The tragic events that unfolded in Newtown, Conn., last week are calling us to do things that might not make us comfortable, but will certainly make a difference. Kerry Trotter shares her thoughts.
For today’s blog, I was scheduled to write something about watching the 1965 Charles Schultz cartoon “A Charlie Brown Christmas” with my toddler daughter.
It would have been sweet, maybe a little heavy-handed, perhaps with a this-sort-of-thing-could-never-get-produced-these-days rant. You know, something decent enough to merit a comment or two.
It would have been your typical Kerry Trotter saccharine reflection of a holiday classic experienced anew in the eyes of a child — with something Catholic thrown in there to make it relevant.
Then Friday happened.
My husband, who happened to be working from home that day, and I spun through what was likely the same vortex of grief, disbelief, anger and terror that most Americans experienced upon hearing the news. We hugged our daughter. We hugged each other. We called our parents. We turned the TV off and shut down the computers. We separately fell into bouts of quiet, sobbing prayer. We looked at each other and said, “Now what?” It was a question for both the short term — we didn’t know how to shake the anxiety — and the long term. Really, now what?
Not having any easy answers for the latter, I went for a run to work out some of my nerves while our girl napped, and when she awoke, I decided I was going to show her “A Charlie Brown Christmas” for the first time anyway. Our day needed some joy.
We cuddled together in our armchair, my baby’s warm body nestled into my own, as the cartoon opened to a delicate jazzy piano riff while the Peanuts gang ice-skated in the snowfall.
My chest seized.
I always cry at the Christmas special, on good days and on bad, and it usually happens later in the episode, when Linus takes the stage to articulate the meaning of Christmas in that endearing lisp to his distracted and jaded peers. But this time the tears started early, and in a torrent.
Everything about this had a new, and somehow completely prescient, feeling to it.
In this peaceful, snow-covered hamlet where children thrived, almost completely unsupervised, Charlie Brown couldn’t get into the Christmas spirit. He was mired in his own fears. He was misunderstood. He was mocked. He was laughed at. He was feeling his absolute lowest.
My mind started racing.
At that point in the day as we watched this, little was known about the Newtown gunman, not even his correct identity. Being a bit of a pessimist and going by historical precedent, I made some assumptions. Young. Dressed in black. Automatic weapons. Smart, but misunderstood. A loner.
Unfortunately, I was almost spot-on.
I’m not going to pretend I truly know anything about this guy, his family, the state of his troubled mind, whether or not he was bullied, what compelled him to take this horrifying turn, why anyone in a bucolic Connecticut town would feel the need to own an assault rifle, etc. I alternately had hate — real, seething, ugly hate — in my heart directed toward him, as well as heartrending pity. Something went wrong in his life. Something wasn’t done. Somewhere, he got lost, ignored, mistreated, misunderstood and that wound festered.
As this was flying through my mind, Charlie Brown’s consorts were cruelly mocking him for his choice of Christmas tree for their nativity play. Even his dog, Snoopy, betrayed him. Charlie’s head hung low in mourning the loss of the meaning of Christmas, and he nearly gave up.
This, of course, is where Linus asks for the house lights to be dimmed as he stands alone on stage delivering the words of the second chapter of Luke. Linus is the meekest of all the Peanuts characters. He’s the youngest, carries a security blanket while sucking his thumb, and has a babyish speech impediment. But this is the unlikely hero that delivers the message, the hope. And most importantly, he is the one child brave enough to help a hurting friend:
“For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you: Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger...”
This is where the tears really got going. The savior, of course, is a baby, a weak infant wrapped in rags and sleeping in a cattle shed, yet still the most powerful force on earth. Anyone who has loved a child knows the core-rattling impact of a baby’s birth; how the love and fear and awe surrounding this miracle have the power to swallow you whole. How the image of them having children of their own brings tears to your eyes. How the dark thought of them being hurt takes your breath away. How all that you cannot control in this world keeps you up late into the night.
There is now some speculation that the gunman had Asperger’s Syndrome, an autism spectrum disorder that’s qualified as “high functioning.” He was very bright, but emotionally detached, they say. I know folks who both struggle with the syndrome themselves, or have children who do. “High functioning” as it may be, it can be a demanding, draining and difficult diagnosis to live with. That “emotional intelligence” is something we otherwise healthy lot tend not to pay much heed. Sympathy? Empathy? Everyone has that, right? And besides, if you’re smart enough to get A’s on your report card, how hard off can you be? It’s maddeningly misunderstood.
Asperger’s doesn’t make kids violent. It doesn’t predispose them to murder. It’s not a mental health issue as, say, obsessive-compulsive disorder or borderline personality disorder are; it’s neurological and developmental. Something separate was at play to compel this young man’s choices, and in this respect, this is where he could have used a Linus in his life. Precarious mental health doesn’t make forming robust friendships an easy thing, and in some cases even a likely thing. But he needed, if he didn’t have, someone tenacious and brave enough to ensure that it was their priority that he had an ally, even if it wasn’t his. Could that have helped? Perhaps. We’ll never know.
In the meantime, while we’re all grieving, there are 27 families in Connecticut that are experiencing the darkest moments of their lives. For the rest of us whose children will be safely at home with us this Christmas, the nightmares will eventually subside, the news coverage will wane, and we’ll get back to normal. They won’t. Grief, the consumptive, chronic despair that engulfs the victims of such loss, doesn’t go away. Ask anyone who has experienced it. It’s merciless. We, as humans, learn to manage such feelings, but the burden is never lifted. As the rest of us are getting on our merry way, we ought to try to stick our necks out and risk more discomfort — risk revisiting those nightmares — to ensure that our aching, vulnerable fellow parents always have a forum, that their babies are never, ever forgotten, and that their grief is not misunderstood.
And that this doesn't happen again.
This is sort of a circuitous way of saying that Catholics have a challenging assignment in emulating Christ. We are asked to forgive, often when we find it simply unfathomable. We are asked to love, often when those at the receiving end seem completely unlovable. We are asked to give when there is no promise of repayment. Works of mercy are so much more than snuggling babies and playing with puppies. If that were the case, we’d all be saints. The truly blessed work is the kicking, screaming, scratching, biting, thankless tasks of reaching the unreachable, touching the untouchable, and giving a voice to the utterly forgotten. Think Mother Teresa in Calcutta. Or Father Damien of Molokai in the leper colony. Or any sweet soul who has made a hard-won breakthrough with the mentally ill or physically challenged. Catholics are asked to be on the margins, to do the dirty work, and to ask for nothing — absolutely nothing — in return.
But that’s where we get everything.
This, just days after such devastation, is where our work as Catholics begins: with prayer, with unsolicited help and sympathy, with the humility of the infant Jesus in our hearts and words, and eventually, with forgiveness.
We might be weak, but so was Linus.
So, once, was Christ.
“…And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace and goodwill towards men.”
Kerry Trotter is the content manager at Word on Fire Catholic Ministries.