One day, several years ago, a man committed suicide in front of me. I was six months pregnant at the time, selling expensive chocolates and coffee in a fancy mall in downtown Portland. I was the only one working on the ground floor of a large, 5-story atrium, so when he jumped from the top floor I had to be the one who called 911. It is all a bit of a blur, but I remember noticing the children who had been sitting nearby and drinking their hot chocolates with their parents, staring in horror at the ground. On the phone, I answered questions as calmly as I could, but I refused to be the one to go over and check the man’s pulse; based on visual evidence there was no way he had survived. A fellow mall employee, a no-nonsense woman who sold terrible artwork and had been a paramedic in another life, ran over with a sheet and covered the body, telling me later she “just wanted to give dignity to the body.” I was relieved when it was all covered, afraid for my unborn baby to see such things. I huddled in our back storage room while everything got cleaned up, and then I worked the rest of my shift as if nothing had happened. The tile was clean again, and unaware shoppers went back to their ways. I tried to forget it ever happened to me, and felt only pity for the man who had died.
In thinking about this experience, however, i have been forced to confront the fact that this man did violence to me: he chose to commit suicide right in front of me, in a public place–a mall, for heaven’s sake–with children present. It was a sad act, to be sure, but it was also violence. And I have a right to view it as such, and be angry for how his actions have affected me. But both hiding from my emotions and engaging in anger have not erased the memory from my mind. The only thing I can think now is: I wish I had known him before he jumped.
For many years now I have lived with and hung out with and taught refugees. Last year, when I was teaching at the local community college, we had a lockdown drill, in case of a shooting. I had been prepped beforehand and knew the exact time the drill would happen; I tried repeatedly to explain the situation to my very-basic level ESL students. When the light started flashing and the alarm blared, I turned off the fluorescents, locked the door, and told my students to line up on the wall as far away from the windows as possible. Even though I had explained the procedure, had told them step by step what we would do, even as I had tried to explain the concept of “drill” and “practice” and even the purpose of what we were doing–none of it mattered in those moments. In the dark, huddled together, I saw their faces full of fear and remembrance. The majority of them were refugees, survivors of war and trauma from all over the world. The minutes were long, dark, and painful for me to watch as a teacher, even as I quietly tried to reassure them. This isn’t real, this isn’t real, this isn’t real.
Except, of course it was. It had been real in the past, and could very well be real in the future.
The day I started to write all this down was the day the shooting in Clackamas happened. I am very much tied to this story; it is down the street from my parents’ house, my sister worked right where the shooting happened, my daughter went there once a week with her grandparents. I knew people who were inside when the violence happened, and many in my community are hurting. I started to think more about violence, about what it is about America that causes this sort of tragedy to happen–(as we are) isolated from both war and religious conflict.
Being where we live now, where violence is a bit more in-our-faces, I have had to come to terms with the possibility, at least. I have had the luxury, of most of my life, of not having to think through these issues. And in light of Clackamas, and Connecticut to an ever greater degree, it is true that we cannot barricade ourselves away from violence anywhere: not in a mall, a school, or a suburban neighborhood. Evil is here, and it is a reality.
Why pretend otherwise?
Trying to think about radical pacifism today. Aside from arguments and laws and laments, how can I run after justice, which always goes hand and hand with peace? And the only place I can come to is this: engagement with it all. With the victims and the perpetrators, and all of us who fall somewhere in-between. Our barricades aren’t working anymore; violence can be found in malls, in movie theaters, in schools. Violence is found in the histories of my friends, and it is becoming a hallmark of this year in our own nation.
So we must enter in. We must know and be known, we must break out of the safe places we have built for ourselves and our children. We must do it with courage, we must be the light of Christ, we must always be aware of our own darkness.
I strongly recommend reading through this Compline prayer today, taking comfort especially in the Psalms.
I also highly recommend the movie Monsieur Lazhar, which helped me understand the importance of processing violence and trauma, especially with children.
Also, I read Nail Scarred Hands Made New by John Shorack and was blown away. There are people, all over the world, committed to laying down their lives and going to the most violent places in order to bear witness. This is life-changing stuff, people.