We know the story, but we've stopped talking about it, and that's a shame: on August 21, Michael Brandon Hill, 20, walked into the Ronald E. McNair Learning Discovery Center, an elementary school outside of Atlanta.
He was at the end of his rope.
He also had an AK-47 with him and 500 rounds of ammunition.
But then Mr. Hill met Antoinette Tuff, a school clerk in the front office. Ms. Tuff was unarmed, and she stopped Mr. Hill in his tracks.
How did she do that?
She told him she loved him. (Listen to the full 911 tape here.)
With guns on everybody's mind now, Ms. Tuff received some attention. You can't listen to these tapes without realizing that she is an extraordinary woman, cool under pressure, compassionate, and just the kind of person you'd want in just this kind of situation.
And you can't over-estimate the importance of what Ms. Tuff did.
As it turns out, these events were unfolding as I was reading a book on meditation. The book was Mindfulness in Plain English, by Bhante Gunaratana, and although I had read it many times, I was reading it again with new eyes. Sometimes that happens with great books, right? At any rate, here is the passage that I was reading as the news from Georgia broke on my Twitter feed:
Compassion leads us to appropriate action; and the appropriate, compassionate action is just the pure, heartfelt hope that the pain stop and the child not suffer.
Clearly, Ms. Tuff's compassion for Mr. Hill had led her to appropriate action. As readers of this blog know, I have an interest in nonviolence, and I believe that nonviolence might provide a solution to a few of the problems that currently confront us, so here, then, in the person of Ms. Tuff, was nonviolence in action, and the action had worked. She was a gift, of sorts, not only to me–least of all to me–but to the folks in the Ronald McNair Learning Discovery Center. And to Mr. Hill as well.
Naturally, a few observations occurred to me, and I thought I would share them with you:
- What if Ms. Tuff had had a gun? Best case scenario, one troubled young man would now be dead, and most likely even more would have died. Instead, no one is dead, and the young man in question is receiving the help he needs. This is the height of civility; this is imminently possible; and this should be the goal to which we all aspire.
- Ms. Tuff's actions remind us that we can, in fact, trust and exercise compassion and concern for others as we work to build a better, more peaceful community; she showed us that we do not always have to indulge fear and paranoia as a call to arms. She reminded us that we do not have to label those who are in need of love and compassion as crazy and unredeemable. She embarrassed Wayne LaPierre at the NRA.
- I know nothing of Ms. Tuff's spiritual tradition, although I assume from her comments that she is Christian. I do know, however, that compassion and altruism can be trained as clearly and forcefully as marksmanship and armed self-defense, and the results are equally impressive. I know, furthermore, that compassion and altruism are, at times, just as effective as armed resistance in maintaining the peaceful community that we all desire. And I know that compassion and nonviolence were native to Christ's message, and that Ms. Tuff embodied this message powerfully and gracefully. Remember: no one died in this armed attack.
- I am not naive. I understand that telling Adam Lanza we loved him once he arrived at Sandy Hook Elementary would not have stopped him from his rampage. But perhaps had he grown up in a culture more aligned with the virtues articulated and practiced in the book that I was reading, a culture founded on nonviolence and mutual concern for each other's welfare very much like the one Ms. Tuff embodied, then perhaps Lanza's pain would have been less likely to take its final and devastating form. Perhaps Ms. Tuff's love, her compassionate action, represents that ounce of prevention we've been trying to find recently.
- Finally, I believe that Ms. Tuff has shown us that solving the gun problem in America requires, at least, a diversity of approaches, and that the moment we begin to focus on one approach alone, as the NRA would have us do, the moment that we begin to believe that we solve the gun problem by adding more guns to the already volative and deadly mixture, then we have missed an opportunity to create the kind of loving community that eschews paranoia and suspicion and embraces trust and mutual respect. A community that ennobles all of us.
Ms. Tuff has shown us, in fact, the ideal for which we all should be striving. While we understand that gun-violence remains an estimable part of our daily lives—and more so in America than in other developed nations—Ms. Tuff has demonstrated that love and compassion must also be part of our arsenal, and that we must learn to use these very human resources wisely and immediately.
The moment we begin to discriminate, deciding who deserves love and compassion and who does not, the very second that we begin those deliberations, we are creating the violence within ourselves that we wish to extinguish elsewhere. And that seems a backwards way to be proceeding.
Thanks, Ms. Tuff, for the timely reminder—the message you bring is millennia old.