fresh voices from the front lines of change







From a tragic weekend, a return to the daily grind of politics. Our hearts may not be in it, but the challenge is undying and the struggle is one: to protect each other and preserve our humanity in the face of relentless forces.

Still, the tragedy haunts. A friend of a friend is seen in a photograph as his little daughter looks up at him adoringly. That little girl died in Newtown last Friday. All across the country stories are told of teachers, a psychologist, and a principal who dedicated their lives to children.

Last year in Africa I heard the story of a nine-year-old girl who took her own life rather than face the horrors in her village. Her voice has spoken to me ever since, informing the work of my days with the graphic immediacy of her experience. Now the children of Newtown speak to millions of us. For me the voice of Newtown will alway be the voice of that friend of a friend’s daughter. From now on she will always be a still, small voice in my life.

As mournful as they are, we need those voices. Without them we become soulless purveyors of numbers and facts, debating-team members with no stake in the outcome other than the desire to win an argument.

The nation has come together, as it always does, during a moment of tragedy. But every day thousands of tragedies go unseen. Would we be as divided as we are if those tragedies were as immediate and visible as the deaths in Newtown?

It’s true that there’s a special horror to extreme violence, which is made easier by the ready availability of automatic weapons. But even that level of violence is visited upon lower-income children with shocking regularity, along with the violence of hunger, poverty, and inadequate medical care. And the violence of abuse, sexual and otherwise, is inflicted on children at all income levels.

Some people are blaming mental illness, and only mental illness, for these gun tragedies. But our health system treats mental illness as something different and less worthy of treatment than purely “physical” illness and injury, despite the physiological nature of many mental disorders (and the psychological origins of many physical illnesses). This Manichean mind/body split leaves many of our children – and many of our adults – without the care that could ease their suffering – and, in rare but sometimes deadly cases, protect the rest of us too.

And now we return to the quotidien world of politics – for a moment, and for meaningful reasons. This morning Washington will resume its debate over the “fiscal cliff,” an artificially-created “crisis” that’s being used to justify drastic cuts in government spending. Those cuts would hurt the most vulnerable among us, including adults and children in poverty, seniors, and the disabled. There would also be cuts to education and health programs – including mental health programs.

We’re being asked to ignore the human realities behind this agreement, to cut benefits that are greatly needed by fellow members of our national community. If you agree that this is wrong, you can go here to learn more – and do something about it.

That famous phrase - "a still, small voice" - comes from the Bible's first Book of Kings. Whatever your religious beliefs, or lack thereof, the story resonates today. Elijah had worked hard for his God. He had preached, performed miracles, even revived a grieving mother's dead child. But he fell into a state we would describe today as depression. He feels that his entire life's been worthless, and he prays for death.

Instead he's visited by an angel who tells him to get ready for a long journey. The journey ends in a cave, where Elijah is told the Lord is about to pass by. He sees a howling wind, a devastating earthquake, and a raging fire. But the Lord was not in the wind, says the scripture, or in the earthquake, or in the fire. Instead God speaks to Elijah with "a still, small voice" - or as it's phrased in another translation, "a gentle whisper" - after the waves of destruction have passed.

In the 21st Century we often focus our eyes, our attention, and our cameras on the massive tragedies - the hurricanes, the earthquakes, the fires. And we should. Their victims need our help. But we overlook the whispering grief all around us. It whispers in the widow struggling to get by on Social Security, in the impoverished child with an untreated cough, in the disabled war veteran who can't afford bus fare.

There will be no Elijah to bring back the lost children of Newtown. It's left to us to comfort the survivors. And to do what we can to minimize or prevent further tragedies, large or small: hurricane or hunger, earthquake or illness, fire or financial insecurity.

And so we listen for the gentle whisper, for the still, small voice that guides us toward the right actions. I find that this soft voice is constantly being drowned out by the drumbeats of anger - other people's anger, and my own.

I hope you'll click on the link to defend Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security benefits. I hope you'll do it the sake of our national community, for the sake of our common values. But that's up to you. You may disagree, perhaps vehemently, with these opinions.

Whatever your politics, I wish for you what I wish for myself: that we always hear the gentle whisper of the twenty small voices that were stilled last week in Newtown. We owe them that.

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