As the reality of the horror in Israel has slowly unfolded in recent days, I have repeatedly heard the plea, “Don’t look away.” It’s a rejoinder to the impulse to shield our eyes from the perverse and evil images we can’t conceive of and don’t wish to dwell on. The plea is well-founded. If the words “never again” have any meaning, we can’t look away from what is happening today. To respond to evil, we have to acknowledge it. We have to look at it.
Yet I also understand the impulse to look away — to attempt to guard our hearts and the hearts of those we love, especially of our children. One of my favorite poems, “Child” by Sylvia Plath, perfectly captures this:
Your clear eye is the one absolutely beautiful thing.
I want to fill it with color and ducks,
The zoo of the new
Whose name you meditate —
April snowdrop, Indian pipe,
Stalk without wrinkle,
Pool in which images
Should be grand and classical
Not this troublous
Wringing of hands, this dark
Ceiling without a star.
Published in 1963, the poem is about a parent’s love for a child and the desire to fill that child’s world with only beauty — with age-appropriate “color and ducks” and images “grand and classical.”
Yet the poem also aptly captures what so many of us are feeling about the state of the world today. It’s a “dark ceiling without a star,” a black hole of badness that leaves us helplessly wringing our hands, with no idea how we can help. As parents — or as anyone with responsibility for young people — we want to protect children from the evil closing in from every direction. We want to keep clear, innocent eyes clear and innocent for as long as we can.
Yet evil inevitably enters, and we have to deal with it. Whether the evil is big or small — whether it’s a bully in the schoolyard or a murderous terrorist organization in the Middle East — we have to tell our children the truth. The world is not all beautiful. Sometimes it’s downright grotesque.
Tend Your Own Garden
On Dec. 14, 2012, I was driving to pick up my daughter from college for Christmas break when I heard the news on the radio: A lone shooter had entered Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, and had shot 26 people — 20 children and six adults. Before driving to the school, the perpetrator had shot his own mother. In the aftermath of his murderous rampage, he shot and killed himself.
As the events of the morning were reported for hours on end and I was stuck in my car, driving, I couldn’t turn off the coverage. The horror and suffering were unimaginable. How could this happen?
Over the next few days, I found myself sinking into a state of shocked stupor, unable to think about much else, almost unable to function. I had a child not much older than the 6- and 7-year-olds who had been killed. I was glued to the news, following the nonstop updates, talking to friends and family about what had happened, and posting about it on social media.
Finally, a pastor friend of mine sent me a note. As a chaplain who provides spiritual care to those in extreme circumstances — first responders, members of the military, hospital patients and workers, the incarcerated and institutionalized — he has seen the worst and best of humanity. His gentle corrective for me was that empathy, while a good and human trait, can also be a liability.
If our empathy becomes obsession — if we become so consumed with things beyond our control that we are neglecting the things right in front of us — we are doing no one any good. It’s one thing to be aware of what’s happening. We should care and do what we can to help.
If, however, we don’t have the ability to provide immediate help, and we’ve done everything we personally can, we need to set the distant wildfire aside so we can prevent our own garden from igniting.
Find the Middle Road
A few days ago, I saw a rabbi named Eitiel Goldwicht on television talking about what to say to children following evil such as what we’ve witnessed this week. Goldwicht, who lives in Jerusalem with his wife and six children, had two main observations. First, he echoed the refrain often heard at times like this to “look for the heroes” — those people who exemplify the best of humanity rather than the worst. In their courage, love, and sacrifice, these heroes give us hope.
Second, Goldwicht said the terrorists attack in two ways: physical weapons and psychological weapons. The physical weapons are obvious and need no explanation; the psychological weapons are the terror, sadness, and hopelessness experienced by the victims of terror as well as, to a lesser degree, those watching from a distance. With every horrific livestream and news report, the reach of that horror is extended.
Though it’s difficult, we adults must face the evil first and then pinpoint when it’s time to look away. But children can’t do that. When my son was much younger, I shielded him from a pro-life march before he was ready to learn about the horrors of abortion. In the same way, it’s up to us to draw the line and keep our children from crossing it before they are ready.
Sometimes, for our own sanity and ability to carry on, we have to look away.
Indeed, the evil going on thousands of miles away matters. But the people who sleep and wake in our home, who depend on us for their room and board, who need us to show up for work and church and school and to speak words of comfort to them, are not served by our own minds and hearts living 24/7 somewhere else. It may be that to keep doing the things we need to do here, we sometimes need to look away, at least for a time, from what is going on there.
What we must never do, however, is forget.