When you read, which characters do you identify with? The books I most love aren’t necessarily the ones with an interesting plot but the ones with interesting people who speak to my spirit on a human level. In high school I loved Bronte’s Jane Eyre and Dickens’ Pip, poor people who found their way into a world where they didn’t have to worry about material need, only to find that such a world didn’t ensure happiness. In college I loved the quirky characters of Eudora Welty, whose stories would have been sad without the funny southerners who made me laugh. And when my first marriage fell apart, I turned to the strong women in Zora Neale Hurston and Toni Morrison.
In the past few months, I’ve been thinking a lot about the characters in Sue Monk Kidd’s The Secret Life of Bees, which I read again last spring. I love the spunk of the 14-year-old narrator Lily, who, like me, witnessed a scene of gun violence when she was a small child that shaped the course of her life. I love the three sisters, named for months of the year—August, June, and May. But it is May who haunts me. She is the tender-hearted one. When she hears of tragedy, she writes on pieces of paper the names of people who’ve been hurt and stuffs the papers into the crevices of a stone wall behind her home. When she becomes too overwhelmed with the sadness of others, her sisters give her a bath in honey water and tell her, “Let all that misery slide right off of you. Just let it go.” They’ve learned that the human heart can only embrace so much suffering. But she can’t let it go. In one of the most powerfully symbolic scenes I’ve ever read, she trudges to the river, lies down with a rock on her chest, and drowns in the sorrows of the world.
Even before the tragedy in Connecticut, our nation was burdened with too much suffering, and in the 24-hour news cycle, it’s become even harder to tuck the agony of others into crevices where we can let them go for a while. When the Columbine tragedy happened, my daughter was just about to enter high school, and I sat in front of the news for hours, often watching the same clips replay, until my daughter begged me to turn off the television and leave the misery behind. By the time the senseless tragedy of 9/11 happened, I had learned that I needed to be strong for my daughter and my students, who no longer felt safe in a world so violent and unpredictable. Now my daughter is 26 and living with her boyfriend, a young man who knows what it is to suffer the loss of his mother, a young man who served our country in Iraq. He now reminds my daughter, as she reminds me and as August and June remind May, that she has to actively seek joy in a world where pain is so much more pervasive.
But I feel more than a little guilt in seeking joy this week before Christmas when there are parents and sisters and brothers and loved ones who are suffering so much in the wake of the latest tragedy. How do I help them, as President Obama promised we would? What can I do but offer them my prayers and weep with them? Is it too much to ask that, this once, I sit in front of the television and grieve? But how do I do that without becoming like May and drowning in their sorrows?
In a passionate condemnation of the news media, actor Morgan Freeman suggested that we turn off the news, forget the name of the gunman, and, instead, remember the name of one of the victims of the Sandy Hook shootings. I’m not sure I agree that we should forget the shooter’s name. I suspect that he, too, has a story fraught with pain and suffering that will come to us in due time. But we do need to remember these victims somehow—in a way that will spur us to make a small difference in the life of one person who is in need—but in a way that will not make us so overwhelmed that we are paralyzed by fear and anger and sorrow.
I’ve heard many pundits say that tragedies and disasters are always followed by an outpouring of support that reveals the goodness of humanity. And we know that is true. But what if I vow to find a way not just to show the face of God and of love in the wake of human suffering but to look for ways to be the face of love in the world every day, to listen and look a little more closely to a world in need? What if all of us vowed to find a small way each day to be an instrument of God’s peace?
If we all vow to do that, we won’t have a perfect world. But the rock will certainly be easier to carry.