Sunday, January 16, 2011

Tucson and the Quest for Meaning

One of the byproducts of the phenomenon I explored yesterday in which we try to find patterns and causes when something awful happens is that many people become glued to various types of coverage.  There are people who read everything we can about the shooter, others who follow the recovery of the injured closely, and others who become obsessed with the funerals and memorial services.  When we do this, we are not just looking for patterns, we are looking for meaning.  We want this event to mean something.  We want to find the positive, and with it to find some comfort.

It is this phenomenon that caused the largest flag recovered from the World Trade Center to be displayed at the funeral of Christina Taylor Green, who was born on September 11, 2001 and died last Saturday in the shooting.  Scientifically, we know that the date of her birth is a coincidence that has nothing to do either with her death or with the terrorist attacks that occurred that day.  And yet, this particular false pattern gives us a sense of meaning.  It embodies the sadness and horror that we feel in a concrete way that perhaps has eluded us beforehand. 

There are other ways to search for meaning in this tragedy.  Fred Rogers of Mr. Rogers fame once said,
When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, "Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping."
In that vein, I find meaning in the actions of Daniel Hernandez, a college student and intern for Representative Giffords who, as everyone ran away from the shots, ran towards the wounded and propped up Giffords and tried to stop the bleeding, probably saving her life.  I also find meaning in the fact that, in a conservative state with serious controversy over Latino immigration, he is gay and Latino. 

At the memorial service for those who were killed, Hernandez, speaking extemporaneously, said that he is not a hero, and urged us to honor the first responders at the scene with that title. I don't know what the word "hero" means anymore, since people list professional athletes as their "heroes" all the time.  But it seems to me that Hernandez, the first responders, those who tackled the gunman, those who tried to shield others with their bodies, and probably many others deserve to be called heroes in some way.  In my search for meaning, I look for the helpers.

I recently encountered a children's book entitled, The Moon Came Down on Milk Street by Jean Gralley.  It was written for children in New York after 9-11. It tells, in simple verse and lovely pictures, the story of the day the moon fell from the sky onto the street.  Everyone was frightened and wondered how things could ever be right again.  Then the first responders arrived and carefully worked together to put the moon back up in the sky.  I encourage you to buy it for your kids, for the next time you pass a traffic accident or see something horrible on the news.  I also encourage you to buy it for yourself, as a gentle reminder, at moments like these, to look for the helpers.*

* For the record, I do not know Jean Gralley and have no personal connection to this book.  I just think it's awesome.


Alan said...

Thanks, Naomi... I needed that. I appreciate your words being a positive influence in my life.

Nance said...

The need for narrative. Funny, I should click on your link today; I sat down to contemplate writing a post on that need we share, and wound up here. What we have to say will be different, but we are paying homage to that universal need for a reason: stories somehow heal.

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Naomi Zikmund-Fisher
is a clinical social worker, former school Principal and a Crisis Consultant for schools and community organizations. You can learn more about her at
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