This date is unbearably complex. Today I turn 40 and today I join with all those who reflect on the still impossible to understand losses suffered at Sandy Hook Elementary School one year ago today.
A big part of my identity (and my job as a parent, an educator and I suppose even in this blog) is to help people make sense of things. I’m always looking for explanations and connections. And, of course, doing so here is patently absurd because this tragedy is so incoherent. So, in addition to the grief, anger and confusion that have haunted me every day for the last year, I’ve also been trying to reconcile how this multifaceted milestone can be a force for good.
Then yesterday a light bulb went on. Kate, of course, flipped the light switch, and good things usually come of her tinkering with anything. I had already written a lengthy post in which I essentially mused on suffering and confusion and the like; a good piece of therapeutic journaling, perhaps, but I knew it was of little constructive value for anyone else. She asked why I didn’t just talk about love and community?
After all, we are less than two weeks removed from the transformative experience of attending “Love Wins: A Conference on Promoting Love, Connection, and Community for Every Child and Family,” which was the inaugural event of the Ana Grace Project, a partnership with Klingberg Family Centers. We had the pleasure and honor of listening to and meeting Dr. Bruce Perry, the event’s keynote speaker. I’ll spare you a rehashing of Dr. Perry’s resume (look him up online, read his books), but he is one of THE experts on trauma. Like most of my favorite “experts” on anything, his wisdom is so sensible that it’s as if you’re being reminded of something you always knew . . . even though you didn’t.
The whole conference was brilliant, as was Dr. Perry’s talk – I can’t distill it all, but what particularly blew my mind was the notion of how communities are essential to the functioning of the individual. Perhaps this is obvious from a sociological standpoint, but he also discussed the neuroscience of it. In essence, people’s ability to manage their emotional/psychological well-being is deeply impacted by the people around them. Think about it, have you ever walked into a room and become agitated because of the fretting of the people there? Or, on the other hand, have you ever been soothed by being around someone calm and loving? It’s fairly obvious on that level, yet in our modern, compartmentalized (and thus isolated) world, we generally don’t prioritize this or fully recognize how essential this kind of human contact is to our basic functioning. I’m not immune to this – after all, by the very act of writing this I’m by myself, staring at a screen – but the potency of real interactions is something we all recognize, whether or not we choose to act on it. Let’s choose to act on it.
My new favorite term is co-regulation. Disregulation is essentially a less judgmental and more humane way of describing stress states (fear, anxiety, anger, etc.) that impair our ability to function properly. We all know what it feels like to be hit with a piece of bad news or an unpleasant interaction and feel our heart rate alter and our ability to think straight diminish. Dr. Perry’s description of co-regulation (members of a community stabilizing and healing one another) would sound downright utopian but for the fact that it is supported by all the empirical evidence, whether done by social workers, psychologists or neurobiologists. Let’s throw sociology and theology into the mix too . . . maybe even sports? Is there any kind of situation in which the power of a healthy, loving community isn’t potent? I can’t think of one. Is there any kind of situation in which the absence of this sort of loving community is devoid of negative impact? Sadly, I’m at a loss there too.
In a sense, this is a clinically-justified elaboration on the mantra “love wins.”
I’ve written a lot over the last year about healing and perseverance and kindness (feel free to browse the archives here if you don’t have enough amateur self-help in your life). My end-of-2012 essay revolved around how big accomplishments stem from lots of “turtle steps.” That is still true, and that is central to the narrative of my first 40 years. But this milestone birthday has given me cause to reflect more deeply on my own personal milestones . . . and it hit me that I’m hard pressed to think of any that are truly important that aren’t rooted in love and community.
Lots of gruntwork has gone into hanging in there as a musician in spite of my physical obstacles, but I can’t imagine doing it without the inspiring, loving core of musicians who keep me going. It literally boggles my mind how many wonderful people have helped form the “village” with which we’ve parented our daughters, even though most of them have been behind-the-scenes. As “cool” as I like to think I may have been last year when I opened up about my own past of sexual trauma to try and help others, I took that step only because I knew that people I loved and trusted had my back. Even my return to the tennis court is inexorably linked to soulful people who encouraged or coached me. And through the adversity of the past year, we’re still standing and able to be strong when we need to because of the people we know we can lean on.
Dr. Perry talked about the life-altering effects of positive human interactions, even with people who are on balance deprived of them due to poor access to this sort of loving community. Even at my darkest moments (or, I suppose, ESPECIALLY at my darkest moments) I remember simple, individual acts of kindness that kept me going. Because I did well in school it was not always apparent that I was struggling, but more often than not I was. Because I’ve had some external success as an adult it was not always apparent that I was struggling, but more often than not I was. And I still vividly remember the moments where people’s simple acts of kindness kept me going when the tank was on “E.” The time Mrs. Cukrowski, my 11th-grade English teacher took me aside after reading a pathos-filled writing assignment and talked to me for half an hour about my struggles. The that my friend Mandy knew that I was going through a family crisis and insisted on making me French toast. The times I walked into the office of Lois Fromer’s (Rutgers Music Department secretary) as a college student at the end of my rope and, along with the solution to my problem (speak to so-and-so in the registrar’s office) got enough kindness to keep me going another day. The day in our darkest time as parents when I didn’t know if I could take any more and Jimmy offered solidarity and words so comforting that I still remember them over 5 years later.
And on and on. Few of these gestures took more than a few minutes, and they literally gave me enough strength and comfort to go on. I want to name every one of you, but let me just say that if you have ever been there for me in any of these ways or otherwise, thank you. If you’ve been there for someone else, thank you. I’m happy to be celebrated as a 40-year-old stud-muffin, but really any good I have ever done has been part of this team effort.
The hardest thing about the act of writing this is that I don’t want to trivialize the gravity of how hard it is to cope with loss on the level of what occurred one year ago. There is no way to “make sense” of it. I’ve asked experts and they sigh and moan just like the rest of us – this truth hurts, and I have yet to meet anyone whose pain tolerance is high enough to navigate this one easily, at least not on a meaningful level. As such, when I affirm that “love wins” and that together we can transcend suffering, I do so very deliberately. These are not meant as feel-good statements to put on your refrigerator magnets (though I am optimistic for joy to make longer and more frequent appearances as we move forward). The fact is we know these things are true and only the most cynical perspectives suggest otherwise. Your family, your circle of friends, your local community, even the complete strangers with whom you come into contact, all of these are environments that can be made co-regulating and all of them are opportunities for each of us to contribute to the loving energy that can heal us all. It doesn’t take a milestone day, happy or sad, to remember this.