What Can We Say to Comfort Them?

CALM does not usually make headlines as it did over the weekend of April 17 and 18, when the newspapers reported the Los Angeles riot that didn't happen.

It was a welcome respite at the end of a week that for New Englanders at least seemed to be made up of one tragedy after another involving children and teenagers: In Massachusetts, a 16-year-old boy fatally stabbed in front of his friends in his high school classroom. Later, a popular middle school nurse shot to death by an intruder, just a few feet away from a roomful of children. The principal who wrested the gun from the suspect told reporters he knew the gunman wanted to get at the kids. Another teen

stabbed, though not fatally. And in nearby Rhode Island, the sad tale unfolds of a policeman held in the murder of three teenage boys and the wounding of a fourth.

Local crime stories are not what this newspaper usually focuses on, but these people are in a broad sense our neighbors, and their sorrows make a claim upon our hearts. What could we say to comfort them? How do we build a society in which these things don't happen?

Experts trying to help make sense of it all identify some themes common to these separate episodes: excessive exposure to dehumanizing violence on television, not surprisingly, but also, economic uncertainty and family instability.

Much was made in the news reports of the fact that these events took place not in the inner city but in white suburban schools. And yet the local economies are not good in these parts of New England. Unemployment is high; these are the generations that do not count on being able to exceed the living standards of their own parents. And a number of the young people involved in these cases, as victims or alleged victimizers, are products of what used to be known as "broken homes."

The two compacts on which lives are based - love and work - are being renegotiated in the late 20th century. The stable marriages that provide a secure environment in which children can grow up can no longer be taken for granted. Nor can the kinds of midlevel white-collar (forget about blue-collar!) jobs that could support a family comfortably be counted on - at least not for a whole working lifetime.

Evolution in the workplace is inescapable - and it is certainly good for individuals to expand their skills and knowledge over their careers.

But in a society where, as the cliche goes, the only constant is change, those members of society who themselves seem to be change personified - that is, adolescents - are seen to be at particular risk. Too much may be expected of their proverbial youthful resilience. Caught in an awkward transition between childhood and adulthood, they may seem big enough to cause trouble, but too young to do much good. Their acute problems signal us to pay attention to the deeper problems going on beneath the surface.

What can we say to comfort them?

The media help create a common conversation within a community, almost a common stream of consciousness. Sad news travels so quickly we can all be depressed in minutes by a single report. But surely it can work the other way, too, that those in pain will feel the concern and support - indeed, the love and the prayers - of the millions who have heard of their plight.

In the shadow of thy wings will I make my refuge, until these calamities be overpast.

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