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Lighting a Candle in Newtown

Lighting a Candle in Newtown

Newtown tragedyOur hearts are broken;
Our spirit is not.

And it is with this knowledge
that we are able to move forward
with purpose . . . and strength . . .

The Sandy Hook promise
As my car pulled in to Newtown, Connecticut, my first thought was, this is a beautiful town; I would enjoy living here. I was a bit early for the panel presentation, so I walked into a local coffee shop. On my way in, I passed several “banners of hope,” and the Sandy Hook Promise1 logo consisting of a tree made up of 26 hands.

The young man behind the coffee shop counter was friendly and cheerful, greeting me with a warm smile. In fact, everyone in town greeted me with courtesy and kindness. This was to be a reliable constant during my visit for a public conversation as part of the Sandy Hook Promise. Members of the community of Newtown created this organization soon after the mass shooting on December 14, 2012, at Sandy Hook Elementary School, in which 20 children, 4 teachers, and 2 administrators were killed.

Born of sense of responsibility, internal strength, and desire to honor their lost loved ones, the Newtown community gave birth to a promise. Part of the mission of the Sandy Hook Promise is to have an open dialogue on all of the relevant issues, and to include various and opposing views. My colleagues and I had been invited by Sandy Hook Promise leaders to give a presentation titled “Violence, Loss, and Emotional Healing: A Buddhist Perspective.”2

The goal of our presentation was to explore the commonalities of mindfulness, Buddhism, and psychiatry as they applied to healing after severe trauma. The topic was complex and delicate, which was why I was so grateful to be accompanied by 3 wonderful and fearlessly compassionate colleagues:

•Lama Kathy Wesley: a Buddhist minister and nationally recognized teacher of the Tibetan Buddhist practice of Lojong, which trains the mind in compassion and loving kindness

•Lama Tsultrim Yeshe: a Buddhist monk and retired prison chaplain, who is known throughout North America for his Tibetan Buddhist teachings on the nature of forgiveness and healing emotional wounds

•David Kaczynski: a humanitarian, a poet, and my friend. David is a bit of a hero to me, having devoted himself to spreading kindness and compassion. He has been a staunch mental health advocate and has run a shelter for runaway/homeless youth. He knows more about what it is like to be the family member of an offender than most could ever imagine—he is the brother of Theodore Kaczynski, the so-called “Unabomber,” whose 17-year reign of violence came to an end after David and his wife, Linda, read the Unabomber's manifesto in the Washington Post and reported their suspicions to the FBI.

The presentation was held at the Congregation Adath Israel synagogue with the gracious blessing of Rabbi Shaul Praver. Rabbi Praver has been holding many such presentations, and has served his community with remarkable, life-affirming poise and steadfastness. Upon introducing the panel speakers, Rabbi Praver spoke about how the truths contained in the great religious traditions all bore the fruit of humanity. This reminded me of the Buddhist saying that all dharmas (truths) converge, and thus point in the same direction. He was quite impressive in his wisdom, compassion, and recognition of the importance of the mind in reducing violence and achieving peace.

At the appointed time, I realized that the Congregation Adath Israel synagogue was packed to standing room only. I looked out among the faces of the community, which were welcoming and genial, yet understandably serious and concerned. A short while before, a community leader had informed me that “things were still raw,” and so I felt some trepidation. Fortunately, Lama Kathy, Lama Tsultrim, and David Kaczynski all spoke before me. The perspectives they shared were extremely well received by the audience and focused on healing from emotional trauma, finding meaning, and ultimately spreading kindness and compassion toward others.

All of us thought it best to begin our talks with a personal reflection on some of the meaningful reasons that we found ourselves before the Newtown community that day, and then speak from our various disciplines about healing from trauma. I began by acknowledging that the Sandy Hook Promise states: “Our hearts are broken, but our spirit is not,” and how humbled I was by this. I felt compelled to relate that it was amazing that all across the country, and indeed the world, the people of Newtown are revered. They have demonstrated the Buddhist ideal of opening their hearts and minds, dealing with fear and working toward peace.

Part of the Sandy Hook Promise mission is to help the community heal, and so the psychiatrist in me wanted to share some of what is known about this vital task from a mental health viewpoint. Although there is not yet strong scientific data to support the notion that community support improves well-being in the wake of a mass tragedy, anecdotal observation, expert consensus, and common sense suggest a role.3 Thus, I spoke about how mass trauma survivors appear to cope early on by cultivating the following:

(1) a sense of safety
(2) a sense of calm
(3) a sense of personal and community efficacy
(4) feelings of social connectedness
(5) a realistic sense of optimism

These key coping efforts had been demonstrated by the Norwegian community not even a year and a half before the Sandy Hook tragedy.4

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