This might not be the traditional uplifting commentary about a life experience that most of you are accustomed to hearing from me, but it’s something I feel is necessary to share given the wave of emotion created in its wake.
It began as a normal Friday evening: pizza delivery, Netflix, and decompression after a long week. The weekend was upon us, and it was time to relax. Until we couldn’t.
There are three words that strike fear in any parent’s heart who has a child at school. Active shooter alert. The text displayed on our phones was unthinkable. Even though it’s occurred way too many times to count, there’s a part of us that believes—maybe as some sort of self-defense mechanism—that something like that will never happen to us. Until it does.
Without even thinking about it, the very first thing we do is dial our son’s number. Luckily, he picks up, is safe, and has just returned to his room after a dorm supply run to Walmart with his roommate. Our anxiety ratchets up a notch at the thought he was out and about not that long ago, with who knows what happening around him.
Messages fly around social media. The person of interest was seen in a location that turns out to be less than a couple hundred yards from my son’s dorm. How does this happen? These incoherent thoughts muddle through the murky chaos of worry, helplessness, and fear. Stay in your room, away from the windows. Lock your door. Don’t answer it, no matter what. They’re words and advice that sound obvious, but for someone who grew up in a time and place where concerns like this simply didn’t exist, they felt necessary to share. Plus, as parents, we always share those obvious things, because—well—we’re parents, and that’s what we do. Especially when the safety of your son or daughter is called into question.
The events of the evening unfolded with increased anxiety and apprehension. Calls of shots fired and injuries sustained left us in utter shock, 1400 miles away from a situation that we could do absolutely nothing about. It’s the most harrowing thing, to know circumstances like that exist, and to be completely unable to do a single helpful thing, other than share comforting words over the phone.
And that’s where this story takes a turn. This is not meant to be a political discussion about gun laws or rights, although I have decided opinions (as we all do) on both of those topics. Where I would like to focus my attention is on that element of fear present in all our hearts on that Friday night.
You probably never heard about this incident. Or, if you did, it was probably in passing, since there was no active shooter on campus. There was no imminent danger to the student population, other than the stampeding chaos that ensued after people in an auditorium on campus received that same text warning and scrambled through crowds, doing everything in their power to find perceived safety.
Swatting. I had never heard the term before. It’s when false threats are made to authorities to induce terror where there isn’t any present. That’s what happened on the University of Oklahoma campus. Preliminary investigations suggest that multiple calls came in from international numbers, inciting fear in the hearts of students and parents all across the country.
But nothing really happened, right? Everyone should just wipe the beads of sweat from their foreheads, thank the powers that be that no one was injured, and move on to the next day, grateful that this was all a hoax.
That’s not how it works, though. I might have held the same views before this experience, but I feel differently now. Because it doesn’t matter whether there was or wasn’t an active shooter. Everyone believed there was, and that very thing created the same fear, anxiety, and terror that would have been present if there actually was someone dangerous on campus.
I used to only imagine the lingering emotions that stay with students (and parents) after an experience like that. Now I don’t have to imagine anymore. Part of me wishes I could still be in that imagining mode, but a bigger part of me is glad I’m not, because it allows me to share a larger truth with you.
No matter what we experience in our lives, no matter what we believe that we know, there are other people out there who have been affected by circumstances and events that we have no idea about. We tend to hide pieces of ourselves, because we’re worried that others won’t see us as strong or credible or rational. But we all have fears. Even when it’s something that doesn’t happen to us, when our minds make us believe that it did, the reality and emotions present in those circumstances are just as impactful.
There are so many trees in a forest. They stand close, one next to the other. And if one falls, it’s likely that others beside it will do the same. So, keep that in mind when someone is scared or expresses their feelings to you. We might not ever have been or ever will be in the same situation as them, but it doesn’t mean we can’t help keep those trees standing tall in the forest of fear. We might even be able to help nurture the roots of calmness and confidence that counteracts their fear in the process, just by being there to listen.
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