Test Case

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Is a Meaningful Public Dialogue Possible After This?

Can we stop reacting long enough to listen to what others say about the tragedy?

After the recent tragedy in Newtown, CT, the world has, naturally and understandably, been engaged in a fervent dialogue. What happened? How could it have been prevented? What do we need to do in the future to prevent further, similar incidents?

On Facebook, those who believe in gun control and those who believe tragedy would have been averted if the adults in the school had been carrying concealed weapons are engaging in a war of words. What I thought to be a poignant piece of writing, I Am Adam Lanza's Mother, about a woman, Liza Long,  with a violent son, was frequently shared and then, within a day, lambasted because the writer was, according to critics exploiting the tragedy for pageviews. The author was raked over the coals here and supported here. The woman who originally criticized Long then issued a joint statement with Long claiming she didn't want to start a "mommy war" and calling for a respectful conversation about mental health. One wonders how publicly tearing down a mother dealing with a mentally unbalanced child was not an attempt to start a war of some kind, but therein lies the moral, and the reason for my post: let's think before we attack and criticize, shall we?

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We all own this tragedy, because no matter where we are, we're part of the human community. I can't begin to understand how it feels to be one of the parents who lost a child, but unfortunately, it's neither realistic nor helpful to exhort the rest of us to "stop talking politics" in order to grieve. People process grief and tragedy in very different ways. For some of us, we write about it. For a woman who saw her own possible future in the actions of Adam Lanza and other disgruntled young men who have committee mass murders, the sharing of a heretofore private tragedy was part of her processing. It's not for any of us to judge what someone reveals in these times of shock and reflection. It's for us to open our arms and hearts to the people who risk so much to tell their stories. After all, if more people had known about how troubled these young spree killers of late were, maybe they would have gotten help before spilling blood.

To my mind, all of these dialogues that are happening - on Facebook, on twitter, on blogs and in the comments of online media - these are essential conversations. And it's natural to have a strong opinion, and even knee jerk reactions, to something we don't feel is right: the opinion a friend has on gun control that we don't share, the revealings of a worried and stressed mother who loves and is afraid of her son. After all, opinions are like a particular human body part: everyone has one, and some of the time, everyone else's stinks.

But I wonder, rather than attacking and judging one another over opinions and actions that we don't happen to agree with, can we stop and listen to what's really being said? As a friend posted on Facebook: gun-control and gun-access groups both want the same thing: to feel safe. Can we start there? Liza Long and her detractors all want the same thing, too:  for they and their loved ones to have access to responsive and effective mental health care, so that another troubled young man doesn't mow down another classroom of kids.

It's of course necessary for us to express our opinions, and obviously, opinions will differ. That's wonderful, that's why we have these incredibly intricate human brains. But in order for actual change to happen, we need to create a safe place to share our stories. Without criticism, without judgment, without attack. We need to talk about all of these issues: guns, parenting, mental health, school security, how to help children cope with tragedy, grief. And change needs to happen, because there have been FAR far too many of these random acts of violence. The truth is, none of us has the whole answer. It's not just gun-control. It's not just a better mental healthy system. These are facets, but not the whole. And each of us has a valuable piece of the puzzle, if we can just be allowed to share it in the spirit of dialogue.

Because we all want the same thing: we want what happened in Newtown to never, ever happen again. Now let's get talking.

Melissa Kirk is a writer and editor who works as an acquisitions and developmental editor at New Harbinger Publications, a self-help psychology publisher in Oakland, CA. 

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