The Orlando massacre is behind us. Sort of.
Details have emerged; others have been obscured. Funerals came and went. Some of our Senators undertook a filibuster; others cowered. And more stories are emerging to take Orlando's place in the news cycle.
Perhaps there will be a vote on a newly drafted bill to help make our country safer, to help move us toward a safer Union.
I don't know, and I don't care, in this sense: whether or not we have a vote, whether or not the Orlando massacre precipitates real and immediate change in our laws, I will continue to do what I have been doing now for a few years.
I will raise awareness about violence in American life. I will do it however I can—through my classes, through social media, through conversation, through blogs, through essays, through bearing witness, even through being slightly annoying and predictable—and I will not become mired in the peaks and valleys of defeat and success.
And for those of you who agree with me that violence in American life—you can define the term however you wish—is one of our country's most pressing issues, I am calling on you to do the same thing.
Each one of us can't do much alone, but if we work simultaneously at whatever draws us into this struggle, and work at our own pace, at a pace we can handle, things will begin to change.
I feel particularly emboldened today because I read an interview with Evan Wolfson, one of marriage-equality's long-term activists; he provided advice on how we might carry out our own campaign over the long haul in the face of so many defeats, setbacks, and slaughters.
To summarize his profound advice in two words: never quit. Just don't stop. Just keep going. What else is there to do?
If you haven't read it, and if you're concerned about how we bring commonsense gun control to a country seemingly bent on slaughtering itself, you must read it.
I've read it three times, bookmarked it, and will return to it often.
I was also reading Susan Sontag's obituary on Roland Barthes this morning, when one of her surgical assessments of the man leapt off the page: "It was characteristic that he hoped to find a source of strength in his devastating grief."
There it was. The headline for the Orlando slaughter, and for all of the slaughters that have become characteristic of American life: strength from grief.
Grief, of course, is both a public and a private commodity. In the wake of a tragedy of Orlando's magnitude, grief overwhelms partly because it assumes such an indiscriminately public face. It arrives in waves. We cannot avoid it. It saturates every news outlet, every social platform, every photograph.
And those who belong to one of the families or communities—LGBTQ, Latino—that were victims of the attack must now confront the insidiously private grief, the invisible, destructive force that lies too deeply buried for those news outlets, for those social platforms, for those photographs.
Grief at this level is imageless and coercive. I have no experience of this kind of loss. And yet I know from my Tibetan friends who have survived torture, exile, and decades of imprisonment, that the fundamental teachings on compassion can exorcise grief and render it into a powerful, transformational tool.
While I would never presume to speak for another's sorrow, particularly for the communities close to the Orlando attack, I have continually since the Orlando shooting remembered the several hours I spent with Palden Gyatso (part of whose remarkable story you can read here) over the course of two interviews separated by several years. I was with my students who had traveled to India with me to help on our Tibetan oral history project, the TEXT Program, and our questions inevitably veered toward Gyatso's time in Chinese prisons and labor camps.
He had clearly suffered, and he clearly bore the scars, both physical and psychological, of his years spent in internment, but he never let himself entertain the idea of revenge as anything more than yet another destructive idea. He worked hard, through prayer, meditation, and analysis, to see revenge and hatred as choices, choices that he trained himself to recognize before they overtook him, and then, having recognized them, to pair them with other more accommodating notions, like gratitude and forgiveness. Slowly, he claimed, revenge and hatred would always yield their position to gratitude and forgiveness.
He was still alive, he daily reminded himself, he still had a functioning mind, and he would use it to create positive emotions for as long as he could each day—that was the essence of his testimony. I will never forget it.
And then he would sleep, and get up, and do it again.
We all can agree on this: preserving such an attitude is the very least that we can do.
Because it turns out that if we attempt to maintain this attitude every day, to undertake this act of transformation, it is the very most that we can do because the transformation of grief and hardship into life-nourishing conditions always fosters stronger, more loving communities.
And these communities are the first line of defense agains mass-shootings.
These built communities will also cultivate a sense of integrity and compassion that we begin to direct toward ourselves. And, then, authentic, personal healing begins.
This, of course, is one of the founding ideas of monasteries and convents—draw together a group of people dedicated to finding compassion and tolerance within themselves, and a like-minded community will arise from it. But we can, and must, fashion similar communities within the secular arena too because they are vitally effective in bringing about the social changes that we seek. Of course, the LGBTQ communities, along with others, have been doing this for a very long time in a country that has made life for them harsh and unforgiving.
The many gun-violence prevention groups that we see in America now are also building communities, although for very different reasons and with different motivations—they are life-saving communities, however, given to healing our country of its wounds.
Gyatso indicated, after the interview was over, that these destructive ideas, wherever they appear, must be resisted and transformed within ourselves because if we don't, they will build within us the foundations for a community based on hatred.
And like a disease, if these violent ideas aren't actively resisted, and transformed, they will spread. But he also said that while grief can be seen as destructive, it can also serve as a harbinger, an emotional cipher that something deeply disruptive has occurred, oftentimes within the community, and that our normal daily responses to sadness and deprivation will no longer suffice.
So grief, in this sense, becomes an urgent call for community—for those who are suffering the most to seek out their community on their own terms, in their own time; and for those who have been less immediately, less imposingly affected to supply a complimentary community in ways both direct and indirect, a community that will lend support whenever those who have suffered a national tragedy need a deeper, more broadly based support.
By gradually coming to see grief as a call to action, we can, to return to Sontag, transform grief into strength. Into the strength that rises from a grieving community and returns to rebuild that community by bringing compassion and forgiveness for everyone. This will take time, and patience becomes an essential ingredient as time passes and the work of healing progresses slowly, but these are the building blocks of real community.
We do this together, then, or we don't do it at all.