We cannot understand what happens in the universe. What is glorious in it is united with what is full of horror. What is full of meaning is united to what is senseless…
– Albert Schweitzer
She was the first student who ran out of the Sandy Hooks Elementary School, an un-named six-and-a-half-year-old. She ran out of the building, covered in blood from head to toe, and the first words she said to her mom were, ‘Mommy, I’m okay, but all of my friends are dead.’
Somehow, in that moment, she had been able to act as if she was already deceased, no doubt saving her own life. Of those who were left in the classroom of first graders, she was the lone survivor in a class of sixteen 5 and 6 year-olds. She saw someone she felt was ‘angry,’ and somebody who she felt was ‘very mad.’
We all know the rest of the story, one that has now been inscribed on the Wikipedia page for Newtown, Connecticut: ‘On December 14, 2012, 26 people, including 20 children, were killed at the Sandy Hook Elementary School. The incident is the second-deadliest school shooting in U.S. history.’
In the days since the tragedy at Sandy Hook, much has been written about the shooting – those who were killed and those who survived, the villains and the heroes, the causes and discussion of the appropriate responses.
I, too, have been reflecting on all of the above. And I have been struck by the fact that, at least on some level, our nation’s latest tragedy is a symptom of our failure to care for our environment. Yes, our environment. Our environment is more than the air we breathe and the water we drink, it is everything within which we exist, are nourished and grow. Our environment has become toxic, and we are the ones who have poisoned it. Our culture of greed and violence is just as much a pollutant as is the burning of fossil fuels. We no longer care for those around us as we should – as we must. The environment we have created for ourselves is no longer sustainable. It no longer nurtures. We are destroying the environment in which we and our children all must live, and now it is destroying us.
The children who were lost at Sandy Hook were our children – my children and your children. Newtown, Connecticut and Sandy Hook School are part of the environment in which we all live and where we all learn and grow.
Sandy Hook and Newtown – the very names conjure up pastoral images of community as it should be, the sort of environment in which we would want our children to thrive. And so it has been. The same Wiki article notes that Newtown ‘offers many programs for area residents, and there are numerous parks and fields offering playgrounds, swimming, tennis, softball, baseball, volleyball, lacrosse, soccer, as well as a nature center and trails.’ The game of Scrabble was invented here. Notable residents have included Elia Kazan, the Oscar-winning director of ‘On the Waterfront’ and other motion pictures that were concerned with the social issues of his time. And Anthony Edwards, the actor who starred as Gilbert Lowe in the 1984 comedy ‘Revenge of the Nerds.’
Joanna Cole and Bruce Degen lived in Newtown. They’re the author and illustrator of ‘The Magic School Bus,’ a series of children’s books that feature the antics of Ms. Valerie Frizzle, and her class, who board a magical school bus which takes them on field trips to impossible locations such as the solar system, clouds, the past, and the human body.
Still another notable resident was Helle Crafts, the flight attendant unfortunately famous for her brutal murder at the hands of her husband, Richard Crafts, an airline pilot and special constable. Her murder is sometimes called the “Woodchipper Murder” because of the method in which Richard Crafts disposed of her body. Her death brought about the first murder conviction in the state of Connecticut in which a body was never found.
And then there was Nancy Lanza, 52, who lived in a large colonial home with her sons, Adam and Ryan. She had struggled to help Adam with a developmental disorder that often left him reserved and withdrawn, relatives, friends and former classmates said. Nancy would become the first victim of Adam’s killing spree, killed by her own son with her own gun – the often-overlooked 27th ‘victim.’
The community of Newtown is but one community within the larger community we all call our environment, and it has been home to real people who are in a very real sense our children and our neighbors, our brothers and our sisters.
Newtown has its share of the good, the bad, and the ugly – as do all our communities, as does our greater environment as a whole. As the Nobel Peace Prize laureate, the Reverend Doctor Albert Schweitzer observed, ‘We cannot understand what happens in the universe. What is glorious in it is united with what is full of horror. What is full of meaning is united to what is senseless.’
Schweitzer coined the phrase and the ethic, ‘Reverence for Life,’ an orientation toward all of life and our connectedness with it, an understanding that can help us find our way through the apparent senselessness of Sandy Hook:
“The deeper we look into nature, the more we recognize that it is full of life, and the more profoundly we know that all life is a secret and that we are united with all life that is in nature. Man can no longer live for himself alone. We realize that all life is valuable, and that we are united to all this life. From this knowledge comes our spiritual relationship to the universe.”
It seems to me that Sandy Hook points us all toward the need for a greater sense of Reverence for Life to be fostered in our ‘environment.’ And with that must come a greater sense of personal and universal responsibility, as His Holiness the Dalai Lama describes it:
“I believe that to meet the challenges of our times, human beings will have to develop a greater sense of universal responsibility. Each of us must learn to work not just for oneself, one’s own family or nation, but for the benefit of all humankind. Universal responsibility is the key to human survival. It is the best foundation for world peace, the equitable use of natural resources, and through concern for future generations, the proper care of the environment.”
The causes of the Sandy Hook school shooting – and our appropriate responses – are not to be found in video games and movies or among guns and laws. The causes and the cures all fall within this broad and ever-widening understanding of our need to care for our environment, the global and local environments within which we all live.
Caring for our children and their environment requires of us simply, yet profoundly, to cultivate a growing sense of universal and personal responsibility, and to nurture a genuine reverence for life.
This is our calling if we are to ensure our children a promising future in a healthy environment, and one day be able to hear them say, “Mommy, I’m okay.” Period.
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JOHN LUNDIN (www.JohnLundin.com) is a self-described “spiritual agitator” and the author of THE NEW MANDALA – Eastern Wisdom for Western Living, written in collaboration with His Holiness the Dalai Lama.