What Does It Take?

[Guest poem]

p1020338

What does it take
to change a life
from within?

Young and fearless
those 3 words,
inscribed on your chest

Invincible you were
til one day,
gun shots fired

your body running
suddenly ablaze
the sirens wailed

your family prayed
your homies await
your enemies irate

everything hurt
a miracle, you survived
and lived to tell

did you understand
you put your
family at risk?

did it matter
you committed a crime
done did your time

did you realize
a bullet would injure
more than a disk

now, though young
you’re bound to a chair
cannot run, cannot hide

a lifelong disability
you must take in stride
swallow all that gangsta pride

you leave the hospital
vowing to change
yet a few months later

it’s back to the same.

what does it take
to change a life
from within?

[Submission from Soapie, a nurse from the New England area who works in the urban setting. Soapie has been a fellow Christian blogger with David C for years (!), long before this site existed.]

What Does It Take?

I have never met Shyheim Buford

I have never met Shyheim Buford, a seventeen year old young man who, by all accounts from my roommate, was a kind and lively teenager, the sort who was and would have been a role model for the younger ones in our neighborhoods here in Wilmington, Delaware. He was even a street leader once in Urban Promise, working with elementary school kids in after school tutoring and activities and joy. It is not an easy thing to develop a good reputation, but that is exactly what my roommate, whose job is working with youth in the city, described about him.

I will never meet Shyheim Buford in this life because he was shot fifteen times to death. According to the word on the street, he was being robbed at gunpoint but managed to knock the gun away and run. He almost got home, but someone (perhaps even more than one) chased him down and shot him to death. They shot him fifteen times, so the story goes though the newspaper only describes four or five. Either way, he died on the scene.

Below is a map of shootings in Wilmington over the past year alone. It is updated roughly once a week by the state newspaper, and this death is too recent to be shown here. It also does not show the two men shot less than 24 hours later around the same block, which occurred despite friends urging on Facebook that there not be “retaliation.”

Even while typing this, I heard a single shot ring out somewhere close enough to take pause. Would I read about another Shyheim in the newspaper tomorrow? Will my own neighbors or friends or my self become a similar statistic some day?

In church today, the sermon was about Jesus’ words on worry:

And [Jesus] said to his disciples, “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat, nor about your body, what you will put on. For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing. Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds! And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? If then you are not able to do as small a thing as that, why are you anxious about the rest? — Luke 12

There is a fine line between living a worry-free life and living a fatalistic one. I struggle with the difference every day, bouncing between a hospital where we are resuscitating or pronouncing dead patients on a regular basis and a neighborhood where it feels like more of the same. On many days, I struggle with feeling the victories of “helping” people who recover just as much as I feel the sorrow of “losing” those who succumb to their illnesses. It feels as if I cannot accept the responsibility of one without the other, and consequently I waver between feeling proud and feeling guilty even as I realize that I can never claim full credit for either.

The very next passage of Scripture surprised me, even though I had read it many times before:

Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give to the needy. Provide yourselves with moneybags that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.

What do these words mean to me? It says that what I long for has already been promised: that all of the angst and grief and deep longing for that which right and true is not wasted, but instead deepens my moneybags, the intrinsic capacity of my soul to one day be filled with a future joy that cannot be robbed, murdered or destroyed.

Christe eleison! Shyheim, I look forward to the day when we will become true neighbors at last.

Shooting map
I live somewhere between the numbers 18 and 6
I have never met Shyheim Buford

Shootings and Samaritans

[Originally written for the ESN blog. Mainly recycled material.]
A good question
A good question
I found out about the Newtown shooting while working in a pediatric clinic. In between seeing children with sore throats and rashes and sniffles, I would hover over the computer and read more about other children torn apart by gunfire. I found out about the Boston bombing while working a long shift in the hospital. While examining patients in their rooms, I couldn’t help but sneak peeks at their TV sets as the chaos unfolded. Often, I simply stopped what I was doing and watched the news alongside them in silence. We would shake our heads together in grief and disbelief, and I felt stunned by the juxtaposition that there were those — patients and healthcare staff alike — who could be working so hard to overcome an illness at the same time that others were eviscerating those who were perfectly healthy. It was a deeply disturbing day.
On Mother’s Day, at a parade in New Orleans, three men walked into the crowd and began firing. They shot 19 people, two of which were children, three of whom were critically injured. One of the gunmen is still at large. However, no city was shut down. There has been limited media coverage of the event, perhaps because it was the third holiday this year in which the city saw gunfire into crowds. When I read this news, I posted a link to it on facebook and then promptly forgot about it until sitting down to write this post.

At what point does violence and the corruption of the sacred become something acceptable or even normal? I heard an interview/conversation on the radio between two mothers from Massachusetts: a mom from Newtown and a mom from the inner city:

Gekas said that when you look at her son, Alex, in profile, he looks like 19-year-old Dzokhar Tsarnaev, the young man who was the target of the police search.

Gekas later [said] that when her son came into the kitchen and announced that he was walking to a friend’s house, “I flipped. I told him he was in ‘mommy lockdown’ and he wasn’t going anywhere.”

Gekas’ husband convinced her to let Alex leave the house, but he first gave his son the same warning that black inner-city teenage boys hear about how to behave when confronted by police: Don’t run away, keep your hands visible, don’t reach into your pockets.

“I don’t normally have a fear of police, and I never have thought to instruct my son like this,” Gekas said. “But he has grown six inches in the past year and he’s looking like a young man and he does wear kind of baggy clothes.”

When Gekas told her brother about her fear, he said, “Now you know how it feels to be an African-American mother… That’s what [they] worry about all the time.”

“My immediate reaction, was, ‘No way. They can’t feel this way every day’,” Gekas said. “There’s no way someone could live like this.”

“Welcome to my world,” Tina Chery told Gekas…

Chery is an inner-city mom, and 20 years ago her 15-year-old son was killed when he was caught in the crossfire of a gang shooting as he walked to an afternoon meeting of Teens Against Gang Violence…

While the lockdown in Newton and other Boston suburbs lasted 24 hours, for urban mothers and families in high-crime areas, it’s a stress they deal with every day.

“It’s a chronic impact,” Chery said. “You’re hearing gunshots. You’re hearing the crime, the homicides, the unsolved murders. There’s really not much time to take it in and go through that grieving process.”

I was recently at a conference of pediatricians in Washington, DC to discuss gun violence. We were preparing talking points for future meetings with Congress members, planning to advocate for better firearm safety (something I thought to be a contradiction in terms). However, I felt very uneasy. In the nation’s capital, it seemed like appearances and impressions meant everything. Everyone seemed immac­u­lately dressed and my scuffed shoes and worn belt felt out of place among the polished lob­by­ist briefcases and horn-rimmed hipster eye­wear.

I made some phone calls to friends from the city, people whom I had come to Washington to represent. All of them were ded­i­cated to work and life with kids in the inner city. I asked them to tell their stories, and here they are:

“Yes­ter­day, I heard gunshots outside the office, the after­school camp where the kids were coming.”

“This past week, a student… he came up to me excitedly and said, ‘I just saw a shooting! Down the street! People are running ’ I asked him if anyone was hurt, and he said he didn’t know. Then he went back to playing basketball, as if it was something normal, but I know it’s not… it shouldn’t be some­thing that’s just nor­mal. He’s ten years old.”

“I asked the kids to do a watercolor of things that they were afraid of. I didn’t tell them anything else, but they started to paint pictures of guns, and of blood spurting out… they’re in 1st to 5th grade.”

“How many of them have been affected by guns? I can’t think of someone who hasn’t had someone in the family or a friend get shot.”

“Two years ago, I was walking down the street and got robbed at gunpoint I still get paranoid when walking down the street, and I grew up here.”

“We had a young mother, 19 years old with two kids. One day she picked them up from daycare and took them home… and found a dead body in the backyard who had been shot. She hasn’t let her kids play in the street since, and it’s been years.”

“The person who taught me to read got shot. He was just sitting in his car…”

“Guns are just a part of these kids lives.”

“There was a 14 year old who used to come to camp; he went ahead and shot his friend over some fight over a girl. Now he’s in jail…”

“The kids are afraid to walk home from the bus, or the park, or out on the street because of guns.”

“One time I heard gunshots just around the corner… I was having to tell kids to get inside because someone’s been shooting a gun down the street. The older guys were standing outside… they’ve seen this play out hundreds of times.”

These stories came easily from people who were far too comfortable telling them. If there was any silence on the phone, it was because I was at a loss for words.

How modern is the parable of the Good Samaritan? It struck me, there among the hallways and seats of power, that it was less of a parable and more of an anecdote. For how many of us have driven around “those areas” of the city, have bought houses and built churches and gone to university and eaten in restaurants that benefit from urban industry while tactfully avoiding its geographic centers of decay? Really, who are our neighbors? And have we simply moved, physically as well as symbolically, in such a way as to make the answer more convenient and palatable to our consciences?

As I stumbled for appropriate words to say over the phone, my friends helped me close such a casually horrific conversation with this question:

“Can I pray for you?”

I am still struck by this out­pour­ing of grace that seemed so coun­ter­in­tu­itive at first. To them, and to me, true power and life does not come from a gun or a sword or a pen or a suit. It comes from obe­di­ence to a simple series of commands: do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God. If this means we lose our lives that we may find it, then we do so gladly. If it means we speak unpop­u­lar truth to over­whelm­ing power, then our feet should only ask for the direction to go.

I am not writing a proscription for a mass migration by Christians into the inner city (though perhaps we should!) But what I am wondering is how we, as Christian households and academics, can seek to be a humble neighbor and witness to those around us that do live among threats of violence and fear. What Newtown and Aurora and Boston have taught us is that we are all neighbors and ought to act accordingly.

And behold, a lawyer stood up to put him to the test, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the Law? How do you read it?” And he answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live.”

But he, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him and departed, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road, and when he saw him he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion. He went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he set him on his own animal and brought him to an inn and took care of him. And the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take care of him, and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.’ Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” And Jesus said to him, “You go, and do likewise.” — Luke 10

Shootings and Samaritans

Guns, Children, and Suits: that which does not belong

I would rather talk about guns and children than wear a suit. I do not like suits. Whenever I have to dress in anything fancier than casual, I become nervous because I know I am dressing for someone else’s eye. It sounds childish because it is, as an emotionally traumatic holdover from my super-awkward middle school days. I have gotten used to it over time, if only because it has become a daily professional requirement (and because people are too polite to voice their fashion critiques.) I suppose this is part of the appeal of pediatrics, where my little patients don’t care for the white coat or business attire anyways and I can let a goofy smile be the most memorable part of my appearance.

However, this means I feel even more uncomfortable wandering around the legislative district of Washington, D.C., where appearances and impressions seem to mean everything. To me, everyone seems immaculately dressed and my scuffed shoes and worn belt feel out of place among the polished lobbyist briefcases and horn-rimmed hipster eyewear. I feel like that awkward geek all over again, trying to measure up to the popular kids who now wear Hugo Boss instead of Adidas and lunch at a French bistro instead of the pizza parlor.

The American Academy of Pediatrics is trying to help me figure this out, here at the biannual Legislative Conference. There are all these advocates and representatives and staffers trying to teach me the rules of the government game: how to “frame” an issue, how to send clear messages, how to say things in a way that gets those with the authority to make decisions to listen. They also model for me the right way to wear a suit, but this still does not make me feel very comfortable. The sinful side of me feels jealous of their ease and expertise, and it becomes overly fixated on things like image and word choice and fundraising and the fear and love of power, things that make me feel like I am part of a massive popularity contest… one in which I feel sure to lose.

So I made some phone calls yesterday.

I called my friends from the city, people whom I have come to Washington to represent. All of them dedicate their work and lives to kids in the city; all of them live in the so-called inner city itself. I asked them to tell their stories, and here they are:

“Yesterday, I heard gunshots outside the office, the afterschool camp where the kids were coming.”

“This past week, a student… he came up to me excitedly and said, ‘I just saw a shooting! Down the street! People are running!’ I asked him if anyone was hurt, and he said he didn’t know. Then he went back to playing basketball, as if it was something normal, but I know it’s not… it shouldn’t be something that’s just normal. He’s ten years old.”

“I asked the kids to do a watercolor of things that they were afraid of. I didn’t tell them anything else, but they started to paint pictures of guns, and of blood spurting out… they’re in 1st to 5th grade.”

“How many of them have been affected by guns? I can’t think of someone who hasn’t had someone in the family or a friend get shot.”

“Two years ago, I was walking down the street and got robbed at gunpoint. I still get paranoid when walking down the street, and I grew up here.”

“We had a young mother, 19 years old with two kids. One day she picked them up from daycare and took them home… and found a dead body in the backyard, who had been shot. She hasn’t let her kids play in the street since, and it’s been years.”

“The person who taught me to read got shot. He was just sitting in his car…”

“Guns are just a part of these kids lives.”

“There was a 14 year old who used to come to camp; he went ahead and shot his friend over some fight over a girl. Now he’s in jail…”

“The kids are afraid to walk home from the bus, or the park, or out on the street because of guns.”

“One time I heard gunshots just around the corner… I was having to tell kids to get inside because someone’s been shooting a gun down the street. The older guys were standing outside… they’ve seen this play out hundreds of times.”

These stories came easily from people who were far too comfortable telling them. If there was any silence on the phone, it was because I was at a loss for words. And yet, without fail, as I stumbled for appropriate words, my friends would help me close such a casually horrific conversation with this question:

“Can I pray for you?”

I am still struck by this outpouring of grace that seemed so counterintuitive at first. To them, and to me, true power does not come from a gun or a sword or a pen or a suit. It comes from obedience to a simple series of commands: do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God. If this means we lose our lives that we may find it, then we do so gladly. If it means we speak unpopular truth to overwhelming power, then our feet should only ask for the direction to go. If it means I wear a suit… well, I am wearing it now.

This is the message in my mind for the Senators we will be speaking to today. Join your pediatricians in advocating for our children, that they may be spared from the terrors we have permitted by our collective and willful negligence. Call your Senators and Representatives today to say that you support the message of pediatricians nationwide: that all children should have freedom from the fear of firearms. This is not in support of or opposition to any legislation; this is not an attempt to strip others of Constitutional rights. It is simply a call to let your elected officials know you care about gun safety, that you want firearms to stay out of hands that seek to harm. It only takes several minutes.

I am tired of waking up to gunfire. I am tired of watching my neighborhood live under its crushing terror. I am also tired of wearing suits.

Share this. Call someone. Remember us.

20130430-082539.jpg

Guns, Children, and Suits: that which does not belong

Never Normal

Shootings/homicide in the past year.
Shootings/homicide in the past year.

I got up before the alarm yesterday even though my sleep was fitful and restless. Though it was hard for me to know for sure, I was fairly certain that a series of gunshots had woken me up in the middle of the night, and that what had followed was a series of nightmares about more violence, break-ins, muggings, and deaths, including my own. I won’t lie; despite the victorious tone of the last entry here, I’ve been pretty anxious this past week. Every time I open my door or hear a creak in the floorboards or listen to the mice (or something else) scuttling around, I say another prayer, sing another verse of “God of Angel Armies,” and try to move on.

One of my bookmarked webpages is a running description of violent crime in the city. Of course, today I read about this incident:

Feb. 4, 2013, around 12:52 p.m.: Police responding to reports of a shooting found a 29-year-old man with a gunshot wound to his chest.

Two men wearing all black and masks entered the victim’s home and attempted to steal items. When the victim confronted the suspects, one of them shot him and fled southbound on ______.

This is perhaps 5 blocks away from where I live, and happened to someone the same age as me. Perhaps it could have been me. Perhaps that is why I was so disturbed in my spirit the night before; I have found, more out of necessity than out of a sense of piety, that I have become much more prayerful. I am grateful for that.

As I drove home last night, I was on the phone with my parents trying to describe last week’s incident in a little more detail. I drove down the street and was tempted to park around back, far removed from the scene I was verbally describing. But I am glad to say that I parked in the same spot, got out of the car, and was blessed to see a friendly neighbor. We sat in my kitchen and had a great chat over some popcorn and fresh asian pears I had managed to get over the weekend. I told him how glad I was to have him as a neighbor, and how happy I was to have moved in. And I meant every word.

Every day, I find more and more people who will teach me what it is like to live in the city. Yesterday it was a medical assistant in the office, whom I also ran into at a local convenience store. We talked about the development of the city over the past decade, about the police officer who was shot in the face the day before, about her life growing up with a brother who was shot and paralyzed from the waist down, then later shot again and finally murdered by the same people who didn’t think paralysis was punishment enough. Last week the conversation topic was a 16 year old boy who was shot in the head, murdered in a drive-by shooting for supposedly “snitching.”

I have only been here for half a year, but I can feel my soul beginning to ache from the gravity of perpetual violence. Contrary to popular opinion, it is never something one “just gets used to.” I didn’t understand what this all meant at first, but a good friend of mine, who also lives in the city and works with the children here on a daily basis, wrote this in her blog:

“On half of your paper, use the watercolors to paint something that you are afraid of or makes you angry.

On the other half paint something that gives you hope.”

If given these instructions in a suburban after-school program, I wonder what the response would be. Maybe it would be the same. I don’t know for sure.

But I can tell you the theme for my kids as they shared in front of each other.

Guns and the men that hold the guns.

“Because the people feel like they have so much power when they hold them.”

Guns.

“Because I don’t want to die before it’s my time.” Answers a third grader.

And what gives you hope?

Family.

God.

Jesus.

“Why?” Kiera asks.

“Because he made us and he died for us.”

And I don’t know whether they actually believe it or not. That’s not for me to judge. But I can tell you one thing. I don’t see much use in hoping in anything else. People, the government, religion…it all amounts to nothing in the wake of real tragedy. If Jesus isn’t real. If hope isn’t alive in His resurrection, forgiveness of sin, reconciliation between us and our Father.…then, I sure don’t see much hope in anything.

I can’t imagine what it would’ve been like to grow up in a place where I feared gunshots. Each day a couple of kids ask me to walk them home. “we’re scared.” “it’s too dark.”

Oh God, I can’t give them anything but You. And I wouldn’t want to. College, education, all of the money in the world, living in the suburbs…it’d all be false security. So, Jesus, above all, I pray that they’ll know You. And yes, Jesus, please protect these little ones. May they find peace in You.

There’s power in Your Name, Lord Jesus. And it’s in that power that I trust my friends. Let me serve where I can serve, wait when I need to wait, trust when I need to trust, be still when I need to be still, suffer when I need to suffer, and help me in my unbelief.

Our next series on violence, specifically gun violence, will feature more stories from her blog (which I really encourage you to read and support! She was the one who introduced me to the inner city and the people I now live with.) In the heated national debate on constitutionality, guns, and violence, there is much talk about liberty, defense, and rights. But there is little talk about the laying down of our entitlements, of redemption through suffering, of the knowledge and exaltation of Jesus Christ. And yet, what else can we hope for in this world of terrors? From where else will we derive our joy?

But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith. I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead. — Philippians 3

Never Normal

Part 1: On Cynicism

I originally wrote the following passage for a Good Friday reflection in 2007, unknowingly done one week before the Virginia Tech shooting. The intent in re-posting here is not to lessen the tragedy of what has just occurred in Connecticut, but to speak truth about how little has changed five years later. Kyrie eleison.

The statistic is that roughly 18,000 children die each day from hunger and malnutrition alone. This does not include those who die from preventable diseases like rotavirus (which causes severe diarrhea and kills approximately 600,000 children a year even though it is vaccinatable, preventable, and treatable) and cholera, or the treatable ones like malaria, tuberculosis, and HIV. This does not include the children who are caught in the genocide of Sudan, or the vicious military crossfire of civil conflicts as in Iraq and Afghanistan, or those whose limbs have been blown off by landmines designed to look like toys, or those who have been conscripted into military service in Uganda or the Congo. It does not include those who are pressed into the sex trafficking industry, like the 100,000 or so children in Cambodia. It does not include those who die alone, cold, and friendless in the streets of Calcutta or New York City or those who are shot to death in the gang fights of Newark. It does not include the upper-middle class teenager or celebrity that died from a drug overdose or drunk driving or any other death we might consider as a tragic consequence of wealth.

Some people have called me cynical for saying these things. They say that I am being bitter or despondent or a sourpuss and that it’s just “not natural” to look at the world that way. But the frightening truth is that it is natural because it gives us a piercingly accurate look at our human nature… perhaps more accurate than we would like to admit.

Cynicism has an interesting origin. It came from a group of Greek philosophers whose purpose in life was the pursuit of virtue. They took their calling so seriously that the ancient cynics neglected personal hygiene and scorned the norms of society, often congregating in the streets to insult and condemn those who were pretentious, self-important, materialistic, or evil. One ancient cynic described himself in this way: “I am Diogenes the dog: I nuzzle the kind, bark at the greedy, and bite scoundrels.”

We live in a society that is so cynical that it has become a form of entertainment. Stephen Colbert’s deadpan comedic style won him four Emmys. The television shows South Park and The Family Guy continue on air despite their numerous offensive vulgarities because of the huge audience demand for their acidic wit and social commentary. Modern cynics have exchanged the pursuit of virtue and bad personal hygiene for something a little more practical: biting sarcasm, an unshakeable belief in human selfishness, and a tired frustration with our collective inability to change.

When I was in college, a friend of mine started a humanitarian organization that dealt with a lot of the darker issues of poverty and war that I mentioned earlier. One day we decided to show a documentary on the genocide in Sudan in the student campus center. We reserved the main television and when I arrived to plug in the tape, I was relieved to see that the only thing people were watching were a few clips on SportsCenter from the previous night’s games. But when I changed the channel and announced what we were showing, a student angrily got up and stormed off, saying, “Who cares about all this stuff? This stuff happens all the time!” He did not use the word “stuff.”

And he was right. This stuff happens all the time, and our media saturated society is sick of hearing about it. We are tired of counting bodies in Iraq. We are tired of CIA leaks and government scandals. We are tired of empty campaign promises and embezzled funds. We are tired of FEMA and mismanaged bureaucracy in the Gulf Coast. We are tired of hurricanes and earthquakes and falling stock market prices. We are tired of HIV, AIDSTB, and other acronymed diseases. We are tired of starving children and anorexic celebrities. We are tired of school shootings and inner city crime. We are tired of debating evolution in schools and abortion in the courts. We are tired of HMOs and insurance companies and a broken healthcare system. We are tired of divorces in our homes and grappling for grades in our schools. We are tired of griping bosses and sniping co-workers. We are tired of searching for someone who will like us for who we are and not who we pretend to be. We are tired of hypocrisy and judgment in the church from whom we had expected to receive grace. We are tired of the disappointments that happen all the time.

What option is there left for us? We aren’t revolutionaries; we know the world too well to expect it to change. We aren’t saints; we know ourselves too well to expect change there either. The only truth we are sure of is a humanity and an identity that is so disgustingly and predictably selfish that we might as well poke fun at it. We’ll do anything except hope for change, because hope requires vulnerability. Hope demands that we have an expectation that can be disappointed and unfulfilled. Hope means that we must be certain of something we cannot see, that we must trust in something we do not understand.

This is a frightening prospect for a cynic.

This is a frightening prospect for me.

I would much rather describe the world than have hope for it. There is nothing to fear from a description: nothing to be surprised or disappointed by. And so I will stand here and tell you that 18,000 children die each day from hunger, that you can’t trust anyone else or even yourself which means that you certainly should never trust a politician, that you can’t get something for nothing, that you can’t find a good church or even good people these days, that justice is a joke and peace is a sham, that everything is broken, and that nothing is sacred or perfect or even mildly decent.

As a cynic, I can tell you what the world is, but I cannot tell you what to do with it.

Again, I do not say these things to lessen the tragedy of what occurred in Connecticut. What I mean to say is that we are very good at overestimating our capacity for human empathy, kindness, and sorrow. We are very good at the self-pacification of conscience, at seeking out the path of least resistance required to change. We will pat each other on the back and say, “What a cruel world! What can be done in the face of so much evil?” We will congratulate ourselves on feeling sufficiently badly after expressing what we believe to be a fair and credible amount of grief. Once we have done this enough, have made significant acts of penance and efforts towards change, and are satisfied with their futility, we will move on and say, in the words of K. Vonnegut’s Tralfamadorians, “So it goes.”

It is tempting to offer consolation and imagine that we are better people, stronger people now. We desperately want something to hope for as we look forward to the cathartic ending that Hollywood promises: that the triumph of the human spirit or engineered systems or political goodwill shall redeem an otherwise pessimistic view of our human nature. But these proposals offer no answer as to why 18,000 children die daily from hunger, a malady with no bullet to blame or act of malice to fault.

There are two fears we are driven by, and what the cynic rightfully does is challenge our collective fear of truth. We lack the will — politically, socially, economically, personally — to pursue justice and to stare at the face of hard questions in order to ask why certain things are a certain way. Why does God permit evil? Why do we permit evil? What is the moral justification to use violence to restrain violence? Why are we so bent on self-preservation that we are so permissive towards injury to the other? Why do we cry over the slaughter of innocents in a school yet shrug in hardened indifference when shootings take place on my street corner here in the inner city? Or in Syria? Or when they starve to death in North Korea? Why, when the topic of abortion arises, do we roll our eyes and say, “Not this tired old argument again”?

What we fear most is the revelation that we are not as compassionate as we think. We do not believe children or life to be as sacred as we proclaim, and that is the truth we are most afraid of. As a physician, as a pediatrician, I see this every day. In the name of “quality of life”, we not only permit but encourage the abortion of children. Pregnancy for “those poor mothers, those teenage girls” is no longer something to be supported or even celebrated, but has deteriorated into becoming just another sexually transmitted disease… one that can be “treated”. But we will not do the hard thing, which is to speak out against the sexual flexibility of a culture that persistently prepares these young girls as prey in dress, action, and relational expectations. We will not speak against the industries that enslave our young men to pornography, to drug and alcohol addiction, to gang violence, to video games, or even to childhood obesity! We will not speak against the things that are unhealthy because we are not willing to sacrifice the freedom to love and indulge in our vices.

Even in writing this, I struggle with understanding my own voice and position. Am I being too generic? Am I being too conservatively minded? Am I being too “political”? Or am I being too silent? Too self-satisfied? Too smug and proud? As a cynic, I end in a place of paralysis because of my second fear: the fear of hope. But that is a discussion for a later time. For now, we look to Christ, in whom there is the absolution of all things. Kyrie eleison.

Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword?  As it is written,

“For your sake we are being killed all the day long;
 we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. — Romans 8

Part 1: On Cynicism