“…being spared is much different from being saved…and this lesson forever changed me.”
— Immaculée Ilibagiza, Left to Tell
On Friday, December 14, 2012, I spent the day thinking about a vacation.
I’d recently visited some of my family and was deciding when I could visit them again.
I mentally planned how the trip wouldn’t interrupt my personal work schedule or my daughter’s independent study program at school. But my thoughts were interrupted when I read the headlines of a gruesome school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut…
Are We Ever Safe?
It’s a tragedy in itself that tragedy strikes as often as it does. In coping with this troubling reality, we often rush to safety—in our lives and in our minds. We move ourselves and our families to places we imagine will keep us safe.
We send our children to “good schools”, we move to “good neighborhoods,” and we even carefully scrutinize our children’s social circles and their entertainment.
But our final means of protection is a mental one: We create a space in our mind that tells us we’ve done all we can and that our careful, judicious actions will keep us and our loved ones safe from harm.
But are we ever really safe?
‘This Can’t Be Real’
When I first saw the headline about the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, I didn’t read the full story. I closed the article. And for some time thereafter, I didn’t click on the stories at all. This was how I dealt with the recent reports of Palestine and Syria, and it was how I dealt with the Newtown massacre.
Psychologists and medical professionals say that this “eye shutting” reaction is how most humans react to events that cause grief and loss: “This stage of grief helps protect the individual from experiencing the intensity of the loss.” (Grief and Depression - Retrieved December 16, 2012).
However, psychologists and medical professionals state that this initial reaction is actually part of the healing process.
|“He was a 20-year-old man who, by multiple accounts, was incredibly smart and quiet,” writer Holly Yan says in a CNN article on the alleged shooter, Adam Lanza.|
‘But Why’d He Kill All Those People?’
It’s a question that grips our very hearts. But why? This question is difficult to answer, especially in the face of a tragedy. However, when the victims are young children and their teachers, answering this question is beyond difficult. It is confounding.
As the details of the Newtown school shooting unfold, the question gripping us becomes even more perplexing. Apparently, the shooter was not just a random “nutcase” who opened fire on unsuspecting victims. He was the son of one of the substitute teachers at the school—and his mother was one of the victims.
Upon learning this heart-shattering detail, thousands sat before television screens and internet news sites utterly dumbfounded.
“He was a 20-year-old man who, by multiple accounts, was incredibly smart and quiet,” writer Holly Yan says in a CNN article on the alleged shooter, Adam Lanza. “He didn't appear to have any run-ins with the law.” He was even described as a “genius” by some who knew him.
Why then did he choose to take the lives of nearly thirty innocent people?
A Sign of the Times?
“People will see such days that the killer will not know why he kills, nor the innocent why they are slain.”
—Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him (Muslim).
It was this famous hadith about the signs of the Day of Judgment that came to mind as I grappled with the details of the Newtown massacre.
While so many are asking why the massacre happened, I am left wondering if there is any answer to that question. The shooter himself was killed, so he cannot tell us why he opened fire on all those people. He cannot tell us what was going through his mind. He cannot tell us why he did what he did—or why his own mother was amongst his victims.
But perhaps, even if he could tell us, would he? Would he himself even know?
|Yes, we can send our children to good schools, move to the best neighborhoods, and even carefully scrutinize our children’s friends and entertainment. But this will not guarantee protection from fitnah or tragedy, no matter how far we rush to safety.|
According to psychologists and medical professionals, there are predictable stages to coping with tragedy and grief. As we can deduce from our own reaction to the Newtown massacre and other tragedies—when our brains said, “This can’t be real”—the first stage of coping is denial, numbness, and shock.
At this point, we are not moved to make a difference in the world; we are not inspired to solve any puzzle; nor are we inclined to draw any lessons from the loss: “Numbness is a normal reaction to a death or loss and should never be confused with ‘not caring.’” (Grief and Depression - Retrieved December 16, 2012).
But what if there seems to be no “second stage of coping”? What if tragedies are befalling us every minute? What if we feel a perpetual sense of grief and trauma?
Do we ever get beyond denial, numbness, and shock?
Do we ever move on to ask ‘What now?’
And, Finally, Acceptance
Acceptance is the last stage of coping to tragedy in life. But what psychologists and professionals describe as “acceptance” is not like we might imagine. There is no peace of mind or heart. There is no sense of closure. There is no “happily ever after.”
Yes, we “accept reality” and move on. We find ways to make a difference in the world. We begin to unscramble the puzzle in our minds. And we even begin to draw lessons from the loss.
But, ultimately, our “acceptance” will not make everything better for us.
Turning to God
“And fear the fitnah (affliction, tribulation, or oppression) which affects not in particular [only] those of you who do wrong (but it may afflict both good and bad people)…”
—Qur’an (Al-Anfaal, 8:25)
But why is there so much pain in the world? Why is there so much suffering? Why is there so much senseless killing?
Since time immemorial, there is Only One—the Creator—who knows the answer to the confounding question Why? No human can ever fully understand the ways of God. And, fortunately, He does not burden us with the obligation of understanding. Allah’s answer to our states of confusion and grief is the same as His answer to our states of ease and happiness: to have taqwaa.
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The Arabic term taqwaa is often translated as “fear”, as in the above verse “fear the fitnah…”, but taqwaa is not merely “fear”. More specifically, taqwaa is placing a barrier between oneself and Allah’s displeasure or punishment. This can be achieved through love and hope—like doing good deeds for the sake of Allah—as well as fear.
No, as we know from our Creator and from our lives, it is not possible to completely avoid harm in this world, not even for ourselves or our loved ones.
Yes, we can send our children to good schools, move to the best neighborhoods, and even carefully scrutinize our children’s friends and entertainment. But this will not guarantee protection from fitnah or tragedy, no matter how far we rush to safety.
So as we witness tragedies like the Newtown massacre, the question is not “But why’d he kill all those people?” Instead, the question must be “But what can I do for myself and others today?” In other words, our ultimate rush to safety must be a spiritual one: We must improve the world within us and around us…
By sharing the message of taqwaa with our souls and with the world.
In this way, our guarantee of safety, like the last stage of coping, is acceptance—Allah’s acceptance.
And it is there, and only there, we will have ultimate peace of heart and mind, closure, and “happily ever after”—no matter what grief, loss, or tragedy we faced in this world.