Tuesday December 18, 2012

I didn't want to write this column. In fact, I tried hard not to write it. But I couldn't push the Sandy Hook Elementary School carnage from my mind.

I spent most of Friday afternoon barely tamping down my despair. I couldn't easily explain my weeping to my intuitive and inquisitive children, so I employed all my powers of dissociation to prepare dinner without howling for all those devastated families. To ward off the hopelessness and anguish, I returned to an image that soared in my mind's eye: A picture of Judy Shepard, the mother of slain Wyoming college student, Matthew Shepard. Her son -- horribly beaten and pistol whipped -- was left to die, tied to a fence post, in Laramie, Wyo., in October of 1998. Although he succumbed six days later, his mother never surrendered to hate or despondency.

I met Judy Shepard at the house of a Casper, Wyo., judge for whom my lawyer spouse was clerking at the time. He and Mrs. Shepard were old friends, and he knew we'd enjoy meeting her and hearing about the foundation she started in her son's honor. The animated dinner conversation was wide-ranging. She shared stories about living in Saudi Arabia for her husband's job in the oil industry, her opinions about the newly released film Brokeback Mountain, how she got pop singer Cyndi Lauper involved in her foundation's work, and her thoughts on homophobia in the Red State American West. Before her arrival for dinner, the judge had shared with us the story of Fred Phelps' infamous hate-mongering Westboro Baptist Church trucking members from Kansas to Wyoming to picket Matthew's funeral. His funeral.

Knowing this story, I found her fortitude more than remarkable; it felt otherworldly. This spitfire of a woman channeled her grit and bravery and did not yield to the hate hurled at her and her family. She allowed herself to receive the embrace of her community, and then she got to work. When I met Mrs. Shepard, I was not yet a parent. Now that I have my own beloved children, my admiration for her has become profound reverence.

Just last week a group of friends -- all of them childless and approaching middle age -- asked me about pregnancy and parenthood. Had I enjoyed pregnancy? Nope, not one bit. Was labor and delivery a beautiful, spiritual experience? Nope -- nothing luscious about back labor followed by a C-section. We shared some good laughs, but then they asked me a question that turned out to be much more personal than the ones involving the intimate details of labor: What surprised me about being a parent? I replied that I had no idea that I could feel so vulnerable in the world -- all the time -- just by having children. I told them it's like going through life with part of my heart outside of my body. The enormity of my love for my children can feel utterly unbearable. It is this universal parental ache that throbs in sympathetic vibration with the crushing agony of the victims' families from this most recent mass shooting.

Will this ghastly bloodbath be The One -- finally -- that forces a substantive national conversation about our culture of violence? After so many innocents slain, after so many years and so many funerals -- will we finally take a frank look at ourselves and think: What the hell have we wrought?

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg is determined to keep the issue of gun laws front and center. And I hope I'm not delusional in my sense that the national conversation shifted a bit as President Obama shared his revulsion and grief last Friday. But my thoughts about the NRA, the Bill of Rights, divining the Founders' intentions and the proliferation of assault weapons must be saved for another column at another not-so-very-tender time. Like viewing a copy of Rubens' 17th century painting, The Massacre of the Innocents, there will be a time for study, analysis, interpretation and context. For me, now is not that time. It's the time for a kind of stinging vulnerability.

Only when we step fully into vulnerability -- individual and collective -- will we begin to find a path towards solutions. As a nation, we change the subject when it gets tough, often while self-medicating with food, drugs and booze. Shifting the discussion or stonewalling the conversation on this issue has not served us in the past -- and it certainly hasn't protected our cherished children. The only way out is through. Politicians must show bold leadership on this issue, but so must we, and we must prepare ourselves for the accompanying vulnerability. We will not emerge unscathed, nor should we. Whatever the political cost, it will be incidental compared to the unfathomable suffering in Sandy Hook.

In this horribly dark time, I find inspiration and personal courage in Judy Shepard's willingness to be vulnerable on the national stage. She inspires me to sit with the pain of this latest staggering tragedy. As I clutch my own children to me and feel their delicate breaths upon my neck, I promise to hold all those grieving families in the light of this season of hope. And I vow to engage fully with this issue, even if it means exposing my own vulnerability. It is the very least I can do.

Rebecca Balint writes about history, education and culture. She welcomes your comments at bbalint37@gmail.com. Read her blog at www.reformer802.com/speakerscorner.