I have struggled with what to say about the Orlando shooting, as there are so many people saying so many things. I am sending this out because I decided that it might be of value to share how I respond to human tragedy, hoping that it might add to the conversation of what to do. I am writing based on what I have read about the incident up to this point, and this essay is not an assertion of fact, but rather an exploration on how I respond to what goes on in the world at large. Please read on as I discuss response as a catalyst to insight and change...
How does one respond to a public human tragedy? It is hard to know. Responses to the Orlando mass killing have included anger, grief, sadness, rage, compassion, confusion, and even indifference. I myself have felt both anger and sadness over the needless loss of young lives and the overt demonstration of homophobia. But as the week goes on, I have to ask myself, as someone who did not personally know any of the victims, how to express these feelings in a way that creates change within myself, my environment, those who I come into contact with, and the culture at large.
The process of doing this is challenging and won't be embraced by all, but I am sharing it because for me it channels grief into positive change, and turns tragedy into something palatable. I have to be able to look at what happened without turning away in order to be able to then look inside myself. So let's begin.
The phrase "We Are Orlando" is currently showing up in many places. What does that mean? It means many things, but to me it means that I am both the victims AND the shooter. Not literally, of course, but in a way that prompts insight and self-reflection. Why would I use a national tragedy to engage in self-reflection? Because by separating myself from the culture and influences that contributed to this happening, I am nullifying the effect of anything I feel beyond myself.
Orlando was not about me, but it is, in part, of me, and of all of us. I am familiar with the homophobia and self-loathing that the shooter seems to have been influenced by--when you grow up in a homophobic society, you automatically ingest some of that. It continues to be a struggle for me to make conscious choices around how I think about other gay men, especially those who do not "behave" as I do. Am I colluding with homophobia by "passing" as a heterosexual male, or just presenting myself authentically? Am I perhaps strengthening self-loathing in myself by censoring some of my own creative (and flamboyant) self-expression? Do I stick close to those who are like me, avoiding opportunities to explore difference and even disagreement in others? What is the experience that someone will come away with after spending time with me--inclusiveness or entitlement? How do my choices influence the local environment as well as the culture at large? Are there times when I am an aggressor toward others, and times when I find myself a victim of aggression? How does hate show up in me?
These are challenging questions, but what I find is that the asking of them leads to a less impulsive response. It leads to a response that does not see merely innocence or evil, but instead sees the complexity of living in a culture and economy that is fueled in large part by fear of the unknown and the unfamiliar, and the many ways this manifests in our actions towards others. The response that comes out of this reflection has a better chance of including compassion and a desire to act. The response that comes out of this has a better chance of influencing positive change. A rant is often just a rant. I am interested in changed outcomes.
I did not know the shooter. It appears that he suffered from several serious internal conflicts, and was probably also mentally unstable. This view does not excuse his horrific actions. When I work with couples I will say that both parties are equally responsible for the dynamic of the relationship, a dynamic that sometimes causes problems, but that each individual has to be 100% responsible for the actions they choose to take in response to this dynamic. The shooter is 100% responsible for his actions, but at the same time I admit to my share of responsibility for creating a cultural dynamic of fear and homophobia that may have influenced him. Rather than feel guilty about this (which stops the process), I consider how to then respond in a way that strengthens connection among others, rather than dis-connection. I consider how to respond in a way that deconstructs this harmful cultural narrative.
To put it simply, I resort to a question that I have used many times with clients when they are conflicted on how to act on their anger or grief: What would LOVE choose? This question cuts through the desire to hurt others or hurt myself, and opens up possibilities for healing action, even if it means saying to another, "Help me through this, I am having trouble getting to love."
Do you notice how people help each other out after a natural disaster, or how communities have come together to support Orlando and the families who are grieving the loss of loved ones? THAT is an example of what LOVE would choose, and that is an example of the response that I work to cultivate, since love sent out is received by both the recipient AND the sender. As Pema Chodron writes, we get to decide which wolf we are going to feed: the angry vengeful one, or the loving compassionate one. You decision will hinge on what you feel will most nourish your human, being.
Everything is an opportunity, even tragedy, to explore how we are being toward ourselves and others. We don't need to create tragedy to do this, thankfully, but when tragedies happen, this is one way to live through the pain.
Choose love, and then action.