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Selena SermenoBack to OpinionSelena Sermeno

Stay in your heart, no matter how painful

Mourners listen to a memorial service over a loudspeaker outside Newtown High School for the victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, Sunday, Dec. 16, 2012, in Newtown, Conn. Photo: AP Photo/David Goldman

You have heard by now: a man shot and killed 27 people, including 20 children and himself, at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut. Author Elizabeth Stone famously wrote that, “Making the decision to have a child is momentous. It is to decide forever to have your heart walking around outside your body.”

Hearts are broken all over the world, and yet, the immediate temptation, during tragedies like these, is to go to an analytic place—to speculate and to blame. But in so doing, we miss a chance for humility and human connection. We miss a chance to emotionally reckon with the best and worst of humanity.

As I write these thoughts, I sit in the airport. I am sitting next to someone chatting on the phone as if nothing is happening. Two other people are stuck debating which type of weapon the shooter used. To my disbelief, one person is wondering aloud how President Obama can cry as the whole nation watches.

There is a risk, at times of mass tragedy, to injure each other further by our arrogance, bluntness, impatience, disconnection, lack of sensitivity, to go into a hierarchy of pain and loss. I am reminded of the concept of “second injury” in trauma, of how we can further cause pain by our inability to hold a moment of profound pain. I have seen this often in my work all over the world with young people, whether genocide survivors or prestigious boarding school students.

I hold degrees in both divinity and psychology, and teach young people reflective practices and dialogue skills. They sit in circles with teens from countries that they have been taught to hate, and witness the humanity of one another; when they are in their heads, they can minimize a moment of real pain. When they drop into their hearts and empathize with what real loss is like for others—as real as their own—they begin a process of healing centuries of inherited hurt.

Tragedies, like the one that we have just witnessed in Newtown, cannot be sterilized. We cannot respond with sober distance. We cannot “solve” them. One can falsely believe that we are called to show a perfect response. This is not a moment to perform, but to be real, to be present, and to be unashamed in showing our care for each other. We must do this, not just for ourselves, but for our children.

Truth be told, we rarely teach our children how to offer condolences, write a simple comforting note as a part of living lives of engaged citizenship. This week, all of us, parents or not, have a chance to show how to be “in and with” the loss, how to stay in our hearts, how to take others’ pain personally.

At this moment, we are called to be horrified at the hurt humanity is capable of inflicting, but also to hold each other to express the best of what humanity is capable of healing. We are called to be patient, to be unashamed to cry, to be clumsy, if necessary, in offering sincere condolences and expressing true sorrow.

At this moment, we are called to pay better attention, to notice those who are near us who may seem isolated, disconnected, numb, or distressed. Too many people carry pain, unspoken conversations, disturbing thoughts, without an opportunity to speak them out loud, without a trusted friend or family member.

At this moment, we are called to create cultures and institutions wherein youth, in particular, are given the skills to self-reflect and be in peer-led dialogue about difficult subjects. Adults must be willing to hear that which we don’t want to hear. We must be willing to ask the question of our own children about what goes on in their young minds. We must be up for the tough conversations, the excruciating transparency, the all-hands-on-deck parenting moments.

Tragedies like this one are a loud and clear call to reflect on what can go so wrong with the world—the worse of human behavior. But, they are also a call to walk the highest road—to reach out to a stranger, to be a bit more hospitable and humble, to take bigger risks at connecting with our neighbors, to use kinder voices, to show more affection.

Parker Palmer, author of Healing the Heart of Democracy, writes that we have two choices in dark nights of the soul: to break apart or to break open. One choice leads us down the path to bitterness and brittleness, to distance ourselves from people and their capacity for beauty and kindness. The other leads us down the path to vulnerability, gentleness, deep and lasting connection.

Stay out of your head, at least for a moment, and let your heart break open.

Selena Sermeno is the former Director of the Bartos Institute at the United World College-USA. She has trained young people all over the world in the constructive engagement of conflict. She currently lives in Colorado, but was born and raised in El Salvador.