Becoming response-able

Opinion: Columns

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By Tom Holmes

The families of the 11 people killed by Robert Bowers at the Tree of Life Synagogue on Oct. 27, and to a lesser degree all of us who are capable of feeling empathy, have to figure out how to respond to what may be the deadliest attack against Jews in American history.

Pittsburgh, of course, is not the only city to experience mass shootings. Santa Fe High School, 5/18/18, 10 killed; Parkland, 2/14/18, 17 killed; Las Vegas, 10/1/17, 58 killed; Pulse Nightclub, 6/12/16, 49 killed.

"I feel that our school is a safe environment" said Ariel Smith who was an eighth-grader at the Forest Park Middle School last April, "although due to everything that we've seen, there's always some fear of the unknown and how the day will go."

Although we are seeing many institutions taking steps to prevent bad things from happening to innocent people, Ariel's comment articulates an awareness growing in most of us that a shooter or an overpass falling on our car or a diagnosis from an oncologist can change our lives in the blink of an eye.

Because none of us can prevent all bad things from happening, it is so important to learn and teach response-ability, i.e. the ability to respond to bad things that no one was able to prevent.

Thirty years ago, I went through a divorce, which was painful enough in itself, but what made the whole experience worse was that I didn't have much ability to respond. I felt like a helpless victim before the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune … until it dawned on me that I could acquire response-ability.

I learned how to let go of my rugged male individualism and joined a divorce recovery group, after which I joined a men's group which has been meeting every Thursday evening for the last 28 years. From my friends in 12-step programs, I learned the phrase "fake it till you make it" and pushed myself to go to movies and restaurants by myself until I became comfortable doing so.

If you've been through it, you'll understand that it took me years to recover some semblance of emotional/spiritual equilibrium, but letting go of picturing myself as a powerless victim and embracing my ability to respond was empowering.

I have role models all over the place for how to be response-able.

Virtually all my black friends — Jeff, Bob, Joel, Rory, John, Cecilia, Bill, Rodney, Loree, Tonya — show me how to be response-able every day. They've all experienced some or all of the indignities that go with being a person of color in this country, but none of them "sit on a pity pot," as my 12-step friends like to say.

They've all found safe places to grieve — like my divorce support group was for me — but then after they've recovered to a sufficient degree, they get back into life through their participation in nonprofits or local government or church. They use the emotions they've felt during the hard times to fuel and energize their giving back to the community.

Virtually all of my friends at the Progress Center for Independent Living — Clark, Larry, Henry, Tonya, Geo, Horacio, Gary, Loree — show me how to be response-able every day. Three are blind, two were born with cerebral palsy, one is a dwarf, but none of them waste their time sitting on a pity pot.

They know how to intentionally grieve their losses, but somehow each has learned to respond to the bad things that happened to them by incorporating painful experiences into their character, and all of them focus on what they can do instead of dwelling on what they can't.

Response-ability is a set of skills that can be taught to children by the time they are able to talk. We are cheating our kids if we try to protect them from all bad things — from falling when learning to ride a two-wheeler to being exposed to the reality of lynchings in our past or mass shootings happening today.

If we want our children to grow into strong, mature adults, they have to learn response-ability and the only way to acquire that set of skills is to suffer in doses appropriate to their developmental stage. I agree with the following aphorism: Prepare the child for the road, not the road for the child.

One of my seminary professors advised us to intentionally introduce some manageable crises into the congregations we would be serving — not to enjoy making them suffer but to toughen them up so that when real crises appear out of nowhere, they are able to respond with "we know how to do this" rather than feeling like helpless victims.

A neighbor of mine named Isaac runs a youth program in the city with kids who are victims of all sorts of bad things. One of the core principles of his work with these kids is to teach them to not think of themselves as victims even though in reality they are. In effect, he is teaching them response-ability: You may not have had control over what happened but you do have control over the way you respond.

I'll bet my pay for this column that the members of Tree of Life have developed response-ability through every funeral they've attended in the past, after each experience of anti-Semitism they've suffered, through every Yom Kippur they have kept.

They will grieve, but their mourning will take place in community. They will weep, but will do so in the arms of friends. 

And they will bounce back to practice tikkun olam, repairing the world.

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