Wings of Desire

As we collectively process the latest carnage, a comment from my husband sums up the situation: “Now, it’s time for 8 weeks of anguished conversation. Then everything will stay exactly the same.” If my Facebook feed is any indication, he’s right; it is filled with anguish: “Prayers for Orlando,” “We are Orlando,” and “Enough Praying, Do Something.” With rare exceptions, these calls force us to a dichotomous choice: Side A. advocate for gun policy reform Side B. send your thoughts and prayers to the victims and their families. Camp A “politicizes tragedy” by asking politicians to do what they can to prevent future horrors. Camp B, the prayers, are labeled delusional and discounted. As we throw labels at one another the status quo is maintained.

So far, I’ve not responded. Not for a good reason but because I feel numb. I don’t feel shock or disbelief. The same script plays out with such freakish regularity that it’s no longer shocking. I don’t feel fear or worry for my family. If I did, how would I live? Stop working? Keep my children home from school? Move to Wyoming and live off the grid? Truthfully, I hardly generate a tear as I read the stories of children at Pulse texting their mothers before dying. I recognize these situations as horrible but with detachment now that we relive these awful scenarios almost every other month.

As a social worker, I recognize my numbness for what it is: a symptom, a way of coping with traumatizing experiences that are not going away and that I believe I am powerless to stop. I don’t like it and I tried to engage my older son to pull me out. He is into photography and I asked him if he wanted to attend a vigil in our town for the Orlando victims. I asked because I thought going would break through my numbness and I thought he’d like the idea of documenting the event. He said no telling me that he’d spent the day making a rock sculpture of “49 cairns” near our home. It was two hours before I realized the symbolism of what he’d done. That is numbness. How to break through it…

I’ve found myself thinking about the 1987 movie, “Wings of Desire.” Not the Nicolas Cage version, which I think, was called City of Angels, but rather the original, this one. In it, angels watch and comfort from a distance but cannot intervene to change events in human lives. They stand beside and make sure no event goes without witness, but cannot articulate all that they see and know. Eventually, one of the angels longs to become human, give up his all-knowingness, give up his distance and remove, because he has fallen in love with someone who does not recognize her own beauty. The angel is willing to give up immortality to be able to love, to suffer, and in so doing to feel joy. Before I had seen the movie, the story I heard about it was a little bit different. In that version the angel wanted to become human because he thought he could do more good as a mere mortal than as a divine being. I was told as much once by a client and her words have stayed with me for years.

We were in my office off the emergency room. I don’t remember why. She was telling me about her difficulties as a parent and of her faith that God was with her and would take care of her. I was probably 23 years old and completely shocked by the abject poverty in which the people I worked with lived. As I listened, I struggled to find a hopeful word and truthfully wondered about the utility of her faith at that moment. But I did my best to be encouraging and to validate her statements. “Yes ma’am. Of course He will. I know you are right.” She stopped abruptly, seeing my doubt, and said, “He will help me but He needs your hands. Don’t you forget that…” That indictment was at least 25 years ago and, in my recent numbness, I had almost forgotten, forgotten the difference that raised voice, an anguished prayer, a call to a legislator, or a work of art can make. I had become like the angels in the movie, willing to bear witness but seeing myself as unable to do much else. But I’m no angel and neither are you. We are all too human – broken, suffering, mired in the mundane, and yet extraordinary. It is not worth giving up no matter how frustrating or hopeless we feel. We must be Orlando. We must pray for Orlando. We must change our laws to prevent such horror. We must do all of it.

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  1. You know I had to read this with that title and picture. An insightful observation. I think it speaks to many of us. How do we become sensitized again? Great line – “mired in the mundane, and yet extraordinary” – I think the key is in embracing the extraordinariness of life and living it. Thanks for sharing.

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