“We’re here to take care of each other.”
The message was so simple. David Wheeler, father of six-year-old Ben, whose sweet young life was lost at Sandy Hook Elementary School in December 2012, wisely and generously handed us the meaning of life in less than 10 words. There was not a dry eye in the audience.
It was last weekend and I was at the South Carolina Psychological Association Annual Spring Conference. The theme was Trauma, Healing, and Love. Taking a cue from my students, I’d planned to sit at the back of the room and multitask—quietly grade papers and marginally attend to the program. I got no papers graded. Instead, I was riveted. (With apologies to my colleagues, I’m not sure that I have ever described any previous conference as “riveting”.) The guest speakers and many of the psychologists who presented the second day were all survivors of trauma.
“We’re here to take care of each other.” The message was so simple. David Wheeler, father of Ben, wisely and generously handed us the meaning of life in less than 10 words.
In addition to David Wheeler, among the guest speakers was the bright, enthusiastic Kristina Anderson, a young woman who was a college freshman and a shooting survivor at Virginia Tech in 2007, and Lt. Bob Gamble, a Greenville Police Officer who was a first responder in an ‘officer down’ call who later realized the dying policeman was his partner. None of the speakers had ever shared a stage before but their message was essentially the same as that which David so succinctly stated: We’re here to take care of each other. Kristina does this with her Koshka Foundation, a non-profit with initiatives for improving campus safety, empowering student activism, and forging connections between survivors of various causes. Bob cares for others with his pursuit of a counseling degree and his work with the peer support groups for officers and other first responders. David and his wife’s non-profit, Ben’s Lighthouse, seeks to promote the long-term health of the children and families of Newtown, CT. They are all making meaning of their new lives –the ones they never anticipated or sought— by caring for others.
Unfortunately, there are many anniversaries of large scale trauma in the US (and likely beyond) during the month of April so this seems like a timely topic. While we try to “make sense” of these tragedies, they are such gross, senseless acts of hate, racism, and/or violence, that we can only hope that they will never make sense to us! These traumas are so far beyond the scope of ‘messy’ that I do not want to trivialize the survivors’ experiences in any way—these are real life tragedies. Our challenge, though, is how to make meaning of these horrifying deeds. Maybe the answer is that simple, “We’re here to take care of each other.”
While we try to “make sense” of these tragedies, they are such gross, senseless acts of hate, racism, and/or violence, that we can only hope that they will never make sense to us!
A working definition of trauma is any life event that permanently alters your perception of reality–the thing that we think can’t possibly happen. Beyond those “big T” traumatic events (like Sandy Hook, VA Tech, murder, war, and assault, to name a few), we also have our personal “little t” traumas from just living life together here on this planet. Maybe you’ve been divorced; maybe you got fired from a job; maybe you came home to an abusive family member; maybe you got bad news from the doctor after your scan; maybe your house burned down; maybe a friend betrayed you. If we log enough time in this life, we’ve had something unexpected and bad happen to us. No one among us lives a completely charmed life. These trials also call for us to regroup and search for more meaning in our lives. It’s how we work through it and heal.
David also shared that Sandy Hook Elementary School Principal, Dawn Hochsprung, the first person shot in the school, had a motto, “Be nice to each other. It’s really all that matters.” Is that enough? I think it might be…. In this caustic political climate, what if we were “just nice to each other”? What if politicians were “just nice to each other and “respectfully disagreed”? What if we were nice and took care of the welfare of the marginalized among us? What if we were nice and caring with everyone, regardless of race, gender identity, sexual orientation, religious beliefs, or other closely held ideology? Imagine for a moment “living life in peace” as John Lennon said and how marvelous our world could be….
Lt. Gamble noted in his own search for healing that he read Man’s Search for Meaning by the eminent analyst, Holocaust survivor, and writer, Viktor Frankl, who concluded that there are three elements of survival: our life’s work or purpose, our families, and our faith. Only when we have these things are we able to find our way back on the path to love and forgiveness. David, who also reflected on Frankl’s work, added that after devastating traumatic loss, many feel that life has nothing left to offer them, and that’s when you must remember that it’s not what life has left to give you, but rather what you have left to give life, because there is always something, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant.
Finally, our conference also included the renowned Cornell psychologist, Dr. Robert Sternberg, whose talk was entitled, “Hate is a Virus: Here’s how to cure it!” Dr. Sternberg’s cure for the social ill of hate includes Love, Wisdom, and Meaningful Positive Interactions. It seems to me that if we were nice to each other and cared for each other, we would get mighty close to ridding our cultural self of that wicked virus. It is not an accident that Dr. Sternberg’s prescription matches that of Dr. Frankl’s: it is likely a truth. Practice this wisdom and see what a marvelous and wonderful world it would be….
So Take Care of Each Other because Life is tragically Messy and Life is Marvelous when we find meaning.
Please visit the non-profit foundations of the speakers and consider donating:
If you have another favorite foundation set up for the purpose of healing in the aftermath of a tragedy, please donate–Kristina says that your monetary gifts make a very real difference in the lives of survivors.