Leah Hager Cohen: Allow yourself to have a visceral reaction. To simply feel whatever you’re feeling is an important first response. In this photo, mourners walk to a memorial to the victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting at the school's entrance, Monday, Dec. 17, 2012, in Newtown, Conn. (David Goldman/AP)

To feel is good.

To feel is not always pleasant. When the thing we are feeling causes us pain, very naturally we wish not to feel it. As we age, we become increasingly adept at finding ways to avoid feeling pain. We wait until the bath is cool enough. We slow our pace when the ground is icy. We bite our tongues rather than argue with our neighbor, our sister, our boss, our spouse. We channel our attention away from painful thoughts by switching on the sitcom, going to the movies, betting on a horse, singing along with the radio. We give ourselves permission to flip past disturbing articles on the Congo, on Haiti, on Syria, on Sandy, on food shortages, human trafficking, child soldiers. We give ourselves permission to crack open the bottle of wine, the box of ice cream, the shopping catalog.

None of this behavior is evil. Practiced in moderation, we call it coping. As responsible adults, we armor ourselves in order to move through life. Without any armor, our progress through a single day might be near unbearable.

As we age, we become increasingly adept at finding ways to avoid feeling pain. We wait until the bath is cool enough. We slow our pace when the ground is icy. We bite our tongues rather than argue…

The indescribably sad news from Newtown, Conn. is less unusual for having occurred than for having pierced our armor. The Nation reports that 16 mass shootings in America in 2012 have left at least 88 people dead. They occurred at schools, a hospital, a coffee shop, a Sikh temple, a health spa, a funeral home, a soccer tournament, a nightclub.

And yet none of those shootings has had the impact of the Sandy Hook murders. The sheer number of those slain — and the fact that 20 of the victims were no more than 6 or 7-years-old — has seized our attention more sharply than the other horrific events.

One by one we read their names. We see their faces. Forgive us if we see, too, the faces of the small children in our own lives. Feelings can do this: lead us to connect our own experiences with those of others. We call this empathy.

We envision the little ones we love or remember loving at that age, their smiles full of baby teeth, the softness of their hands, the way they tear about reckless and teeming with energy on the playground, lining up at the end of recess, ragged-breathed, hair askew, cheeks aflame, shoelaces untied, knees scraped, panting or grinning or crying or shoving or shouting. We see them as they are, full of life, brimful. Wide open.

At 6 or 7, they do not have much armor. They have not yet become well-versed in dulling the pain or drawing the line. They feel and they feel and they feel.

At 6 or 7, they have not yet learned to feel helpless. When they encounter unfairness, they ask: Why not change it? When they encounter something broken, they say: Okay, let’s fix it.

When we were little, you and I, when we didn’t have bills to pay and appointments to make and laundry to fold and dinner to prepare, didn’t we, too, go around with immediacy, alacrity, attending to things as we felt them?

How shall we make use of our emotional response? How shall we let it — our grief — inform us?

When we first learned about how our forefathers fought for independence, and then about the Trail of Tears, and the Underground Railroad, and Seneca Falls, and the Bread and Roses labor movement, and the partisan resistance during World War II, and the bus boycott and desegregation – didn’t we say and mean it, If I had been alive then, I would have done something to help? And didn’t we say this because we couldn’t help feeling it?

To feel is good.

It is a kind of intelligence. It’s a first response which may spur us — if we don’t hasten to deaden it — to further response: to action.

If the reason this latest event stands out from the rest has less to do with its uniqueness and more to do with the tender age of the majority of those killed, how shall we make use of our emotional response? How shall we let it — our grief — inform us?

I am no policy maker. I have no expertise in violence or gun laws or mental illness or video games or the Second Amendment. I am only a mother. Even that is irrelevant. Would I feel any less if I had no children of my own? We are all in this together.

Here’s what we can do. We can tell our stories and listen to one another. We can educate ourselves about the issues and about who has the power to implement change. We can find creative ways to partake of that power and responsibility. We may even choose to reckon with ourselves — privately and collectively — about the role each of us played in the most recent tragedy, if only through silence and inaction. Others will have more practically useful ideas. I know only this: we start by being willing to feel.


Tags: Newtown

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  • Julie

    Eloquent and true, as always, Leah. My daughter, who works in Newtown, wrote, “I know some people think the immediate wake of something like Newtown or Clackamas is too soon to talk about gun control. I’d argue it’s too late.” Her grief was profound; so was her anger. And righteous anger strong enough to motivate action is yet another feeling worth heeding.

  • Samantha

    This piece speaks eloquently to so many feelings I’m having right now. It reassures me that I shouldn’t repress those feelings, especially if they lead to soul searching or, better yet, meaningful action. Thank you.