Tuesday, April 20, 2004, marked the passage of five years since the mayhem that interrupted life at Columbine in Littleton, Colorado, and injected massive fear into the hearts of students and parents everywhere.
I hesitate to call it an anniversary, because the word anniversary evokes in me the idea of happy memories filled with positive emotions. But the dictionary definition argues with my belief. The prime definition of anniversary is – the annual recurrence of a date marking a notable event, so I stand corrected – but not happily so. The second definition is – the celebration of an anniversary. The use of the word celebration is precisely why I prefer to use a word other than anniversary. My memories of the events of Columbine on that fateful date are no cause for celebration.
For most Americans, Columbine is a distant memory. We are inundated with the drama of daily life, making a living and making time for all the relationships that are important to us. At the same time, we are besieged with constant news of the fierce firefights in Iraq, and the staccato blare of political sniping going on at home in the political arena. And, there is the ever-present backdrop of the potential for the terrorist alerts to be upgraded in color code.
In retrospect, Columbine was a terrorist act. It had been an undeclared and unnoticed war by a very unsovereign nation of two jaded young men. When it imploded, it changed our lives and perceptions forever. As shocked and staggered as we were two and a half years later on September 11, Columbine stands now as a fore shock of things to come - unexpected, out of the blue - with no way to imagine or know what stood in store.
As the recent 9/11 Commission hearings indicate, we have spent a lot of time and energy trying to understand how such an event could have escaped advance detection and avoidance. There have been parallel commissions attempting to help us identify potential youths like Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold so we can ensure that there will never be another Columbine.
Can we create a perfect world that would intercept all acts of evil? Clearly no. Is it a little bit naïve to spend so much energy trying to find a culprit, a causal link, that once found would make future mayhem impossible? Probably.
As a society, we will always seek rational, intellectual explanations for the horrific events that tear at the fabric of our society. But the underlying issue is the emotions caused by the deaths themselves, and not how the deaths happened.
Some people get so mired in looking at the cause of the loss that they miss the essential issue – the loss itself. One of the most awkward questions we often have to ask the people we help is, “Would you miss him any less if he’d died some other way?” The obvious and only answer is “No!” Yet we persist in getting caught up in the cause of the death rather than the fact of the death.
Simply put, the cause of death is intellectual - the fact that someone we love dies is emotional for us. We have been socialized to intellectualize our feelings with the constant refrain contained in phrases like, “Don’t feel bad, she’s in a better place.” Maybe and hopefully the person who died is in a better place, but those of us who are left behind are not.
Loss is inevitable and unavoidable. The key to life lies in our ability to deal effectively with the emotions that are caused by those inescapable losses. If we would spend as much time learning how to help ourselves and those we love deal with the emotions of loss, as we do investigating the causes, we would do ourselves a great service.