Editor’s Note: Rethinking Everything is a Pioneering Partner with Kindred, and Teresa Graham Brett is Kindred’s editor. Read Kindred’s original post about School Shootings and Communal Healing here and on Lisa Reagan’s LinkedIn blog.
A Journey Of Healing
I just returned from the Rethinking Everything (RE) Conference yesterday. I thought I had come to facilitate others’ processes, but I discovered on my final evening that I was there for my own healing.
Throughout my last day at RE, numerous people asked me, what is the Community Healing session tonight about?
Honestly, I really didn’t know the purpose. I could explain the extent of what I understood. There were several of us on the panel and we were to tell our stories of grief and community healing before we went to the labyrinth on the Ferncliff property.
I said those words to people without really knowing what I was going to say and without fully understanding the impact that the evening would have on me.
I felt this internal tension as I went through that day. It was my final full day at RE. I had been away from the family. Tiredness and a longing to go home had set in. And, I had no idea what I would say when I stood before the microphone in the auditorium.
Our first speaker that night was David Gill, director of the Ferncliff Camp. Ferncliff is the neighboring property of the retreat site where RE was being held this year. I was sitting next to Jen Lemen, who started a project called Hopeful World. Jen was another speaker on our panel.
Jen and I had just met. We looked at each other and admitted that we had no idea what we were going to say.
We argued (playfully and not so playfully) about who was going to speak after David, each of us trying to claim the final spot. Each hoping we would have more time to figure out what was going to come out of our mouths.
Then David began to speak and tell the story of the children, the students who had come to Ferncliff after the school shooting in Jonesboro, Arkansas in 1998.
He shared the pain of the families and students, and went on to tell the story of healing that occurred at the camp when the students came together. The camp went on for 5 more years until the group of middle school students from Jonesboro had graduated.
But in those intervening years, and beyond, there were more tragedies, shootings, and violence. Young people from Columbine, Conyers, Bosnia (both Muslim and Christian), New York, Los Angeles, all kept coming to Ferncliff for healing.
David’s story of Ferncliff and the work of the camp touched me deep in my soul.
Then David went on to tell us of the labyrinth.
I had never walked a labyrinth.
And honestly, I didn’t even know if I wanted to make the trek out to Ferncliff after the session to walk the labyrinth.
Here is the short version of the Ferncliff labyrinth.
It was one summer after students experienced deep healing from walking a borrowed portable labyrinth, that plans took shape to raise money to build a permanent labryrinth at Ferncliff Camp.
In the summer of 2001, a 52’ diameter Chartres labyrinth was built by the students attending the next camp at Ferncliff. A rock was brought from the Westside School. Another was brought from Columbine. A few others came from other sites and were set in the middle as the labyrinth was completed, dedicated and walked.
As I was immersed in this powerful story, I began to feel the weight of all of the loss and pain that had touched those who came to Ferncliff.
And I felt the weight of grief from the losses that had touched me in my life.
As David finished, I said to Jen I am ready, I will go next. I knew that I did have a message of community healing to share. I had a purpose for being on that stage that perhaps only Kevin Sabourin, the RE organizer, had envisioned.
I remember through the year prior to RE, Kevin and I spoke numerous times. Each time he presented new ideas and thoughts about what role I would play.
Each time we conversed, his vision of my role would shift. It was challenging and exciting to just see what Kevin would come up with next.
I decided that I just needed to let go of knowing what I would do. I kept saying to Kevin as he presented each idea, I am of service to the vision of RE and I will do what you need me to do. Just let me know.
Even up to the last few days before I left, I knew little of when and where I would speak.
I let go of control and decided I needed to trust the process, or at least pretend I was trusting the process.
But I was scared.
At one point in an early conversation, Kevin said this to me on the phone, “Sometimes the most powerful things come when we set aside the script and speak from our heart without knowing where we are going. We just take that leap.”
I was taking the leap as I walked up the stairs to the stage. But I was no longer scared.
I stood before the microphone and felt graced by the work Ferncliff was doing. I thanked David for sharing that powerful story. And I went on to share what was in my heart.
I don’t remember the words exactly. But, it went something like this:
Each day we have an opportunity to hold some small space for others who are in pain. We have the chance to make a difference. We do not have to wait until there is a shooting or some tragedy to create humanity, justice, and kindness around us.
When we make the choice to truly see another human being, to listen deeply to their story, to be present with them without judgment, we have the opportunity to create healing.
But this healing is not just for the other person. It is our own healing.
Because we too, have been harmed, hurt, and judged.
We experience that same pain.
When we look at another person with whom we are in conflict, and choose to see their pain, when we see can see ourselves in our “enemies,” we have an opportunity to connect beyond the differences that divide us.
We can know that we have a purpose in each moment. To create healing is to create justice in the lives of others, everyday.
And perhaps if we can create that deep connection everyday with ourselves and with others, we can begin to create that world where each person is valued, heard, and seen.
We can begin to bridge that which divides us.
The tragedies that are public, are the accumulation of the small (and big) daily tragedies and hurts that we each experience when we are not seen, heard, and valued by others.
And as we begin to make those deep connections and hold space for each others’ experiences and pain, the burden becomes a little bit less for each of us.
And the pain that drives us to hurt one another becomes a little bit less each day. Each time we see, hear, and acknowledge the humanity within each of us, we lessen and heal that pain.
After I spoke, I sat down.
Jen took her turn at the microphone. She looked at me and said I do not know your story, because you didn’t tell it. But only someone who has been in that despair and has come through it can say what you did.
The tears began to flow freely down my cheeks. I felt deep grief welling up and pouring out.
It was then that I realized that I wasn’t speaking just for myself.
In my heart I held the stories, the grief, and the pain of all of those families I had worked with throughout the last 6 years of my time as a university administrator.
This was the pain and sorrow of mothers, fathers, friends, brothers, and sisters of students at our universities who had died, or were killed, or who had committed violence against others.
Each of those families and individuals carried unimaginable pain and sorrow.
It was in my role, and that of the staff I was privileged to work with, to serve those families when they were in deepest need.
Although I didn’t know it in that moment when the tears came and my voice broke in front of the microphone, I spoke for all those individuals, really all of us, who have experienced that pain.
And as we seek to make sense of the loss we experience, we are also given the opportunity to make sense of our life.
Our community healing session ended and we began to gather for the walk to the labyrinth.
I knew I must go.
I started to walk with the group, but my pace picked up. I was urged from within by a need to go as fast as I could to get to the labyrinth.
When I reached the labyrinth, I paused and I took a deep breath.
I stepped into the stone path.
Step by step I walked.
When I got the center, I set my intention to release what I had carried with me.
It was time for me, after 8 years of having closed the box on the pain of those families, to let it go.
I began to walk that path out of the labyrinth, slowly, deliberately, bathed in the light of the torches.
The music of the flute and sound of the healing bowls were supporting my journey.
The sounds and presence of others deeply immersed in their own experience were around me.
It was paradoxically a private space of healing, that became a communal space I was sharing with others, without my having to say a word to someone else.
And as I took each step, I felt the power of that space.
The power it had to allow me to release what I had carried for others, that I no longer needed to hold.
I came to RE for others, but I found a place for myself to rest in those moments while in the labyrinth.
I am grateful for so many things from this experience.
I am grateful for those who shared that sacred healing space.
I am grateful to those families who allowed me to serve them and carry some very small piece of their burden when their children, our students, died.
I am grateful for both the pain and joy I have experienced in my life. For both the joy and the pain serve the greater purpose of my ability to be present to all that life offers me.
I am grateful for a vision that was shared by those at Ferncliff, and by those who created the space at RE.
And I am grateful to those who join me on this journey in believing that through a willingness to envision a different world and take the risks needed to move toward that vision, we can create the change that serves the humanity in all of us.