I was listening to NPR the other day and heard a woman being interviewed about the terrorist shooting in New Zealand say, “Now we can’t feel safe anywhere.” I felt a deep sadness rise up within me as I contemplated the truth of what she said. New Zealand has historically been a very peaceful country. So, if a horror like this could happen there, it could happen anywhere. That realization is chilling.
It’s true that tragedy can strike anytime, anywhere, without warning. But blessings can arise just as unexpectedly and they do, every day, if we’re looking for them. The key to what we see and experience resides in how we look.
Inevitably, in horror scenarios like the Christchurch shooting, heroes appear. Ordinary people act in extraordinary ways, like Abdul Aziz who chased the shooter away from the mosque and most certainly saved lives through his spontaneous heroism. So, knowing that now, where do we put our attention, towards hating the shooter or appreciating this hero?
We always have a choice as to where we direct our attention. Midst the cacophony of social media and 24/7 news feeds, it’s easy to be overwhelmed by the stimulation and find our attention swirling around chaotically, with our emotions being enrolled in agendas of judgment and resentment and anger. Conversations can become like trading jabs at a punching bag, whether we are hitting on a murderer in the news, a politician we don’t like, or some friend who did something that offended us.
That’s not what a peacemaker does.
Those who bring peace choose differently. And they need more company from the rest of us. It can get tiring and brutally discouraging to labor with love in a field of hatred… even the strongest and most passionately committed social activists can lose hope. I remember the modern mystic Andrew Harvey recounting how he received a letter from a woman in Africa, someone he described as the strongest person he knew. She wrote, “By the time you read this I will be dead…” and went on to confess how her years of trying to help natives being abused and disenfranchised had worn her down to the point where she simply couldn’t go on and took her own life.
I wept when I heard that, for this woman unknown to me and for all the brave souls who carry on day after day, bringing peace to those in their immediate environments, often at great risk to their wellbeing and even to their lives.
So, how can we help? We all have our own lives and we’re surrounded by people who need reassurance, to be listened to, to know that someone cares about them. The question, “Can we ever feel safe again?” is impossible to answer if we’re wondering about external events. None of us control the universe, things will happen. But all of us can control what we contribute.
We can answer the prayer of St. Francis every day with the attitude we choose, the words we speak, and the actions we undertake. The words in this prayer leave no room for anything but heroic, peace-filled activism:
Lord make me an instrument of your peace
Where there is hatred let me sow love
Where there is injury, pardon
Where there is doubt, faith
Where there is despair, hope
Where there is darkness, light
And where there is sadness, joy
This is not a religious text, it’s instructions for being a peacemaker, regardless of your spiritual beliefs. Imagine if each of us decided to follow those instructions, if we re-invented ourselves as a person who was bringing safety wherever we were. I wonder what might happen if I did that, if you did that, if we could inspire others to do it?
It may sound like a grand proposal but I’m actually talking about the small moments of each day and the choices we make. How do we respond? For instance, a friend might complain about another friend. Do we gossip with them? Or do we inject a different tone, perhaps an attitude of forgiveness or understanding? Do we listen deeply and really care about the person we’re with, or are we not-so-patiently waiting to tell our own story?
For anyone who wonders if they can ever feel safe again, the fastest way to “Yes!” is to make sure that others feel safe with you.