“We must love one another or die.“ -W. H. Auden
A near tragedy was averted by love this week in a Georgia elementary school when the school’s bookkeeper was able to connect with love to a troubled, angry, lonely young man who could no longer bear the weight of being unloved. He arrived with a loaded gun and enough additional ammunition to kill everyone in his path. He was accustomed to being rejected, even by his family and no doubt was surprised that someone would react with something other than fear upon seeing him. Antoinette Tuff’s calm presence engaged him with personal stories of her own loss and disarmed him by including him. The shooter, a young man of 20, was ready to die and wanted to take as many people as possible with him. When he admitted “no one loved him” she replied earnestly that “she loved him and was proud of him…” Afterwards, when she was asked how she was able to respond with love, she said, “That wasn’t me; that was God.” Certainly meeting fear with love and acceptance is at the foundation of all spiritual teaching.
Maintaining our composure and responding with love to situations and people who frighten, annoy or disgust us is a challenge that deserves more of our attention. Not just because violence is becoming more prevalent, but because we all need more love. We renew the national dialogue about the consequences of this specific mental illness of loneliness, isolation and unworthiness each time these experiences turn into suicidal self-loathing and violent rampages where murder is the only way for these young men to share their pain. The cure is not arming schools; it is, as Antoinette showed us, more connection and more love.
This experience of being unloved is widespread. I still remember my surprise when I heard a talk by Pema Chodron a few years ago and learned how many people in the room struggled to find a single person in their lives who they felt loved them unconditionally. This is not unusual. This state of feeling unloved and unlovable is closely associated with the epidemic of chronic loneliness that increasingly characterizes our culture. In the past 30 years the number of people reporting being continually lonely has doubled from 20 to 40%. Chronic loneliness is associated with higher suicide rates, impaired healing after illness and injury, higher levels of sustained stress hormones impacting all aspects of health, poor sleep and often poor nutrition. Overall loneliness will kill you faster than obesity or even smoking. New research demonstrates how loneliness even impacts our genes.
This sense of disconnection coupled with a pervasive sense of unworthiness surprisingly lives in many homes, as well as for the homeless people on the street. This is true because it is the quality, not the quantity of our relationships that teach us how to connect and trust the value we bring to our lives. It is becoming increasingly clear that we can no longer afford to avert our eyes from the people standing outside the circle of our lives. In this digital world of quasi connection, it is tempting to believe that our text messages or Facebook posts are reaching out. But if we stop and look around us, in our own homes, in our work places, in the grocery store and decide to give our full attention to the people in front of us we will find plenty of opportunities to display the same courage of loving directly that Antoinette demonstrated at that elementary school in Georgia.
We all have the seed of courage that Antoinette shared with us and it shouldn’t take a possible massacre to get us to grow that part of who we are. We are the most social mammals that have ever walked this planet and the only thing that will save us is our God-given ability to love. Look around — there is someone right near you waiting for your heroic moment.