There are events in our lives, and in the life of our nation, that make us turn a corner. You’re driving along a fairly straight path, though not necessarily a smooth one, and suddenly something huge makes you jerk the wheel to one side and pray you don’t crash. Too often that something huge is violent and tragic, like Kennedy’s death, or 9/11, or the Virginia Tech shootings. I don’t want to think that we only change when it becomes too painful not to, but sometimes it seems like that is true.
I was very young when JFK was shot, and though I remember it clearly, it’s only as an adult that I begin to understand the turn we took on that day. I’m a different person than I was then, not just because I’m older, but because I’ve lived in Texas and been to Dealey Plaza. I have seen the Pentagon with a gaping hole in it, and I have mourned with the VT community on the Day of Remembrance. In each of these places I have learned my lessons, in part, from the grief of others.
It is a great and terrible gift to share in the sufferings of others. So precious and intimate, so painful and life-changing. When we stand together, I see what this event means to you. I see where it cuts your life and intersects with the sense you’ve make of this world and the time we have. And when I see what it means to you, I understand more of what it can mean, which is so much larger than any one of us.
After the assassination, a quarter of a million condolence letters were sent to Jacqueline Kennedy. Many of them were written by people who did not typically express themselves in writing, but who felt compelled to put pen to paper and reach out in sympathy. Reading just a small portion of these letters brought me into a world I had not really understood. I could sense more of what Kennedy and Kennedy’s death had meant to so many various people: veterans, Catholics, African-Americans, rich, poor, children, and parents. And I could understand a little more of the complexity that is America, past and present.
We think that the magnitude of an event belongs to the event, as if we were measuring the size of a rock and calculating the strength and distance of shock waves after impact. But for me, the sharp turns in the path of life are more likely to come from an encounter with you–any you who is not me–and with your inner life. And while I think we can learn from both shared joys and sorrows, on days like today, it is grief that pierces us more quickly and deeply, and more obviously wreaks its change.