Last Friday, 12 people were killed.
I saw it on the news, closed the notification on my phone, and took my family to see Aladdin. “Out of sight, out of mind” is how I’ve learned to deal with tragedy. Let’s be honest, that’s pretty messed up.
It all came roaring back on Monday morning. I started the work day in a meeting, alongside some of my favorite coworkers. Naturally, we we spent the first few minutes catching up. Conversation bounced around as we shared our weekend experiences—I got to take my family to the pool for the first time (TGI Summer, am I right?). After a few minutes, someone casually mentioned the shooting in Virginia Beach. I immediately felt a pang—for the senseless violence, for the pain and suffering it caused, but also… because I’d already forgotten about it. Another colleague spoke up, “Wait, what? I didn’t even know that happened?”
I heard about the shooting the way most everyone else did, by a text alert on my phone. Upon reading the news, my heart sank. I tossed up a prayer. And then, I went about my day. Fifteen minutes after I read about the shooting, I’d forgotten about it. But it hasn’t always been that way. News like this used to stop me in my tracks. It would dominate my thoughts. My emotions ran to those suffering, and with it, constant prayers for God to break in. Do you remember where you were when you heard about Columbine? That was 20 years ago. Twenty years of mass shootings. No wonder I don’t feel much anymore. A twenty-year callus is hard to break through.
I’m not desensitized to violence because of comic books, or Tarantino movies, or because I grew up playing too much Grand Theft Auto. I’m desensitized to these horrendous acts of violence because mass shootings happen way too damn much. That’s not a political statement. It’s the frustration of a father who doesn’t know how to protect his family anymore. Mass shootings seem to be a weekly occurrence—because they are a weekly occurrence. As of this writing, there have already been 36 mass shootings in America this year… and we just inched into the 23rd week of 2019. After I stumbled upon that statistic, I challenged myself to name five of those 36 shootings—I couldn’t name more than two. It’s all become a blur. A blur that I honestly can’t feel anymore.
Calluses build on your hands or feet from repetitive behavior—the shoes that are too tight and rub that same spot all day, or the back and forth swing of the shovel over eight hours. My emotional calluses around shootings were built the same way. We all know the routine by now: the news breaks, we mourn the dead, gun control debate ensues, anger and debate overshadow the lives lost, social media is flooded with people sharing thoughts and prayers, which inevitably leads to arguments over thoughts and prayers not being enough. Lather. Rinse. Repeat.
I’ll be honest, part of my apathetic response to these shootings, my ability to so quickly forget them, is rooted in the fact that I simply have no idea how to help. Mass violence of this magnitude seems like it can happen anywhere, anytime, with no place left untouched. At this point in my life, I haven’t been directly affected by a mass shooting, but it seems like that day is inevitable.
This weekend, I spent time in Dayton, Ohio, assisting in the relief efforts just days after devastating tornadoes laid carnage to the community. Seeing the destruction with my own eyes, literally picking up the pieces of people’s lives with my own hands, I felt an empathy I long to feel in the wake of mass shootings. I met people who lost everything, people like Diane. She’d lived in the same house for twenty-five years—the home where she’d raised all her kids, done Christmas dinners, welcomed friends and neighbors. That house is gone now, destroyed in mere seconds. For Diane, that tornado wasn’t just a news story, a blip on the radar—it took everything from her.
I’m so tired of the Twitter arguments about how helpful or unhelpful “thoughts and prayers” are after a tragedy. When we spend more time crafting an internet argument than we do figuring out how to tangibly help those affected, then something has gone terribly wrong. I’m finding it’s not an either/or, but rather a both/and. Prayers are vitally important. And so are actions. I know that because that’s precisely what Jesus did. He spent time in prayer—sometimes even long stretches into the night. And, he took action. He didn’t just pray for people to be healed, he found the broken and healed them. He didn’t just talk about the importance of worship, he turned over tables in the temple and drove the moneychangers out. He didn’t just pray that God would save his people, he carried his cross up a deserted hill and died publically, humiliatingly, before the eyes of anyone who wanted to watch.
It’s easy for us to stand on one side of that argument—to either pray or take action—but the reality is that we are called to do both. And I’m learning that one without the other leads to an incredibly difficult place—apathy.
Praying is important, but if my prayer isn’t followed with action, I find myself forgetting about mass shootings mere minutes after they’ve happened. Yet, me taking actions without a prayerful approach often results in me inflating my own importance—some problems are just too big for me to solve. But with God… well, that’s a different story.
Cynically, I’m afraid the violence that took place in Virginia Beach on Friday won’t be the last. I can’t stop the next tragedy from occurring, but I can ensure that I’m actively engaged with it—both before and after.
Before the next tragedy, I should be proactively praying for God to protect the innocent; to put a stop to violence; to help the forgotten and marginalized find the acceptance and help they so desperately need. And when I can be the answer to my own prayer, I must seize the opportunity. Who knows how many tragedies have been averted simply by a potential perpetrator not being left alone, not being ignored, not being forgotten?
And after a tragedy, when I have the opportunity to be the answer to someone else’s pain (like in Dayton), I must choose not to walk away. When I can give something tangible to meet a need—time, or money, or effort—to not do so is inexcusable. And whether the tragedy is near or far, I can pray. And pray. And pray some more. I can set phone reminders to jar me back into prayer. I can teach my children how to pray for those who are hurting. And I can, as the Bible commands me, choose to mourn with those who are mourning.
Calluses may be the reason why I find it so hard to feel anymore, but they won’t remain my excuse. I want to feel again. So I’m choosing to take action. And because this problem is so much bigger than me, I know my action must come with an equal amount of prayer.
God, save us. And teach us how to be the answer to the prayers we pray. Amen.