If one man can show so much hate, imagine how much love we all can show together. ~Jens Stoltenberg, Norwegian Prime Minister
When gut-wrenching tragedy strikes anywhere in the world we stop, even if only for a moment, to disbelieve it. I remember even laughing at my wife, accusing her of having a bad dream or confusing a movie advertisement for reality when she came to me telling crazy stories about commercial jets flying into office towers. When I first heard about the horrors in Norway, I immediately thought, No, not Norway, they must have their countries mixed up, because for me to believe it happened in Norway means it could happen anywhere.
But even if we're able to box up our thoughts and feelings and stash them away for a time in a corner of our minds, it's only a temporary measure: we will eventually have to confront reality or it will instead come oozing out of us in messy, unhealthy ways, usually being transformed in the dark into anger that has no target other than the innocent people proximate to us. That's just the way sadness and fear work.
Thankfully, those of us with young children in our lives usually don't have the luxury of letting it sit there for that long. It's one of the ways they make us, as adults, better people. In our age of ever-present, 24-hour-a-day news and information, with its ethos of "if it bleeds it leads," there's very little chance that most of us can shield our "babies" from it. Even if we manage to somehow keep them away from the media, there are always adult conversations to overhear, radios playing in the background at the mechanic's, or other children on the playground who have seen and heard it all. Children come to us with incomplete information and questions, forcing us, even if we've been reluctant to unpack our own box of sadness and fear and go through it with them.
I don't think it's necessarily desirable, or even possible, for us to have yet come to grips with the horrors that reach us from the outside world before talking with our children. After all, it's in the nature of these events to be incomprehensible. We must talk to them when the come to us. We must listen to what they are saying. We must attend to their sadness and fear, just as we attend to our own, recognizing that these are the emotions of healthy humans.
Then it comes down to philosophy. It is our greater experience in the world, nothing else, that puts us in a position to guide young children. I find it easier to discuss the human-caused tragedies like the events in Norway or 9/11. These are the acts of people who have become so full of hate that it crowds out their humanity. When children ask me why, I say it's "hate." It's a statement of my most deeply held beliefs and whether I'm right or wrong it is my faith in this notion that allows me some level of comprehension. And I hope it does the same for them.
When they express fear that they may be a victim of this incomprehensible hate, I say, "I will not let that happen to you," because speaking from my true intentions is a kind of truth I will not withhold from a child.
And then as Norway's Prime Minister has done, we show the children the hope found in love. When they wonder what they can do about it, I answer, "Love." Ultimately, that is the only thing any of us can do.
When our daughter Josephine was 6-years-old my family spent a month in New York City. At one point we found ourselves in the neighborhood of “Ground Zero” and decided to have a look. As we walked, she asked her usual set of questions about what happened and why. I’d become pretty good at answering, having settled on a sterile recounting of the facts, explaining it as a manifestation of hate, and concluding with a reminder that love is the answer. This time, however, we got into the (what I thought) innocuous subject of when it had happened.
“You mean it happened since I’ve been alive?” she asked, genuinely astonished. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
I explained that she had been too little, just 3-years-old.
She scolded me, angrily, “I want to know these things! I want you to tell me the truth about these things!”
When we got to the giant hole in the ground, she curled her fingers around the cyclone fence and bawled. As we later licked ice cream cones she wondered if a plane passing overhead was about to crash into one of the other tall buildings surrounding us. I had to get us out of there.
We walked a few blocks and found ourselves outside the cemetery that surrounds the Trinity Church. Children were climbing on the tombstones and Josephine wanted to take a closer look. Before long she was calculating the dates on the markers, saying, “He was only 3-years-old when he died!” “She was your age, Papa!” I couldn’t tempt her away from her grim exploration for almost an hour. Finally we found ourselves near an entrance to the church and it felt like an appropriate refuge.
Inside someone practiced the organ and we sat in a pew to listen.
Josephine then whispered, “Look at that!”
It was a huge statue of Jesus bleeding on the cross.
We escaped to the side rooms where we found sarcophagi in the walls.
There was no escaping the truth that day. She was handling it better than me.
We can’t keep the truth from our children: it would be a crime to try. Our first responsibility, it seems to me, is to be aware of the emotions, both ours and theirs, name them (“You seem angry,” “I think we’re both sad.”), accept them, and just feel them.
Then, to steal crass terminology from politics, the next step is “spin-doctoring." As parents of young children we may not fully control the channels of communication with the outside world, but we are their main source of interpretation. Whatever the subject matter, we owe our children our honest opinions, emotions, questions and understandings. It’s perfectly normal that my own deep sadness or anger or despair would be shared by my child. But it's my job to make sure it doesn't end there. I need to help her, as I help myself, work through those feelings and find a way to move forward in hope and joy: I don’t want live any other way.
One of the most concrete ways, I think, to find that hope, as Mister Rogers says, is to "look for the helpers."
When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me. “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” To this day, especially in times of “disaster,” I remember my mother’s words, and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world.
Fortunately, for most of us the world is not so full of daily disaster. Your child is unlikely to experience much of it except on TV, and frankly I don’t think that’s such a bad place to get some initial exposure as long as you’re there with them. It doesn’t have to be television: passing the scene of a traffic accident or witnessing the business end of a fire department call to a neighbor’s house would serve just as well. Viewing disaster at a distance gives parents an opportunity to calmly lay down a little philosophical groundwork to prepare for when tragedy strikes closer to home.
Brilliantly, Mister Roger’s mom came up with looking for the helpers. It was a simple observation that comforted him throughout his life.
When children from the Woodland Park community experience frightening events such as accidents, emergency illnesses, or a death in the family, parents usually prepare me with a little back story and an assessment of how their child is handling it. More often than not, the child is clearly eager to get back to the normalcy of school, but I always take a quiet moment during the day to broach the subject with the child. Sometimes they let me know, in their own ways, that they’re not ready to talk about it. But more often than not they do talk, and in what they say I always hear their parents’ voices putting things in perspective. That's our job in the face of tragedy.
It might not always seem like it, but they are listening.