On Monday, October 2, I walked into my first class of the day to hear the other students talking about yet another mass shooting. At that point, I had heard nothing about it; I walked to my seat and dropped my backpack on the floor. Before I had a chance to sit down, I heard the numbers being tossed around. Fifty dead. Five hundred wounded.
This tragedy comes on the heels of numerous other tragedies that have hit close to home. Hurricanes, earthquakes, and wildfires have raised the death toll in the Americas to the quadruple digits. There’s a lot of brokenness going around, folks. A lot of heartache.
I spoke to a friend yesterday who told me that he doesn’t know how to be empathetic anymore. And I understood, because not long ago, I spent time I should have been studying pouring out words that I didn’t plan on ever publishing, just trying to work through the same thing. The same hardness. Yet when he spoke to me, I realized that I’m not the only one struggling with this—I have never been the only one.
Neither are you.
The Girl Who Broke Me
In 2015, I got a part-time job as a “Mama’s helper” for a foster and adoptive mother. I had seen tragedy before. As a person with a high level of empathy, I had watched the brokenness in other people’s lives and thought I knew what it was to be broken myself. I had cried when a woman I had prayed for died. I had rejoiced when a little boy I prayed for got a miraculous healing.
During the time I worked as a nanny/mama’s helper for this family, I touched darkness with my fingers. Two of the kids they had thought they would be able to adopt were suddenly taken away from them—in July, they learned that the bio’s lawyer had found a loophole, and by October, they were gone. They had a twenty minute warning the day the case worker came to take them away.
Two of the kids she had adopted were classified as “Special Needs.” For one of them, it was obvious; she has only three fingers on one hand, and suffers from severe scoliosis. For the other, it was less noticeable. She had come to live with this family as a two year old, and when she arrived, she bore the physical and mental scars of a horrific past.
One day when I was done working, the mama was driving me to the fast food restaurant where my dad would pick me up to take me home. Mama was more upset than usual that day; she had gone to see her daughter’s therapist and had shown her some of the pictures that the six year old had drawn in the week before. They were just another piece in the puzzle, another clue to figure out what had happened to the infant before she was taken into state custody—but this time, it was a piece that made it finally come together.
There’s an unspoken promise when you’re doing a puzzle: whatever image you come up with when you finally put in the last piece, it will be a pleasant one. It won’t give you nightmares. It won’t destroy you.
In real life, there is no such promise.
As we drove that day, this adoptive mama started to tell me a little bit about what they had learned, just what I needed to know to do my job and to keep my little sister, who was friends with her daughter, safe. But once she started, the story kept pouring out, until she had shown me the picture that they had discovered when they put in the last piece of the puzzle. Before she finished, she was crying too hard to speak. At last she took a breath and said, “I don’t know why I’m telling you all this. You just seem like you’re mature enough to handle it.”
After she dropped me off at the fast food restaurant, I walked inside long enough to get a drink, and then stepped outside to wrestle with the sobs building in my chest. I prayed that I would be able to compose myself before my dad showed up, because if he asked what was wrong, I wouldn’t be able to answer. I couldn’t tell him anything I had heard, just like I can’t tell you.
Dear reader, I wasn’t mature enough. No one is ever mature enough to handle the deepest darknesses of this world. No one is mature enough to stare into the depths of evil and not be broken—or hardened.
As a little girl, I was accustomed to grief. I heard stories of illness or desperation, of shootings, like the “Dark Knight” shooting in Aurora, Colorado, and my heart broke for the hurting and I wept. I knew well how to grieve for those who walked in sorrow.
Tragedy Follows You
Last year, I got a job at a fast food restaurant. The family I had been nannying for had experienced a change in circumstances and no longer needed my services, and I had made the decision, at a late age, to go to college. If there was anywhere you could escape tragedy, the burden of others’ loss, it would be in fast food, right?
My first week on the job, I was serving a customer out the drive-thru window. I asked her—partly as a matter of courtesy, partly because I was naive enough to care—how she was doing.
Not well, she told me. Her best friend’s son had gone missing, and she had been up all night searching for him. She was just grabbing some food before getting back to it.
More recently, I was serving on the front counter when a customer told me that her brother was going in for surgery that morning. She did not give me many details, but she asked me to pray.
“We need all the help we can get,” she told me. “He’s my brother.”
Even in an emotionless job, tragedy follows me.
I Don’t Know How to Handle Death
At twenty-two years old, I’ve seen enough of the world to know it’s an ugly place. As a little girl, I believed in heroes. I believed that I could change the world. But I’m not a little girl any more, and the optimism that someone would save the innocents of this world has changed to emotional weariness as I realize that sometimes, the worst happens. Sometimes a child is violently betrayed by the people who should have protected them. Sometimes a mother has to sit by and watch her child die. The little girl who believed in heroes has grown into a young woman who knows that there are no heroes; there are only people, like me. And I am not a hero.
I’m not, reader. My arms aren’t long enough and my hands aren’t strong enough to save anyone. I’m not brave enough to stand up to evil, and I’m not good enough to love at the risk of loss. I don’t even have the strength to pray. I see the horror of the real world, hear the stories of tragedy, and I want to turn away. I want to close my eyes. I want to harden my heart.
Maybe you do, too.
I know what it’s like to not want to be broken any more. I look around and I cannot see any way to fix the darkness of this world. I am a glowworm squirming in the dirt at night, unable to call up enough light to light the way for even myself. I grew up longing to be a hero and I don’t even know what that means any more. And why does it matter? Can a hero save a little girl who needs a surgery that she can’t get, in a state that she can’t leave? Can a hero fix mental illness, or undo the wrongs committed in years past?
I wanted to finish this with something inspiring, a rousing call to action or a quiet urge to rest. I can’t do either, because I still don’t have the answers. I still find myself trying to shut myself off from other people’s tragedy, and wondering why it matters if I care, or if I try. Can’t I bury myself in a story where heroes actually save the day, and stop worrying about the rest of the world?
I don’t have an answer for you, or for me, but I do have this: In every story, there comes a point where the situation seems hopeless. There is nothing the hero can do to save the day. Nothing he has tried has succeeded, and it looks like the villain is going to win. In writing, we call this “The Dark Night of the Soul.”
In real life, we often call it “today.”
Today, if you’re like me and don’t know what to do, or where to go, and you’re so tired of the darkness you don’t even want to fight it anymore; if you’re tired of hurting and not being able to heal, remember this: We know what happens Tomorrow.
Tomorrow, we get back up. We fight. We love.
And at the end of the story, we win.