As a psychiatrist who works at a VA during a time of armed conflict, I have become used to having to decide each day how much I am willing to accept detente with the unspeakable, for how long today, for what reasons now, just now.
As the day wore on today, I felt Newtown, Connecticut throughout my hospital, not just on the flat-screen TV’s scattered throughout the cafeteria, the waiting areas, uniting Fox News with CNN (and perhaps somewhere on this planet, MSNBC) for God knows how long (please, bring back the fiscal cliff, a Sean Hannity-Rachel Madow smackdown, anything, anything), but even more I felt it in the tension that slowly infiltrated our very floor, floating its ways to those floors above, perhaps, I cannot say. It was a familiar tension, though.
It is the tension I feel every time I walk into our clinic that serves the men and women coming back from Afghanistan and Iraq, the tension that refuses to be tamed by mere words, that will stride right up to you as you walk through the door and just smirk at your puny hope that you might avoid its becoming your companion for the next hour, the next day, maybe even the next lifetime.
It is the tension of souls that know what they had hoped they would never have to know, that know that they will never not know again.
Words come easily for me. I talk for a living, after all, write as a passion. How can I not be aware that at this moment, then, with each letter on my screen deposited by that cursor,I am trying to do what I know cannot be done: send words off to ferry back to me twenty dead children, their six adult defenders–and even, yes, a lad clad in black, the age of my eldest, of men and women who are enduring ungodly heat and bullets of their own in the hills where, yes, civilizations go to die.
For many of the men and women whom I serve, it is the screams of the children and those who cared for them that will not release them into the nights that never seem to end, one after another after another. I hear these stories spoken by twenty-five-year olds, thirty-five-year olds, men and women who have at least had the decency to pass through puberty. Soon, though, in mere days, I will have colleagues from New York to Boston who will hear essentially the same stories, though now spoken by eight- and ten-year-olds, the same ones whom we have watched, in photographs, paraded single-file, arm-to-shoulder, dazed, sobbing, the same pair of second-or-so graders who stood bereft in the midst of tree-like weeds and weed-like trees, Hansel and Gretel with no need for bread crumbs, thank you, just “away,” please, far away.
The “Massacre of the Innocents” is what they call the story in the Gospel of St. Matthew, the one in which the boys are slain for having been born and raised in the wrong place at the wrong time. Ah, how they debate about it, the scholarly “they.” Did it really happen? If it did, why didn’t the Jewish historian Josephus write about it? But were there even enough children in that town to warrant a mention during the age of a Herod who made Sadam Hussein look like Fred Rogers?
An old story, old pain.
How the unspeakable does engender words, though, doesn’t it? Did for Matthew and Josephus, does for us now. In blogs. In scholarly writings that debate how much pain is worth a mention in the historical Who’s-Who. In tweets screaming as succinctly as possible for either gun control or kindergarten guns, for the ACLU or the NRA. In hour after hour after hour of media analysis about insanity vs. evil, what’s-expected vs. what-do-you-expect, this just came in, film at 11, check out our website.
Yet when President Obama spoke to the nation today, it was his pauses that did the talking. Much ado is being made and will be made of the tears. It was in those few-seconds-long silences, though, the ones that spoke without speaking, that he showed the nation that he had indeed absorbed enough of the true Truth to allow that Truth to do what it demands: render silence silent. In those moments he showed us that the most any of us can do in situations such as Newtown is imagine what we can’t imagine in order somehow to absorb what we can’t absorb.
Tonight I remember the families of those killed. I remember the survivors: the children, the teachers and staff. I remember the combat veterans, young and old, who still dream the cries of the innocent. I remember the first-responders, the police and medical personnel who, like infantry and medics through the centuries, had to see what no one should have to see, yet which must nevertheless be seen–and when the time finally comes, spoken–so that the next generation might, just might not have to see the same ever again.
Finally, words find the unspeakable.
But only for a few paragraphs.
In the end, the unspeakable always wins.
May they all rest in peace.