Leaning In

The student vigil at UCSB was beautiful Saturday night.  

It was a hurriedly organized, somewhat spontaneous even, event.  I would never have known about it if I hadn’t gotten a call at church, asking if we would donate candles for the event.  The caller gave his name and claimed to be with UCSB, but wouldn’t indicate in what capacity.  I was given another name and phone number of someone who would come and collect the candles.
It was before I hung up that I knew I would be taking the candles out myself.  I don’t process in groups.  I’m apparently not wired for that sort of experience at an emotional level.  But I wanted to be there for the community.  Because even if I don’t live there or go to school there it’s still part of my community.  
I grabbed a bag full of candles, threw my clerical on with my jeans and much-loved sandles and headed to Isla Vista.  It wasn’t hard to figure out where it was starting.  People were streaming onto the campus.  
Thousands of people – students, staff & administration members of the Isla Vista community – all gathered together in a large square at the center of campus underneath the imposing tower that flies high above the other campus buildings.  Candles were handed out.  Student leaders welcomed everyone, thanking us for gathering together to show support.  The candles were lit.  An acapella group sang Amazing Grace, and we marched in silence into Isla Vista where the massacre took place Friday night.  

We eventually filled a small park and natural amphitheater.  People were crammed together on the grass and standing along the borders.  I was pressed up against the outer fence, where I had a perfect view of the assembly thanks to the trash can in front of me that prevented others from standing there.  At the opposite end of the park was the stage.  It was brightly lit with just a single microphone on a stand.  The student leaders again welcomed us and thanked us for being there and then left the mic open for whoever wanted to talk.  No agenda.  No message.  
Perhaps 5000 people most of them college age, sat on the grass with their candles, staring at that stage.  The UCSB Chancellor spoke, and then a random assortment of people.  They shared poems, anecdotes about some of the deceased.  There were encouragements to the assembled people, efforts to help them process and cope and move on.  We aren’t like him.  The good people outnumber the bad people of this world.  Lean on one another.  Our community saves us.
I wished I wasn’t hemmed in by people on the opposite side of the park and stage.  I had been waiting for an hour now for someone to step forward to speak.  To speak with authority.  To offer some sort of real hope.  
Ahhh, but this is the twenty first century.  We’re postmoderns now.  We don’t believe in authority.  We don’t trust it.  We don’t believe in truth.  Truth is in ourselves.  Truth is what we claim it to be.  Experience is everything.  
But I believe that for the span of a few hours Saturday night, people might have listened.  Might have considered.  Might have gone away with something real to ponder and chew on.  
We are like him.  Every one of us.  Every one of us has contemplated at least briefly revenge.  Every one of us knows the pangs of loneliness, knows the ragged edges of desperation in one way or another.  We know heartache and disillusion, and we are no stranger to the voices that whisper from those cliffs, encouraging, soothing us with illusions of solutions that multiply misery.  Every one of us has the anger and outrage that fueled that young man.  We are like him.  We are not better.
And as such we’re in real trouble because the bad people outnumber the good people in this world by 99.9999999999999999999999999999999999999999999%.  Only be narrowly defining good to be what we do, and excluding our emotions and thoughts and temptations can we even begin to believe that we might sometimes be good.  It’s a shallow goodness though, more dependent on our mood and whether we just had a good meal or not.  It’s a transitory good, a good of convenience most often, a thin veneer over raging selfishness.
We may not act on our impulses, and that is a limited sort of good.  The limited sort of good that society depends on to survive.  We differ from the shooter in that for whatever reasons we turn away from those whispers at the cliff edge.  Again, most likely out of selfishness.  Out of a persistent hope that things will get better, however bleak they may be right now.  
We can lean on one another but we will fail one another.  There were plenty of affirmations of what a loving and open and helpful and kind community surrounds and encompasses the university.  I hope that it’s true at one level or another.  But it obviously isn’t perfectly true.  This one person felt excluded.  Unwelcomed.  Misunderstood.  Community can’t save us.  Regulations can’t save us.  Authority can’t save us.
We have to be transformed, and no matter how good the intentions of academics and policy makers, they can’t transform.  No pill or therapy can transform. We can only medicate, only treat symptoms, only dull the edges of pain and desperation.  Only God can transform.  Only God can give real hope that lies beyond the all-too-immediate limitations of our selfish natures.
I wish I had been closer to the podium.  I wish I had been braver and stronger.  To speak a word of Truth, not just an opinion or an idle wish.  To speak the Word of hope because those thousands of people desperately needed hope.  And very quickly, as the speakers came and went, those thousands of people (myself included) started filtering away into the night.  Candles exhausted.  Fingers numb from melted wax.  With no fewer questions than when we arrived, no more answers.  Just the reminder that our culture no longer has anything to offer in these moments other than to lean on one another for support.
Until the next time.  
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