Know Their Names: How This News Junkie Stays Buoyant in Difficult Times
In December of 2012, just weeks after the massacre at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, I was invited to speak at a forum for townspeople who were drowning in shock and grief. A parent whose children attended the school had read my book, Broken Open. She thought the message in the book might be a balm for the Newtown folks—the message that if we stay open during difficult times, as opposed to becoming brittle and bitter, we might stay afloat, we might find healing, and eventually we might find our way to a new shore, a new life. We might even use the pain for inner growth and for the betterment of our hurting world. I remember telling the parent who invited me that it was still too raw for people to consider anything but how to sleep at night, how to take one painful step after the other, how to breathe. Still, she wanted me to come, and so I accepted the invitation.
Since then, I have stayed in touch with many of those Newtown parents and friends. I have watched with great admiration as they have chosen, over and over, to keep their hearts open, and not only to find their way to a new normal, but also to use the pain to fuel something good. To honor their children even as they mourn them every day. Last week I went back to Newtown to speak again, at the invitation of two of the parents who founded an organization in their daughter’s name—the Avielle Foundation.
Because Avielle’s parents are neuroscientists, their foundation is committed to preventing violence and building compassion through brain health research and education. Avielle was only six when the gunman took her life. I am calling him the “gunman” because I do not want to remember his name. I never wanted to know it. But I do want to know Avielle, and I am grateful to her parents for doing the powerful work they do in her name. There are many worthy names and hope-inducing stories that never make it to the news. Instead, we are bombarded with the names of those who do harm—to our children, our towns, our nation. I am a news junkie. I read and watch and listen to those stories. I feel it is my responsibility to stay informed. Throughout the ages, uninformed, head-in-the-clouds citizens have allowed motivated crazies and hate mongers to rain travesties down on their communities and nations. An informed populous is the bedrock of democracy. We have to stay awake to the reality of climate change, the erosion of our democracy, racism, sexism, and all the other isms that have been energized by social media, rampant capitalism, and egocentric leadership. But….
If all we do is immerse ourselves in the stories of bad people doing bad things to each other and the planet, we will sink under the weight of a lopsided story. We will feel alone and outnumbered when really, there are so many beautiful, kind, and creative people doing wildly imaginative and brave things at this very moment. This is why I try to eat a balanced news meal every day. You may have to search for the hopeful stories, but they are hiding in plain sight. And once you find them, you’ll be so nourished you will want more, and you will want to share those stories, and even get involved. You will have less time for the nasty stories, the mean-spirited ones, the destructive ones. You’ll want a creativity diet, a hope diet, a wisdom diet. And you will not want to fill your mind with violent television shows and movies that are really glorified shoot-em-up video games. You will get tired of superheroes that continue to meet violence with more violence. You will want to know the names of a different kind of superhero. Let me share with you a few of those names.
- Antionette Tuff: Do you know her name? You should. She was the bookkeeper at an Atlanta elementary school who prevented another massive school shooting from happening. How did she do this? Not by being armed; not by threatening more violence. Rather, by staying in a small room and calmly communicating with a deranged 20-year-old gunman, even though she had many opportunities to escape. For more than an hour she spoke to him from her heart, persuading him from using his loaded AK-47-style rifle on the hundreds of children right outside the room. “Don’t feel bad, baby,” she said, according to the tape of her 9-1-1 call. “We all suffer. My husband just left me after 33 years,” she told the troubled young man. “I got a son with multiple disabilities. If I can get over tough times, so can you.” Later, when asked how she did what she did, she said she practiced what her pastor called “anchoring.” First anchoring in one’s inner strength, and then letting empathy and compassion lead the way. “I just let him know he wasn’t alone,” she said. “I kept saying, Baby, we don’t want you to die today. You belong to us. Just put your guns down. I won’t let anyone hurt you.” And that’s exactly what happened. He put the guns down, and Antoinette guided the swat team to come in gently and take him away. Anchored strength in service of compassion averted a national tragedy. But whereas stories that end in violence remain in the news for years, the very kind of action that worked—and could be funded and taught—was presented in the media as a sweet story and then lost after a few days. Antionette Tuff. Anchored in strength and compassion. Know her name.
- Malala Yousafzai: You may know her name already, but it’s a name to keep on the tip of your tongue. She’s the girl who was shot in the head by the Taliban because of her persistence in going to school and encouraging other girls in Pakistan. At a speech at the UN, on her 16th birthday, Malala spoke of love and education as the only remedies for hate and violence. She ended her remarkable speech by saying: “The Taliban shot me through my forehead. They shot my friends, too. They thought the bullets would silence us, but they failed. Out of the silence came thousands of voices. The terrorists thought they would change my aims and stop my ambitions. But nothing changed in my life except this: weakness, fear, and hopelessness died. Strength, power, and courage were born.” Malala. Anchored in strength and compassion. Know HER name. Every time someone trots out a news story featuring the well-known name of a killer, or a criminal, or an elected official doing daily harm, say Malala’s name. Read about what she is doing now. (https://www.malala.org/malalas-story) Tell HER story.
- Search the news for other quiet heroes who are anchored in strength and compassion. Ordinary folks doing extraordinary things: teachers, nurses, home health aids, conservationists, scientists, poets, dreamers, lovers. It’s up to us to demand those kinds of stories, to read and watch them, to validate and elevate and know their names. Here’s a roundup of some hope-inducing news from 2018: qz.com/15…/the-99-best-things-that-happened-in-2018/. I promise you that if you read every one of those 99 items, you will have discovered the kale of news. And as you lose some of the weight of the world, a little bit of hope might fill your sails, and you’ll want to practice being anchored in inner strength and outer compassion. And you’ll add your name to the long list of names we should know.
ELIZABETH LESSER is the author of several bestselling books, including Broken Open: How Difficult Times Can Help Us Grow and Marrow: Love, Loss & What Matters Most. She is the co-founder of Omega Institute, recognized internationally for its workshops and conferences in wellness, spirituality, creativity, and social change. She has given two popular TED talks, and is one of Oprah Winfrey’s Super Soul 100, a collection of a hundred leaders who are using their voices and talent to elevate humanity.
This essay was featured in the Feb. 24th edition of The Sunday Paper, Maria Shriver’s free weekly newsletter for people with passion and purpose. To get inspiring and informative content like this piece delivered straight to your inbox each Sunday morning, click here to subscribe.