Paying Attention Bill McDonald’s
December 2021 - Volume 21, No. 12
“Where Have All the Children Gone?”
America’s epidemic of school shootings has come to Michigan.
A week ago, on Tuesday November 30, a 15 year old student at Oxford High School in nearby Oxford, Michigan, went on a shooting rampage killing four of his fellow classmates, and injuring numerous others. The details, as they continue to emerge, have been well broadcast by now, at least throughout Southeast Michigan. Oxford is lovely, peaceful village, about 50 miles north of Detroit, and a 22 mile drive east of my hometown. The High School student population is about 1,600.
A family who has known my work, brought their 15 year old son, a student at Oxford High School, and a close friend of one of the four students killed, to see me. It was five days after the shooting. Today he is attending his friend’s funeral. In Oxford, this is funeral week.
What can I say to this young man, who was both alert and yet in shock?
So I told him a kind-of story.
I told him something I had learned about African villages. Let’s draw a circle - that encloses the village - the population living inside. It was safe and contained. Outside the village was the jungle or the wild. Some or many from the village would go into the wild to hunt, gather, travel, or do whatever was needed for the welfare of the village.
I don’t actually know a lot about this, but I have long been fascinated by an apparent geographical fact - that between the village and the wild, there’s an encircling space, a “between space” that one has to cross when going back and forth. In my imagination I picture an empty barren ring, perhaps as narrow as ten yards, where there was nothing but light brown packed dirt, or perhaps rock. Nothing grows there, it was just barren “space between.”
In psychology it’s often called a “threshold” - but I like my own language. I’ll come back to this.
I then told my young client that in psychology there are also two different spaces.One is what’s going on around you and the other is your response to it.
And I said, perhaps that’s a useful way to describe what’s going on with you and your classmates.There’s what’s happened (the shooting and the deaths and the chaos and the funerals), and then there’s somehow hopefully a way to make sense of it - a process that may take days, or weeks, or even years to accomplish, if ever fully.
Also there’s a third something, a “between space.”And in the emptiness of that “space” there’s a freedom to make (or wrestle out) some decisions - about what do ‘do’ or ‘think’ or maybe eventually find a ‘meaning’ in all of this.
[The term ‘meaning’ was for the moment beyond the current understanding of my young client, but I put it out there anyway as planting an adult seed for later development.]
In his previous world (even up to a week ago) home and school probably were ‘in village’ places. By and large, safe and contained. But now, ‘school’ had become “wild” or “jungle” - a place of chaos and uncertainty, a place that contained a potent memory of “unsafe” and specific deathSome (many?) will never want to return. And he will have to cross back & forth over that “between space” again and again, physically and emotionally.
And so I came, in my narrative for this young injured client, to my ‘lesson’ for the afternoon.
Be free to spend some extra time now in the Between Space. You don’t have to think there, just be. Clues to what to do are maybe to just breathe. Or pay attention to the ground under your feet, or the chair supporting your body. Smell something. Listen to music. Hear something without words. Ancient or traditional physicians knew that a wound had to heal from the bottom up. A well has to be replenished from the bottom up - as opposed to a cistern, which is replenished from the top down. [I grew up knowing about wells and hand pumps - and how good the water tasted.]
I wanted to give him a primary sense of ‘healing space’ - he will have to spend a lot of time in the emotional chaos of this new ‘wild’. But also to spend time at the “threshold” (one of the technical terms for what I’ve been calling the “space between”).
And with that I finished my session with him. That was for him. Hopefully to help him heal.
Now something for the rest of us.
I began with a question “Where have all the children gone?
“Gone to funerals every one.”
What saddens me so deeply is that many of the children will never come back. They will be unable to be children again - possibly never again.
And so I need to speak of our nation’s relationship with guns.
I was born into a pacifist family - a difficult stand for my parents when I was born just before WWII. Nor was I a hunter - so there was much I missed about a love affair with guns. But I am certain about being clear-eyed enough to see how much we love our guns more than we love our children. (Ask any legislature these days.)
Almost nine years ago - December 14, 2012 - we stood (at least briefly) at the threshold of Sandy Hook Elementary School. And we were sure something healing would come from that. Something healing would have to come from that. Then…. Nothing. And since then, again and again and again and again. Healing?….Nothing.
Even with an epidemic like Covid-19 - politics early took over, and (in my estimation) adds still to the unnecessary death of legions (and now, children).
Oxford High School has 1600 students (minus 4 now).How much damage has been done to 1600 adolescents (our children) by one recently purchased hand gun. “Merry Christmas, Ethan, Love from Mom & Dad.”
Of course there are alternatives. My life work is grounded in the belief there are, of course, always alternatives, except perhaps for the addicted.
Over the years I’ve had many good conversations with folks and friends who are gun-owners, and who have a high ethic in the care, keeping, and safe enjoyment of their weapons. And I’m in agreement with many of them. Michigan is a hunting state. It’s also a Militia state.
But when guns frighten and kill children and friends - it’s not just a friendly debate.New limits need to be set, trusted and enforced. So much healing is again needed.
And again, from just beyond the hills, a Greek-like chorus mournfully intones
“When will we ever learn?, when will we ever learn?”
Please Pay Attention
December 7, 2021
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