The Right Opinion

When Childhood Fears Come True

After Newtown, more parents aren't going to want to send their kids to school, and more kids will not want to go.

By Peggy Noonan · Dec. 22, 2012

What I keep thinking when the subject turns to Newtown is that childhood is often remembered as a time of joy and innocence, but it’s a time of terrible fears and great frights, too. The young are darkly imaginative.

I knew a 5-year-old girl who was so afraid of ET that when she saw a picture of him she’d scream. A friend, a sturdy American journalist, remembered being a child of 6 or 7. “I had monsters in the closet and under my bed. They walked across phone wires into my bedroom window, they slithered up the sides on my mother’s car. Sometimes they had tall pointy heads.”

At 7 or so I developed a fear so deep it kept me from sleeping. One night when the moon was bright and the wind was moving the trees, I looked from my bed into the shadowed closet … and suddenly the clothes and the things on the shelf above had transformed themselves into Abraham Lincoln, in top hat and shawl, staring at me and waiting to be shot. That fear came every night for years. At some point a neighbor saw my nervousness or overheard my obsession, asked what was wrong, came to my house, opened my closet and announced triumphantly “See? Lincoln isn’t there!” I knew she meant well, but how dumb can you get? Lincoln only came at night.

A friend, a seasoned lawyer, also was afraid of monsters in the closet, and of “Blackbeard’s ghost materializing in my room at night, from some pirate movie I saw.”

His son, about the same age now as the lawyer when he was hiding from Blackbeard, also has childhood fears. He told his father he’s glad he’s at his grade school because “the middle school is only two stories and it isn’t safe.” He can’t wait to get to the high school “because it’s next to the police station.”

After Newtown, I’m not sure we know what we’re asking of children when we tell them to go to school after this week of terrible images and stories, after hearing “another school shooting” on the news. They all know what happened, or have the general outlines. And children are scared enough.

“What’s so terrible for the little kids who hear about Newtown is that the ‘dream’ monster is now real,” said a friend.

Tragedies are followed by trends, and we know where the conversation is going – gun control, laws for the incarceration of the mentally ill, help for parents with unstable children. But I have a feeling there will be another trend beginning, that it will be slow but long-term: more home schooling. Because more parents aren’t going to want to send their kids to school now, and more kids will not want to go. It is a terrible thing to lose the illusion of safety.

* * *

Something else about this story. I know so many people who in past tragedies were glued to the TV. They wanted to hear the facts of Columbine, Aurora, Tucson. They wanted to hear what happened so they could understand and comprehend. After Newtown, I’d mention some aspect of the story and they didn’t know, because they weren’t watching. And they’re not going to watch anymore. “Too depressing” they say, softly.

Even journalists who by nature and training want to know the latest fact aren’t, unless they’re working the story, closely following it. Because it’s too painful now, because they’re not sure anything can be done to turn it around and make better the era we’re in. This new fatalism is … well, new. And I understand it, but there’s something so defeated in turning away, in not listening to or hearing the stories of the parents and the responders and the teachers.

* * *

Many religious people and leaders have come forward to try to speak of the meaning of the event, and the answers to it, but the most powerful words came from the psychologist and former priest Eugene Kennedy, professor emeritus at Loyola University of Chicago. The 85-year-old was interviewed, in a podcast at Investors.com, by the political columnist Andrew Malcolm and blogger Melissa Clouthier.

Religion, said Mr. Kennedy, “isn’t supposed to explain such things” as Newtown. “That’s not the task of religion, never has been.” Religion has to do with the central mystery of existence – “the tremendous and gripping mystery” of being alive. “Joseph Campbell once said people don’t need an explanation of their lives as much as they need an experience of being alive.”

Newtown, like 9/11, reminds us of “the mystery of being alone in the world as it is and as we are.” The world is imperfect, broken, “with cracks running through it.” A central fact of our lives, said Mr. Kennedy, is that “We are all vulnerable. Anything can happen to anybody at any time.” We have to understand and recognize our vulnerability “as humans on the earth.” We see and experience it every day, “from small disappointments … to blows of the heart.” And Newtown is a blow of the heart.

But, again like 9/11, Newtown contained within it “the ongoing fact of revelation.” Both 9/11 and Newtown were marked by a revealing of “the goodness of normal people, which is seldom celebrated” but is central to the balance of the world. When the teachers tried to shield the children – as when on 9/11 people who knew they were about to die called someone to say they loved them – that was “a revelation of their goodness.” It is important in part because “by the light of the goodness of others – by that light we can see ourselves.”

We attempt to respond to tragedies politically. We try to take actions that will make our world safer, and this is understandable. But there is no security from existence itself. The only answer is to “plunge into” life. “We have to engage in life and take it on with all the risks it entails, or we won’t be alive at all.”

He added: “It is better to suffer pain than to live in a world in which you don’t allow yourself to be close enough to anybody to have the experience that’s bound to give you suffering.” And “love guarantees suffering.”

“We’re all on a hero’s journey,” said Mr. Kennedy, from where we began to where we will end. The hero faces challenges along the way. We are like King Arthur’s knights, entering the forest each day without a cut path, and “finding our way through is what we are called to do.” Here, Mr. Kennedy suggested, faith offers not an explanation but the only reliable guide. “Jesus said, ‘I am the way.’ That is not a metaphor.”