventually forget about it almost altogether. You can go about your days working and exercising and hanging out with friends without ever giving a second thought to whatever bad thing is happening in the news. But then, out of nowhere, just when you’re trying to see who was eliminated from the rose ceremony in Bachelor in Paradise, you are again hit with the thought that the world is unraveling and anyone is fair game.
Even when we feel numb, we have to talk to our kids about the tragic things they hear about. Because they’re already talking about it in the lunchroom at school and hiding under their desks. Because they’re asking questions about things they truly can’t even fathom. To be honest, I don’t always know what to say to my kids when the big questions come up. After the drill at school, my eight year old asked ‘But why would someone walk into a school and shoot people?’ My heart sank as I wondered how to respond without further damaging his innocence.
Seeing the light dim, even ever so slightly, in your child’s eyes is painful. The knee jerk reaction is to avoid the ‘why’ question completely and focus all of your attention on convincing them that they are completely safe, that God and the police and mommy and daddy and even the family dog would never let anything bad happen to them. And this actually probably is the perfect place to start. They should know that we will always do everything in our power, till death do us part, to keep them safe and thriving.
But I think they deserve some of the why too, in an age appropriate way. They deserve to know that what evil wants more than anything is for us to be afraid and to stay afraid. The aim of the Columbine kids, the airplane terrorists, the Pulse shooter, and all of the shooters since, is to bring chaos into the order of our lives. Try as we may, we cannot deny the overwhelming sense of darkness that a meaningless act of violence can bring. We’ll feel sadness and anger and fear, and that is okay. But this is not the entire story. We must also tell them about the ending, about the battle of good vs. evil. We must let them know that, where there is darkness, there is also light. Not only is this comforting, but it’s empowering in all of the right ways.
When my kids were a little bit younger, they thought monsters lived in their closets. Before bed, we would read with them and pray with them each night to try and calm their nerves. We would take turns lying in bed with them until they dozed off, and then try to sneak away to the couch. Without fail, minutes later, they’d be crying for us to come back in. Telling them that monsters aren’t real was no use, because truly, the monsters were real. We both knew it.
Even though their monsters look different than ours, kids become well acquainted with fear at an early age. In the end, the only thing that would ever get them to fall asleep was to get the flashlight out and let them see into the closet for themselves. What they saw when they looked into the closet is that the light totally obliterates the darkness. When the light shines into the darkness, the darkness cannot overcome it. The monsters are real, but they aren’t as powerful as a boy and a girl with a light.
This morning was heavy as I caught up on social media. Because yesterday was Suicide Prevention Day, I saw a lot of my friends posting about people they’ve lost to suicide. I read painful stories about wonderful people leaving the earth too soon. Fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters, pastors and mental health advocates, all lost to the darkness they spoke out against. Then I went down a 09/11 rabbit hole. I read stories from family members who had lost loved ones. I read about the horrible sight of people jumping out of windows and the smell of burning flesh in the streets. As I thought about the world that my children are growing up in, I felt a certain helplessness, like there are some things I could never protect them from, no matter how hard I try. But then I remembered the flashlight and how it makes monsters less scary. Love is the flashlight I want to equip them with, and in the end, love always wins.