“That which is not felt by the criminal is his own crime. That which is felt by the innocent is his own innocence.” –Simone Weil, Gravity and Grace
What I know about innocence, I have learned from my children. Whenever we smile at William, he smiles back. Even when he’s crying, he smiles. And, he’s not unique in this regard. I get three or four smiles from his baby buds Collin, Kara, and Kerry when I drop him off for day care. With some, you have to work a little harder, but all babies are capable of reflecting our emotions. It is instinctive to empathize. To empathize is to survive. I think babies are capable of the most empathy because they have the most to lose.
When they say he was, like so many of the others, a young white male from the suburbs who was socially awkward and reclusive, what I hear in that description isn’t anger or frustration or hatred. What I hear is the more pernicious root of all evil—the total absence of any feeling at all. I think you stop feeling when you believe you have nothing left to lose.
It is so haunting, that the Mayans might be right. This might be what the end of the world feels like. Who knew chaos was the total collapse of understanding? Who knew chaos was something that happened on the inside?
I stopped crying today to dance with William to the song “One Day”. Last Thursday, Aaron had his first music program at the elementary school where he works, and his choir performed this song. His school is one of the poorest in Tallahassee. Most of the kids don’t have a regular bus schedule because they never know if they’re being dropped off at home, mom’s work, grandma’s, or their neighbor’s house. Or, they’re at school from 7:30 a.m. until 7:30 p.m. because of their parent’s work schedule. They’re a rough group. Two five-year-olds were strangling each other in the hall last week; the kids are always stealing musical instruments from Aaron’s classroom. But, twenty or so of these students come to Aaron’s room before school starts for choir rehearsal. At the performance, these students belted the lyrics:
“Sometimes I lay
under the moon
and thank God I’m breathing
then I pray
don’t take me soon
cause I am here for a reason
sometimes in my tears I drown
but I never let it get me down
so when negativity surrounds
I know some day it’ll all turn around
all my life I’ve been waiting for
I’ve been praying for
for the people to say
that we don’t wanna fight no more
there’ll be no more wars
and our children will play
The audience started clapping on two and four, and Aaron’s guitar dropped off so all you could hear were the raw, innocent voices of the children. All you could hear was the sound of children feeling. When they finished, their parents and godparents and grandparents roared.
From gun control to media censorship to a renewed commitment to mental health, we are all aching to fix it. We are making private and public resolutions. For now, mine is pretty simple—to feel it. And, to smile at my babies more, and to do what I can to make sure that no matter what forces tug at their innocence, that they always know how to smile back.