Friday, December 14, 2012

"Counseling after Columbine..."

"Let peace begin with me,
let this the moment now.
With every step I take
let this be my solemn vow…"

This article originally appeared in an August 2001 issue of The Christian Science Sentinel. It seems appropriate to share tonight.   Almost 14 years later, we still have so much loving to do. 

 As Vince Gill sings in the timeless, Let There Be Peace on Earth:  I pray, "The peace and healing I am seeking dear Father, please, let it begin with me..." 

"Counseling After Columbine"

The Official Internet Information page for Columbine High School offers a fairly typical profile with a listing of school colors (navy blue and silver), mascot (American Revolutionary Rebel), enrollment 1,878, and history (opened 1973, remodeled 1995).

Conspicuously absent from the facts listed is the 1999 shooting at Columbine. School officials obviously are not about to let Columbine be defined by its darkest moment—the wrenching tragedy in which two students shot and killed 12 fellow students, a teacher, and then themselves, plunging the nation into soul-searching and renewed commitment to ending school violence.

At the time of the shootings, Kate Mullane (Oyer) Robertson, a Christian Science practitioner, was living about 40 miles away in Greeley, Colorado. She turned on the television to get the weather, only to find to her horror that Columbine students were being hunted down by two of their classmates.

She talked to the Sentinel about her spiritual response on that April afternoon —- a response that found her counseling students and parents at a church near Columbine High School.

I was riveted to the television screen. It seemed so surreal to have the beautiful Colorado mountains in the background of news reports about a shooting in a neighborhood that I was familiar with. It was only an hour away.

Our older daughter was in elementary school, and our twin daughters were in preschool. I began to pray. Then I immediately went to my daughter's school, and told the principal what had happened. I also told her that I would be taking our daughter out of school so that I could tell her what was going on. I didn't want her hearing the news from anyone else. I wanted her to have a spiritual perspective on how we were going to be responding.

But still, I found myself sobbing as I watched the television screen. All of a sudden school violence -- which had happened in Kentucky and Oregon and other places that has seemed so distant from my world, was right here -- in the kind of neighborhood that I was familiar with, in my own community. These kids were kids that I could have been teaching in Sunday School.

I didn't want my daughter's first knowledge of this tragedy to be a television news report covering the shooting. I wanted her to be thinking about what was really going on here. Where was God? God was omnipresent. Where was help? Help was right there in that school.

At this point, gunshots were still being heard. There was a lot of hysteria—parents running to the school, crying, grabbing their kids. You just didn't expect something like that to happen there.  People had been caught completely off-guard. They felt vulnerable.

I wanted our daughter to be able to pray with me about God's presence and power right there, right where those children were. I didn't want her to feel like they were vulnerable, helpless children, and that she was helpless. I wanted to engage her in a prayerful response to what appeared to be a heinous act. As a mother, I wanted my daughter to feel that she was making a difference. I felt that she needed a quiet place in which to ask questions and begin to contribute in a significant way towards bringing healing to the situation.

I knew the kind of spiritual thinking that our daughter could bring to bear on a situation like this, if she was given the opportunity. I didn't have any doubt that engaging her in this praying would make an enormous difference. We really needed to do this as a community, as a family, and as a mother and daughter. By bringing her understanding of God's presence to the situation, she would be making a unique contribution to benefiting the other students.

The news reports said that people were starting to gather at Light of the World Catholic Church, near Columbine High School. They were looking for comfort and for a feeling of community, for spiritual support, as well as mental health services. It was very clear to me that I needed to be there and do what I could.

There was such a need that you just showed up, sat down, and started helping. It was probably one of the real highlights of my life as a spiritual healer and educator. I had spent most of my early career as a teacher and school principal.  What an honor it was to be able to bring back to a school setting a new view on children, and Eddy's visionary perspective on their spiritual maturity.

There were so many parents who had felt that they had made all the right choices for their families.  These same parents were now feeling that evil had stepped into their backyard. There was a sense of terror, a desire to get out of town. People doubted if they would ever be safe here again.

I remembered that when I'd gone to South Africa to adopt our infant daughter, she was waiting in a hospital located in a very violence-torn area. I'd felt as if I needed to get my child out of there, out of that hospital, out of that setting. And what had come to me in prayer had been a realization of her spiritual maturity. Our infant daughter's relationship to God was intact, and it was fully developed. She was aware of it. She had the spiritual resources that she needed to be able to pray for herself and for those around her. She was not vulnerable; God was right there...right where she was, every moment.

The Bible says that there is no fear in love.  To me, this means that they cannot exist together.

Through this kind of prayer-based reasoning, our daughter had been healed very, very quickly of the severe illness that the doctors caring for her thought could be life threatening. 

Since I didn't speak their language, the details of her sickness were unclear to me. But after what I'd learned about the power of Love, through those long hours of praying for our daughter, we were able to spend the ensuing weeks in a country where people were covertly walking around with automatic weapons, and not be afraid.

Now, you may wonder what this had to do with Columbine, but it was very helpful to me in counseling people after the shooting. One of the things that seemed most difficult to deal with for everyone I worked with was a sense of fear and  helplessness that was overwhelming.

One young man asked me, "How can I get over being afraid for myself, for my friends, for my younger brother?"

What came to me was to say was,

"There is no fear in love"
( I John 4:18) 

That's what the Bible says. That there is no fear in love. They cannot exist together. So, if fear seems overwhelming, we need to realize that what is really present is some aspect of love, which—in its pure form—is God.

I told him, "If this fear starts to overwhelm you, think of someone you love, like your brother, and focus on that love and know that you cannot create it. You are not powerful enough to create love. Only God can do that. So, if love is present in your heart, then God is present. And if God is present, fear can't be present."

I used that over and over again because it seemed to be the kind of thing that people could focus on. They could find something they loved, and realize that if that love was present, God was present. And if God was at all present, then He was all-present and always present, and this eliminated anything unlike Him—including fear, which definitely is unlike God.

When I was talking to parents, I could share my experiences in South Africa and explain to them that I'd seen how God, Love, was with everyone, everywhere. I remember saying, "Whether they think you are praying or not, every time that you reach out in love to someone, you are expressing God's presence right there."

Some of my other encounters were with kids. There were tons of kids. They were asking, "What can I do?" Although there was a lot of fear, the overriding feeling was one of helplessness and hopelessness. I'd point out the amount of love we were seeing pouring out in all directions right in front of our eyes.  From student to student, teacher to student, parent to teacher, everywhere we looked, in every corner of that church and the community. An extraordinary amount of love and grace and compassion was being expressed, not only in the Columbine community, but also in the larger Denver metro area, and in the world community.

I'd find myself saying, "Let's focus on this good that is going on rather than on the fear and hopelessness," because doing that will bring to this moment—where God seemed so absent—an abundant sense of the presence of divine Love, of goodness and grace and kindness.

One girl said, "I pray all the time, and this still happened." I remember saying to her, "Yes, but what happened? What happened was that people were given the opportunity to show courage and grace and compassion. We've become aware of something we need to heal, which are the signs of separation in our schools, and the kinds of exclusivity that leave people feeling isolated and divided. We have to start to be more inclusive in our thinking and in the way we act." It gave her something she could do. She could express more inclusiveness in the way that she acted. She could become more sensitive to any exclusivity or separation that was going on, even in her home.

Another thing I found myself saying to young people was to consider how they could say, "Thank you," more often to teachers, to parents, to each other, so that the people around them felt more appreciated. Appreciation doesn't just mean "to be grateful"; it also means "to grow." 

So, if they were appreciating kindness, if they were appreciating compassion, if they were appreciating someone being more inclusive, if they were appreciating someone recognizing their good work or talents, then those qualities would "appreciate," or grow, within the school community. The growth of good would completely annihilate any kind of evil.

But what about the people who died? I could only speak from my heart when that question came up. I said, "It's tragic. It breaks my heart, as I'm sure it's breaking your heart, to think of the parents who don't have those children at their dinner table, and to think of those children whose parents were shot. But I want you to think about your grandmother or your great-aunt -- someone who came into your experience, and is now gone. Think of the great things that they brought into your life. Those things they taught you about yourself, and your experiences with them, have caused you to be a better person, or maybe just to want to be a better person.

"Now use this experience as a way of being a better person—being kinder and more honest and more compassionate—as a way of honoring the lives of those people who are gone. I don't have any answers for why or how. All I know is that we've got to do better right here and right now."

That's the only counsel any of us could really give. You couldn't tell them where their friends had gone. You couldn't dismiss the value of those lives or make them into martyrs. But you could say, "Use this experience and what you've learned from their courage or their bravery to better your own life, and to live in a way that honors and dignifies theirs." That's all we could do.

There were a few times, when a student or a parent was ready to go deeper, that I had the opportunity to introduce the concept of preventative prayer. Meaning that rather than just praying about school safety after there's a shooting, we need to pray about school safety on a daily basis. We can begin by affirming God's omnipresence and omnipotence in our schools in the morning as we send our children off for the day, or as we see other parents dropping children off for school.  In practicing this kind of prayer, we'll help prevent this kind of thing from happening again."

There were some people who were ready to go there. There were others who were just looking for comfort, and you did the best you could. I found that one minute you had to be a parent, throwing your arms around some child whose parent was out of town or unavailable, the next minute you had to be a pastoral counselor, and then you had to be the one who found the bandaid because someone had just realized that their hand was sliced open, and they'd been walking around with it that way without noticing.

I think we all tried. There were so many people who were there to help.  We all just wanted to do whatever was needed. Countless volunteers pouring out whatever hope, comfort, and solutions they had to offer. 

A number of us noticed that no one talked about individual faith systems. People were just communicating heart-to-heart, whether you wore a pastoral collar, a robe, or whatever you'd be wearing on a given day...jeans, suits, t-shirts, running one cared. It didn't matter because we were all speaking from the heart, not from particular religious offices. It was one of the most deeply moving times of my life. It was demanding and exhausting, and yet I've never known a more invigorating spiritual experience.

And although we experienced a gravitation towards those who felt the shared common ground, there was an even greater sense of love toward those who were different. When I was counseling a parent who was afraid of "the Hispanics" or "the jocks," I could say, "Look across the room. Do you see that mother?" Maybe she was a Hispanic or an African American. I'd say, "She loves her child. Look at how concerned she is. What you have in common, is your love for your children."  And the differences would dissolve in the solvent of Love.

One young man asked me, "How can I get over being afraid for myself, for my friends, for my younger brother?"

My response was usually, "What is true about each of us,  what we have in common is our love. What we share is our desire to understand that there is something greater than ourselves protecting our children. We need to be inclusive and to ask, "What do we have in common" instead of, "How are we different?"

I think we get a false sense of security by thinking we can choose the right neighborhood, or buy safety by securing the right surroundings for our children. But there's no real security in that approach, because it's based on a limited sense of love that leaves someone else out.

One of Mary Baker Eddy's poems, which is called "Mother's Evening Prayer," says,

"His [God's] arm encircles me,
and mine, and all..."

Our lives cannot stay safe in a place where we are surrounded by just "me" and "mine"; we need to reach out to embrace the global community and include everyone, and everything else, in between. And if we're doing that, we get a feeling of real security.  We feel sure of the universality of Love as we send our kids to school. We're no longer thinking, "I'm sending them to the good school that I chose." But, "They're going with God...wherever they go."

Nothing is going to be as close as God is to your child, not your friend, their teacher, your husband, your wife. No police force, no security system, is going to be as immediate in responding,  and as near them in every situation, as an understanding of God's complete power and infinite love.

It goes back to what do we have in common? And what we have in common is that God moves each one of us to love. To love something or someone. In each heart there is a dream. In each life there is someone we care about. We cannot turn our backs on the heartbreak experienced by others. Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures by Mary Baker Eddy says, "If we would open their prison doors for the sick, we must first learn to bind up the brokenhearted" ( p. 366).

Those kids who were treated as "lesser," who felt rejected, were just "broken-hearted." We have got to get better at "binding up" the broken hearts at every level, whether we're dealing with infants, children, adults. 

We need to ask how we can bring to bear on this sense of human heartbreak, the enourmous love and compassion of a God who has shown us His love. This love will change our world.  In fact, it is changing our world.

It's not tolerance that heals, it's love—the kind of love that looks up at the Christ in one another, rather than down at others and saying, "Let me help you."

I think these young people, like the ones at Columbine and other schools, are looking for someone to show them how to be better. To live with more kindness, more grace, and more love. Most of the kids who join these groups, do so because they feel it alleviates loneliness or the fear that they will be rejected. We have to get better at making the "group" into a bigger one, one that's as all-inclusive as God's love.

I think there's been progress since the shootings, at Columbine and in Colorado.  I believe that what people saw being celebrated -- in the wake of the violence -- was courage, nobility, and faith. And so it became a new standard for how to respond.

The people who were celebrated for their contribution were the quieter, more spiritually grounded members of that community. Not the ones who were saying, "We're going to go out and "get" all of the Trench Coat Mafia." You know,  never heard of them again. But you did hear about the students who were doing things that expressed compassion and kindness and grace and faith.

I want to stay away from the word tolerance, because I feel that it involves seeing someone as different or lesser or worse.  It says there is something not quite perfect about you but I will tolerate it. That's not love.  And it's not tolerance that is going to heal this, it's a love—the kind of love that Mary Magdalene had for Jesus.  The kind of love that looks up at the Christ in one another, rather than down at the other, and says, "Let me help you." We have to be on our knees looking up at the Christ in each other. Not standing above others and thinking, "You poor thing, let me help you from my better standpoint." If we're still finding something we need to tolerate, then we're not seeing the best in others. And to bring healing, we have got to see with better eyes.

But that's the wonderful thing.  Because it says there's hope. By acknowledging that we've got a lot of work to do and exploring how we can do it, we've resurrected a sense of hope that says we can still make a difference. 

If we say to ourselves (and one another), "Well, we've all been praying, we've done the best we can do, and this still happened," then we might tend to feel defeated. But if there's still something we can do, some better way of seeing one another, treating each other with more kindness, then we have hope of preventing this kind of tragedy from happening again in our communities. 

If we can do this, we will be able to send our children back to school not as victims, but as contributors to those hopes realized and the promise of peace fulfilled.

When we see our children not as people we have to protect from the world, but as spiritually mature healers, caregivers for one another, and the defenders of dignity and respect, it's going to make a difference.

offered with Love,


1 comment:

  1. Anonymous11:34 PM

    Thank you for this healing message tonight.
    I remember reading the Older Post before, but
    it was just what I needed to read again.

    I wish this article could be published on JSH-Online.

    Gwen Kratz

    Gwen Kratz