About two weeks ago, I came across the latest picture book by Jacqueline Woodson and E.B. Lewis, Each Kindness. It was a reminder to me of what a unique art form the picture book is, combining the best of fiction, poetry, and visual art. The story is about a typical elementary school girl, Chloe, and the new girl in her class, Maya. Chloe has many opportunities to be nice to Maya and make friends with her, but instead turns a cold shoulder, not letting her into her circle of friends. One day their teacher relates kind acts to throwing a pebble into a pond, how the ripples travel outward, getting larger and larger, just like acts of kindness spread. She asks each student to tell something kind they've done and drop a pebble into a bowl of water, but Chloe passes on her turn, realizing she hasn't been kind. Maya moves away before Chloe has another chance to make friends with her, and the book ends on the poignant and thoughtful note that if we let the moment pass, it is "forever gone."
I suppose it's coincidental that I read this just before the recent tragedy in nearby Newtown, CT. Just as on September 11, 2001, this event seemed very personal, because of our nearness to the location, and because I used to teach children in kindergarten and first grade, and still have close friends who had to return to their classrooms Monday morning, prepared for questions and ready with reassurances. It's been on everyone's minds all week, first trying to grasp the enormity of such a senseless tragedy, and then empathizing with the parents who rushed to the nearby firehouse, heard the horrific news, and had to somehow cope with the violent death of a child, their empty bedrooms, their unopened Christmas presents, their funeral arrangements. And of course, there are dozens of unanswerable questions: how could anyone do this? Is there a profile for young men who are more likely to commit such acts? How can this be prevented from ever happening again? Who do we ultimately hold responsible?
A coworker brought up the illusion of safety that we wrap ourselves up in every day, the assumption that because we are alive and healthy today, we will still be alive and healthy tomorrow. Indeed, life is very unpredictable, and we'll probably never know why that young man could ever conceive of and carry out such a plan. Factors such as a genetic predisposition to mental illness, family situations, cultural influences, religion or lack of it, education, even friendships all had a bearing in making Adam Lanza who he was. I think it would be impossible to draw up any kind of a profile predicting which individuals are more likely to lean towards such violence. But we want to blame someone or something: violent video games and movies, lenient gun laws, poor parenting, or mediocre treatment for mental illness.
We want to blame, we want to prevent, and we want to do something. People want to ease the pain somehow, and they're holding candlelight vigils and prayer services, sending flowers, making donations to charities in the names of the victims, even signing international e-cards and petitions. All of these send out ripples of kindness, which may begin to erase the pain of that horrific act.
And yet, I can't help thinking that in going forward and trying to prevent anything like this ever happening again, there's more that we can do and the responsibility lies with each of us. We may not personally be able to change gun laws or influence the kind of video games being produced. But we can begin by being kind to everyone we come in contact with during our day, starting with our family. If we make a committment to approaching the day and all its challenges with an attitude of peace, love, compassion, and forgiveness, we may begin to erase the anger, violence, and hatred so prevalent in our society today. It could be as simple as withholding angry gestures towards the driver who steals your parking space, speaking to your children and spouses with respect and patience, smiling at the coworker who always seems to be in a bad mood.
We may never know if a kindness towards someone like Adam Lanza might reverse their tendency towards anger and violence. But certainly, the world would be a better place if each of us could overcome our self-centered, ego-driven tendencies, and send out ripples of loving kindness all day long, wherever we go.