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What can we do after San Bernardino?

Pamplin editor reflects on positive ways to combat ongoing onslaught of bad news

Across Oregon, people looked for ways to cope after the Dec. 2 San Bernardino mass shooting.

To quell their bewilderment and pain, they baked cinnamon rolls, watched reruns of “The Andy Griffith Show” and quoted Julian of Norwich. “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well,” wrote the 14th-century female mystic, whose words T.S. Eliot later venerated in his “Four Quartets.”

The bakers, TV watchers and poetry readers were reeling from the terrible news out of San Bernardino, Calif., where 14 people were gunned down during a holiday party for county public health employees. The shooting took place two months after a gunman killed nine people at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, five days after three people were shot and killed in Colorado Springs and the same day, three people were wounded and a woman died in a separate act of gun violence in Savannah, Ga.

People cried, wrung their hands and finally got quiet, self-soothing under blankets on their sofas. You could almost hear a collective sorrowful sigh reflecting weary feelings of hopelessness and despair.

Mass shootings across the globe — but particularly in the United States, where they’re occurring with alarming regularity — are “shaking my disposition toward optimism,” one Washington County resident wrote on Facebook.

Human beings mourning the senseless murders of other human beings — mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, friends — struggled to express their disillusionment and confusion without listing toward the abyss of despair.

Tweets from Capitol Hill-dwellers proffering “thoughts and prayers” for the victims’ families soon began littering social media, falling flat on citizens’ ears and causing them to rise up and assert that such platitudes were no longer enough.

“God isn’t fixing this,” bellowed the Dec. 3 front page of the New York Daily News in an obvious condemnation of the politicians’ hollow piety.

Predictably, the fiery debate over gun control exploded on the Internet almost immediately. Yet even as people began to process these most recent head-spinning, heart-wrenching losses, they seemed to recognize that if there’s one thing the world doesn’t need, it is additional anger cloaked in anxiety and fear.

Scientist Jeremy Richman told Steve Inskeep on National Public Radio that we need to resist pointing the finger and begin to connect more meaningfully with one another. Richman, whose 6-year-old daughter Avielle Rose was killed in the December 2012 shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., said a nonprofit that he and his wife, Jennifer, started in her name — The Avielle Foundation — would continue to work toward a more peaceful, resilient, empathetic and kind world.

In the wake of extreme heartbreak, the Richmans have chosen to honor their child by researching the forces that increase a person’s risk of acting violently — thereby reducing social isolation, hate, racism, loneliness, suicide and murder.

With not a shred of vitriol or animosity, Jeremy Richman insisted on Inskeep’s program that the savagery we’re witnessing is “about chemistry, not character,” parrying the polarizing attempts of some to place the blame squarely on Muslims, gun nuts or the mentally ill — even though it’s naive to think there’s only one answer.

“I believe in trying to keep the beauty and the good in the world for our future, our children’s futures,” Jennifer Richman wrote on The Avielle Foundation’s Facebook page Nov. 16.

So what can we do when it appears nothing can be done? We can pick up the phone and call a friend, just to see how they’re doing. We can stick up for someone who’s getting bullied at school. We can look in on an elderly neighbor, organize a fun run for a positive cause, or volunteer for the statewide Start Making a Reader Today program. We can talk civilly with those who have viewpoints different from our own.

We can log off our computers. We can make an effort to reach out. In a word, we can engage.

As one Pamplin Media Group reporter said the day the bad news out of San Bernardino popped up on his cell phone: “I’d suggest trying to do something every day to make a difference in one person’s life. If every single person did that for one other person, what might happen?”

It may be the most important question each of us can ask right now.

Nancy Townsley is the editor of the Forest Grove News-Times, a Pamplin Media Group newspaper.