This Thursday marks the fifth anniversary of the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School. I wrote this essay afterward, and reprise it here in edited form. Mass killings are now common here in the U.S. My daughter was a senior in college then, finishing up her degree in elementary education. Now, with a Master’s under her belt, she teaches in a Chamorro school on the island of Guam. I worry less about a school shooting there than about a tragedy inflicted by North Korea. Many terrible events ensued since that horrible day in 2012. With the holiday season here, take another look at what the word “need” means to you.
Sad and negative things often cause a single word to enter my mind, arising effortlessly and almost unconsciously. It then becomes an ear worm, repeating itself over and over again while I try to process that thing—perhaps an event, a statement, a bit of unexpected news. That word is: unnecessary.
After Newtown, we are confronted once again with a situation in which words are futile, empty, and impotent; they’re useless in the face of such horror and violence. We are “at a loss for words;” we say that “words cannot convey;” we can’t “put our feelings into words.” At times like this, unnecessary continues its relentless, persistent, and insistent drumbeat in my head. I just want it to go away.
The definition in the Oxford English Dictionary is simple: not needed; more than is needed; excessive. Succinctly applicable to all tragedies. The base of the definition is the word need, which is defined as “a thing that is wanted or required”, or “to require something that is essential or important rather than just desirable.”
We now, as a nation, cannot stop expressing our need for better gun control laws, for more accurate predictors of potential violent acts, for better understanding and care of persons with mental imbalance or disease. No one will argue with that. Need is related to the Dutch nood and the German Not, both of which have various meanings, including: distress, misery, privation, calamity, adversity, and even danger. This underscores the shock I experienced after hearing the first reports on Newtown. Paradoxically, by attending to the needs of a situation, we can often avert the dreaded outcomes conveyed in its etymology. But not this time.
We cannot turn back the clock. But in reminding ourselves of the hidden meaning of people’s needs, can we possibly prevent unnecessary and painful repercussions that might ensue, even in the smallest of cases? By fulfilling the human need for kindness—a practice beautifully endorsed by the slain Sandy Hook School principal—we can reduce another’s pain or suffering. We will be performing something essential or important, something that might pre-empt calamity, that can minimize or even eliminate threat or danger.
My daughter is a senior at Niagara University studying to be an elementary school teacher. We spoke on the phone after the shooting; she was shaken and upset, thinking the obvious: What if this happened to me? Without waiting for her to ask, I reassured her that I was absolutely certain that— were she to face this horrific scenario—she would do the right thing. She would give up her life for a child; of this I am certain. We both choked up when I told her that, and she said, “Mom, I already decided that I would do that.” A solemn silence ensued. She chose teaching because she has an unbounded love for children, as all dedicated educators do, and I know she would always put those little souls first.
Deep, deep inside I believe that she will never have to face this situation, but I could be wrong. The lives of the families and friends of the Newtown victims are forever changed, and we feel helpless in our efforts to console. But I also believe in the power of words, and that I can use a word that consumed me to see the common phrase “filling a need” in a different way. When a need hits me in the face, perhaps I can try harder to not retreat, to not walk away while telling myself that “somebody else will do it.”
Perhaps I can strengthen my resolve, and stop being intimidated by a deceptive sea of voices that cautions me to be careful, and to remain “politically correct”, to not make waves or ripple the waters, to not take unnecessary risks. When I express my own pain, or address someone else’s, when I stand firm and fight discrimination, ignorance and aggression, or when I answer with a smile instead of a smirk, I may find that the word unnecessary becomes less a part of my working vocabulary, and more an afterthought, or just a memory.
Maybe a word can do something big this time. Maybe just this once.