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No place for anger…

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I don’t feel angry at Adam Lanza. I know that makes some of you cringe, but I don’t have room in my heart right now for anger. I’m too filled up with pain for the lives that were lost, admiration for the heroic acts of our nation’s teachers, guilt for not doing enough to keep things like this from happening, and fear for what the future may hold. If Adam Lanza were standing in front of me right now, I would wrap my arms around him and tell him I’m sorry.

Despite the crushing blow that we all feel, my optimism remains. I have not given up on us yet. The more awful the world becomes, the more frequent the nightmarish scenarios are, the more open to change we seem to be. Our grief can actually be meaningful if we use it as a catalyst. For something. Anything. But before we do all that, don’t we have to acknowledge that there’s a problem with our culture? We could destroy every gun in the world, and perfect our mental health system, and we will still be plagued by tragedies that no other generation has seen, because our culture is sick. People who are hurting will always find a way to hurt other people. But if we change the culture, we might have a chance.

We Americans are short-term thinkers. We ignore Adam Lanza, all of the Adam Lanzas, and then we are surprised when they strike back with a vengeance. We destroy our natural habitat, and then we are surprised when the rates of autism and asthma and cognitive disabilities skyrocket. We are complicit in building a violent culture from the complex military industry to the realistic video games to the television shows that won’t show a naked body but will show graphic bloody images, and then we are surprised when someone lashes out violently.

What makes these 20 children more valuable than the dozens we have lost this year to gun violence in America’s inner cities? What makes them more valuable than the Iraqi and Pakistani and Palestinian children that are murdered with our tax dollars on a daily basis? Is it because they were mostly White and affluent? Is it because this happened in a community that isn’t expected to be crushed by violence? Is it devastating because it’s a new, shocking method? Does it have to be a new and exciting death now to move us?

A long time ago we accepted the death of large numbers of children in order to maintain our lifestyle. In order to have modern advances. In order to have an industrial society. We have traded our babies for increased production and material wealth.We have traded our babies for a 2-car garage and a home with spare bedrooms. We have traded our babies for summer vacations and savings accounts.
Sometimes someone with a gun shoots them in their classroom. Sometimes our President kills them with drone attacks. Sometimes they kill each other on street corners and basketball courts. Sometimes their nanny kills them in a bathtub. Sometimes their mothers or fathers kill them. But we accept it and go to work the next day. We are sick people.

How many times have you walked past someone in need, someone in despair, someone mumbling to themselves in the subway, someone with eyes red from crying, a teenager having an angry outburst… and done nothing. Said nothing. That, my friends, was Adam Lanza. That was Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold. Those are the moments where we can save lives and prevent tragedies. Just by caring enough to get involved. Even though we are late for work. Even though we are tired. Even though we have our own problems.

The mental health debate is overdue, so I’m glad we’re talking about it. But we still aren’t really having THE conversation. Yes, adolescents need better psych evaluations, more often. And when we know there’s a concern, we need to address it, and treat it, without any financial barriers. But are we ready to have the honest mental health conversation? Do we only talk about the adolescents or do we talk about the adults too? The tens of millions of Americans that take xanax or ambien or valium or prozac to survive this world that we have created. Too many people are unhappy. Most of those unhappy people are raising children. And yet we manage to be shocked when that misery manifests itself. When half of all American adults are prescribed anti-depressants, sleeping pills, mood enhancers.. and the ones that aren’t find comfort in self-medicating drugs and alcohol, including sugar, nicotine, and caffeine, we have to see the entire society as mentally unstable. So what were you saying about “those” mentally ill people again?

We’re finally talking about Autism. We are talking about better treatment for children with disabilities. We are talking about earlier diagnosis of children with disabilities. We are talking about destigmatizing children with disabilities. And that’s all good stuff. But what we don’t talk about is the only thing that really matters. Why are so many more children born with disabilities? Why is one out of every 30 American boys born with autism or other developmental anomalies?  When something tragic happens in our towns, we don’t connect it to the destruction of our environment. We don’t connect it to the mental health of the children who are breathing this air, eating the synthetic food, drinking the chemical laden water. It’s as if we have just accepted this lifestyle and whatever collateral damage it may cause it’s all worth it.

We don’t take the time and energy to do anything that really matters. Our contribution to saving the world is recycling. We use (and waste!) plastic and rubber and oil regardless of the effect that it has on the rest of the world. If you knew that 20 children died every day as a side effect of your usage of oil, water, gold, diamonds, rubber, technology, cotton….. would you stop? Honestly?

We are one large organism that has forgotten we are connected. We would like to be removed from each other so we pretend that we actually are. We pretend that walking past homeless and hungry people on the street won’t catch up with us one day. We pretend that living comfortable lives of world travel and luxury, while babies die from malnutrition, won’t catch up with us one day. We pretend that chickens don’t come home to roost.

So, these are our choices as I see them; either a) we really, truly don’t care. We want to live this lifestyle more than we want anything else. If that’s the decision then we just need to remember that when horrific things happen. Remember that we chose this. And hope that we are personally spared by the luck of the draw or the grace of God. Or, b) we really do care, and we need to make a u-turn. We need to dramatically alter our lifestyle in order to be able to say we did whatever we could to prevent the slaughter of our children. We need to stop consuming by any means and without any conscience. We need to treat strangers the way we treat our own family members and sacrifice for their well-being. We need to show our kids how to live, instead of preaching one thing and doing another. We can’t convince them to be kind and caring to others, and then walk down city streets with them stepping around  homeless and hungry people. We can’t convince them that we all love one another, that we all love all children, when some live in poverty and some live with excess. They don’t believe us. And when they find out we have been lying to them all this time, they are going to be very angry.

Each time we face a national tragedy we manage to find some ‘other’ to point the finger at. Those with autism, those with personality disorders, those with too much aggression, those with bad parents, those with too many guns. We try to choose an ‘other’ as far away from ourselves as possible. Adam Lanza couldn’t be my child because my child is not mentally ill. My child is female. My child is not autistic. My home doesn’t have guns. At some point we have to take some personal responsibility for the world the way it is. This is the best wake up call we are ever going to get. If you don’t hear this one you are just not listening. Life wasn’t always this way. I don’t believe it has to be this way. But if living this lifestyle is the most important thing to you, then you will have to accept the death of many children- maybe yours.

The first step- the only step- is to stop placing blame anywhere but on ourselves.

Jessica Alfreds is a Chef, Caterer, and Event Planner based in New York City. She is currently working on her first cookbook, teaching herself how to sew, and attempting to live a purposeful life. Jessica is a 3rd generation New Yorker and currently resides in the East Village. Visit jessicaalfreds.com.

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