Our Best Hope(s) in a Summer of Violence

An hour before gunshots rang out in Dallas, I was playing a game of basketball with my kids in the driveway—a game called Around the World, in which it’s every man, boy, and little girl for themselves. The game started pleasantly enough but quickly devolved. Cruel words flew back and forth. A ball was thrown, not at a hoop, but at a head.

Around the World, violence begets violence.

And in America, it has been a summer of violence. Orlando. The summertime killing fields in south Chicago. In Louisiana and Minnesota, two more black lives senselessly ended. In Dallas, five policemen executed for crimes they didn’t commit. And the next violent tragedy, whatever it may be, just waiting in the wings.

Like so many, I’m grieving.

Grief can take many forms.

Indeed, this summer, grief has taken many forms in me. Immediately, I want to get right up on my pulpit and pontificate about people and policy and politics. Immediately, I want to talk about solutions, because sometimes solving is a way of not feeling. Sometimes, quick solutions are denial in disguise. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. After all, denial is the first stage of grief. I see this form of grief inside of me and all around me.

Yet, I know, my solutions are just a slightly more dignified form of my anger.

Anger is the second stage of grief, and I’m in a rage. I read the headlines and I want to scream until my throat is scorched. I saw an image of a sign held high at the Dallas protest: Know justice, know peace, f**k the racist police. I’m as conflicted as that sign:

My yearning for peace mutates into the very anger by which peace is slaughtered.

If my anger is part of the problem, though, the grief I’m left with takes the form of fear. Anxiety almost always lurks underneath the rage. Here, I’m getting to a truer truth, a less savory truth to admit:

I’m afraid of losing my privilege.

The world I love—the world where I have a family I cherish, a home in which I feel safe, an income I can count on, and a routine that makes life feel mostly predictable—this world seems like it’s coming apart at the seams. At a very basic, very primal level, I’m scared I won’t know how to care for my family in this brave, violent, new world.

Of course, when I get still long enough to quit fearing for my broken future, and start settling into the broken present, a whole new layer of grief wells up within me:

I feel a deep, deep sorrow.

I feel just a little bit of what they all must feel—the sorrow of a girlfriend recording the death of her beloved boyfriend, the sorrow of five Dallas families, the sorrow of fifty more families in Orlando, and the sorrow of the neighborhoods of blood that exist only a few miles from my favorite destinations on Chicago’s Magnificent Mile.

And yet.

Grief is a strange and horrible thing, but it can also become a redemptive thing, because if you let yourself go through it—through the denial and anger and fear and sorrow—you arrive at something new.

That something new has many guises and many labels. Sometimes it’s acceptance of the loss. Sometimes it’s peace about what remains. And sometimes it’s an inexplicable hope for the future. In this summer of violence, as I’ve allowed myself to feel this season of grief, I’ve also begun to feel a flicker of hope.

Three hopes actually.

First, though our various forms of grief may look radically different, they are still, simply, grief. Which means we are, all of us, in one way or another, walking the same path. And if we keep walking, it’s still possible we might all end up in the same place.

Second, I feel powerless to heal the history and change the systems out of which all this violence arises. Utterly powerless. I have not the time, knowledge, or passion for community organization, peaceful activism, or political reform. But there are people who do. People who want to dedicate their lives to such sacred causes.

Today, I put my hope in those good souls, and I put those souls in my prayers.

And then I have a much smaller—nearly invisible—glimmer of hope.

Around the time gunshots rang out in Dallas, I stopped the game of Around the World. I told the kids I was done playing their game until the playing became kind. They didn’t need further explanation, because we human beings have an instinct for kindness. The knowledge of it is written into our DNA. It requires no instruction. And even my kids who are powerless in almost every way have the power to practice it. It requires no organized protests and no new legislation.

Kindness requires only one heart willing to sink into the grief of solidarity, and then one small action—one tender look or word or gesture, one moment in which the course of humanity is nudged onto a slightly more loving trajectory—because, like violence, kindness begets kindness.

In this summer of violence,

I have a glimmer of hope,

because we played until dark,

and the small acts of kindness grew

into laughter

and light.

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In his debut novel, Kelly weaves a page-turning, plot-twisting tale that explores the spiritual depths of identity and relationships, amidst themes of healing, grace, faith, forgiveness, and freedom.

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About Kelly

Dr. Kelly Flanagan is a psychologist, author, consultant, and speaker who enjoys walking with people through the three essentials of a truly satisfying life: worthiness, belonging, and purpose. His blog writings have been featured in Reader’s Digest, The Huffington Post, The 5 Love Languages, and the TODAY Show. Kelly is the author of Loveable and True Companions.