A few weeks ago the girl went for a walk with our neighbor and her daughter and their puppy. (We have put a moratorium on the addition of new animals to our household, so she takes opportunities where she can get them.) As soon as she got back to our yard she told me I needed to come with her immediately, she had to show me something right away. I corralled the boy and we proceeded to walk down the same sidewalk from which she had just returned. I watched her from the corner of my eye–she was scouring the ground for something, and then suddenly she threw her arm out to stop me, like a mom slamming on brakes in traffic. “There,” she said ominously, and immediately the hair stood up on the back of my neck. Curled awkwardly like some kind of reptilian police outline lay what I thought was a tiny baby copperhead snake, dead and stiff and just a few uncomfortably close feet from our house. A few days later I was pushing the boy down our street in the jogger, parallel to that same sidewalk, and I saw another one, alive this time, in a perfect little spiral, sunning itself on the dark asphalt. I made a wide arc around it and watched the ground closely for the rest of our walk.
I have thought about those snakes a lot lately. They, like most things that present a threat to my kids, planted a little seed of fear in the back of my mind. There are probably little snakes lying in wait in our backyard, the voice of my anxiety whispered. They are so hard to detect, so little and well camouflaged along the edges of the fence. I’ve always heard baby snakes, copperheads in particular, are more of a threat than their streetwise adult counterparts. I’ve been told they are blind and skittish and thus more likely to strike at every detected movement, every little sound. What I didn’t know was how tiny they really are. How are you supposed to protect yourself from something so nearly invisible, something so seemingly not even there?
When I stumbled across the news about Orlando in my Facebook feed a few Sundays ago, in between ridiculous political memes and cat videos and “click to see what happened next” traps, I was overcome with an emotional reaction that resides somewhere between deep sadness for the state of our current society and the intense desire to protect my family and myself from the kind of senseless violence that seems to be devouring people whole like some sort of mythical creature set loose on humanity. Even now, a month later, I read that sentence–the part about wanting to protect, to keep safe–and I know it is born of raw fear. I know it well, this fearfulness, and I know I cannot allow it to dictate my life, to consume my energy and creep into my heart, and yet, I can’t shake it. I read the words of my people–Glennon Doyle Melton and Jesus and Rumi and Mother Teresa and Liz Gilbert–words about love being greater than fear, words about the light winning, words about not allowing fear to dominate, and I want to put my fist in the air and feel unafraid right along with them, but I’m just not there yet, and I’m not sure how to navigate to that place where everything is not overwhelmingly scary.
In completely typical and expected fashion, social media outlets have been exploding with arguments about gun legislation. You will not find me participating directly in that conversation, because I am admittedly uninformed and ill-equipped to add my voice to that debate–and more than likely, so are you. Not to brag, but I wish more people would follow my lead on this and many other issues, because we aren’t doing anyone, including ourselves, any favors when we broadcast our ignorance. Aside from a cursory glance at which side my “friends” have taken in this latest fight about guns, I do not even read these many diatribes and snarky told-you-sos and copy-and-share-if-you-agrees, because as terrifying as unstable gun-wielding shooters are, they aren’t nearly as scary to me as the people who are posting, commenting, and sharing what looks to me like an endless round of cheap ammunition shot straight into the dark with no thought or consideration about origin or target. Ironically.
To those of you who have been posting personal attacks aimed at anyone who has ever suggested that our country could use some regulation in the gun department, and to those of you who have been mocking responsible gun owners with an equal amount of vitriol, I have a few questions for you. Actually, just one question: who the hell do you think you’re talking to? Do you really and truly think it’s appropriate to say that just because 9/11 attackers didn’t use guns, people with concerns about gun access should “shut their liberal faceholes”? Let’s assume those liberal faceholes are attached to moms who have lost children in gun crimes. Let’s pretend they are parents of babies shot to death in Newtown, Connecticut. Let’s even tread softly into Orlando: would you look at the mother or brother or best friend of someone who died in that massacre and make such a statement? Because I know many of you personally, and I can’t imagine the answer is really and truly yes. I can’t believe your compassionate in-real-life heart would actually utter those words to a real live person. If it would–if you really feel deep down that even the suggestion of tighter gun legislation warrants that kind of response, I think you and Jesus need to have a chat. Like, hurry. Because even though I’m not a gun control expert OR a Bible scholar, I think He probably has some things to say about the way you’re going about things. And folks on the other side of the argument, do you honestly think every gun owner in the land of the free has a borderline Nazi gun stash in the basement? Do you really believe everyone who wants the right to own a gun for hunting or even protection is a slack-jawed cross-eyed uneducated swamp dwelling redneck with a hefty arsenal out in the shed next to the still? For real, y’all probably need a chat with Jesus as well.
But just as the laws of our country have never been and do not need to be aligned with the the laws of the Bible (oh hey, hi, separation of church and state, we must have missed you hanging out over there right next to the 2nd Amendment), this is not a religious or spiritual or “Christian” issue. This is actually not a gun issue, either. This is an issue of what we are willing to say to others when we are well protected by this mask we wear called The Internet. A few weeks before the Orlando club shooting, a family nearly lost their 4-year-old son in what was surely a harrowing experience that ended in the shooting of a zoo animal. A few days after the Orlando shooting, another family wasn’t so fortunate and left Disney World minus their baby after he was killed by a wild alligator on the edge of a lake thousands of kids have splashed in without incident. If you read just a handful of responses to these two highly publicized events, you would think the parents used their kids as bait and tried to sacrifice them to nature. It doesn’t matter that both happened in the blink of an eye. It doesn’t matter that these were accidents. Apparently. Apparently what does matter is that because these stories were news items, plastered on every social media outlet that exists in our universe, millions of people felt led to become experts on what those parents should have done to protect their babies. Because sure, that’s the natural response to a crisis: criticism, hatred, anger, pointed fingers. I ask you again, all of you: who the hell are you talking to here?
Let me answer for you: you don’t know, and that is the problem. Every article I have read in response to these events, from the “gorilla tragedy” to the death of nearly 50 people on a hot June morning, garners two sets of responses, one from the camp who has “been there,” and one from the majority of us who really have no idea what it’s like to lose our babies, whether they are 2 and innocent to the ways of the world, or 24 and hanging out with friends in a club. The former group is filled with an overwhelming compassion for these losses and near losses. “I am so sorry,” they say. “I know what you are going through, and I am so sorry.” It is the ONLY thing to say, friends. So for group two, those of you who have taken these sad moments as opportunities to walk up to your imaginary podium and tell us all a thing or two, sit down. No one wants to hear your politicking. No one is interested in your opinions about how this could have been different. No one cares how safe you’ve managed to keep your own kids, assuming safe means “alive.” Don’t make me ask you about your own near misses and what-could-have-been moments. We all know you’ve had them. Everyone has had them. They are supposed to make us more compassionate, not turn us into pompous, prideful jerks.
But you are not even the worst offenders, those of you who can’t seem to muster more than a lame “Some people shouldn’t even be parents” as you hit share yet again. You don’t scare me half as much as the folks who can’t quite decide where they stand. You may not even know who you are. Let me help you out. If you have worn some other face at this great masquerade party called Facebook–say, for instance, you were championing my great state’s HB2 a few months ago, and mere weeks later you wanted to “help out” in Orlando, unless you have had some sort of life-altering experience that gave you a new outlook on what love looks and sounds like, no one buys your desire to give of yourself in this situation. You can’t make public statements about how HB2 “protects” your wives and daughters from “those people,” and then turn around and be sad and outraged on behalf of those same people. Sure, you didn’t walk into a club and open fire, but your disdain for these particular folks a few weeks ago was bad enough. You claim it’s all in the name of Jesus, in the name of God’s will, but do you think the GLBTQ community saw Jesus in you a month ago? Did anyone? Will everyone suddenly see Him in you now? You make me fearful in ways that crazed shooters do not, because I think I know you, I see you at the store, I sit across the auditorium from you at church, I chat with you at ballgames and like your comments on pictures of my kids. But who are you, really? What are you about? Which of these masks you’re donning in response to today’s tragic news du jour is your real face? Because if I’m not sure–or if I think I know–and then I see you in some different light…say, the light of a mass shooting or the accidental death of a child…you turn into a horror film of sorts.
When I was 10 or 11, on a visit to my grandparents’ house one summer, I watched an episode of my favorite show, “Little House on the Prairie” that left me wide awake and undecided about sleeping alone in the spare room. It was about a young girl in the town who was attacked and raped by a man wearing a white porcelain clown mask. Later in the episode, the masked attacker struck again and his mask was knocked off, revealing him as a trusted townsman and business owner. Everything about this show terrified me, from the creepy white mask to the face of a “good guy” behind it. I could not shake it that whole summer, the chill that crept up the back of my neck whenever I thought about those interchangeable faces. To this day I still hate masks. They are forever a terrible symbol of how you can’t always trust what you think is real. Except now the mask is simply the absence of faces, thanks to social media. Say what you want, how you want, to whomever you want. It doesn’t matter, because no one can see you. Right?
After the second baby snake sighting, I did a little research and discovered that baby copperheads have a “lemon yellow tail,” as well as a few other distinguishing characteristics, all of which set them apart from their less dangerous counterparts. The thing is, I didn’t stop to analyze the snakes we came across on our street, because if they are even potentially venomous, ready to strike at any moment, I don’t really feel the need to stand around and look past what I see, which is basically a snake, in the grass near my home, posing a threat to me or my kids. That they are snakes, and that they are possibly striking at any moment, leaves me no choice but to turn and run. As a matter of fact, I have given the quick turn-and-run treatment to a stick or two lying innocently in my yard, and once, I gasped and nearly tripped over the lawn mower trying to escape one of the hanging straps for our hammock. Sadly, this is how I feel about most of my Facebook feed right now. When I look at your behavior and cannot see what part of it is sincere, and what part is reactionary, and what part is utter bullshit, I want to turn and run. Mainly I want to tell my kids to turn and run, because eventually they will run into you, too. Maybe not you specifically, but people like you. Your kids, who are learning at your feet. But it is a complicated education, this process by which I must teach my babies that the people they trust might someday say hateful things about their gay friends, their non-Christian teachers, their mother who is, by all definitions posted by friends and relatives on Facebook, a bleeding heart liberal who needs to shut her piehole. As if.
But where I feel squirrelly and uncomfortable and afraid whenever I come across your incendiary remarks and your hateful shares about guns and gays and black people and “terrible” parenting, I want to teach my kids to love people so much that they cancel you out. That’s what I hope they will take away from this particular course on humanity, the credit I hope they earn. There are not two ways to interpret our Jesus, this man we adore and strive to make famous and long to be more like. People either do what He said, or they don’t. I’m going to teach them to love, but I’m also going to do my best to make sure they know what real, true, Jesus love looks like, so that if they see you pulling out a mask so you can take a break from Jesusing to be a bigot or a racist or an asshole, online or in person, they will smile and say to you, “I love you, I do, but I’ve got to run.”