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.”

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8 Comments

Tod the tool guy in brooklyn ny said:

No child in my happy childhood could have dreamed up the evil Socialist nightmare that blind sheep and useful idiots willingly chose. Friedrich Engels as Commander-in-Chief. POTUS 44-Downsizing America, while we are fighting to downsize government! "Beam me up Peggy, there's not much intelligence around here!"

Saturday, December 22, 2012 at 5:57 AM

John in OKC, OK said:

Well said Peggy.

More home schooling would be an unexpected blessing in light of this tragedy and help prevent them in the future by raising better citizens.

Saturday, December 22, 2012 at 9:57 AM

Patriot Pat in in Pacifica said:

Kudos for Pegs, again on this one.
I vividly recall many years ago when teachers first proposed unionizing. Most folks were shocked because most early unions were industrial workers who were victimized by "greedy Capitalists." Teachers, mostly females, were dedicated to that special skill of educating the young and were admired for that. Then, like the big unions, teachers soon became
pawns urged on by leadeship grown rich, powerful and greedy. They learned how to cripple and now it might be too late. Only dedcated political leaders and a huge public effort can get it back in balance. Home schooling may be the best if not only way. Kudos for Pegs for pointing this out.

Saturday, December 22, 2012 at 3:16 PM

Phil in Penna said:

Yes, the psychology of fear is intense and driven by a powerful imagination. It might be imprudent to mention the dreaded "R" word - religion (God). Perhaps it is time for the meek to speak up. Each in his own way, of course. Hopefully, in this age of Secularism, adults might consider inclulcating the young as was done before. Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Clause - and, yes, dear children, there is a loving God. The Secularists might have succeeded in kicking Him out of our schools, but certainly not out of our hearts. Oremus.

Saturday, December 22, 2012 at 3:31 PM

Eleanor in AK said:

Children in Germany are afraid to show pride when their country wins a soccer match or Olympic medal. Wearing the national colors is discouraged. Shame and fear can change a nation. Is this the Obama vision?

Saturday, December 22, 2012 at 11:49 PM

charlie in PA said:

The last half of your piece is kind of odd. Life is mysterious; bad things happen; engage and love so that you can suffer, etc. My reaction is more to ask whether there is a behaviorial trend at work that can be reversed. Charles Krauthammer, a few columns down, quotes an interesting statistic--in the last 30 years murders over-all are down (that's good), but the component due to mass murders is up (that's bad).

Home schooling may keep some individuals safer, but not enough parents will do that to eliminate crowded public schools. So there will always be targets available for violence from any mind gone off the rails. Dr. Krauthammer has some thoughts about the root causes which are worth reading. The solutions may involve a tradeoff between invading the civil rights of a few known risky individuals vs imposing a police state atmosphere on the public school system--indeed on any venue where crowds Ipotential targets) are gathered vs censoring the level of violence that can be depicted in video games. Or we can just take comfort in the statistics---over-all murders are down; effectively that's the Noonan solution

Sunday, December 23, 2012 at 3:51 PM

Jim D in AL said:

This piece explains so much about Ms Noonon that has long been a mystery. She has always seemed so attracted to Republicans and yet at the same time so strangely repelled by conservative thought. At last she throws some Freudian light on why she's always been a closet lIberal. Poor thing! She's spent her whole life trying to exorcise the original Republican demon from her childhood nightmares. Whether you like old Abe (Savior of the Nation) or hate him (Invader of the soveriegn South States) there is no question that he had a scary puss, homely enough to traumatize any kid it peeked at in the darkness.

Monday, December 24, 2012 at 3:33 PM

Cristina Rodriguez in CA said:

I agree that whatever Noonan says, people are still going to want to protect themselves, as well as their families. She is accurate in a way, because people are susceptible to the dangers out there in our environment. Protection is a way to prevent it from happening. I believe that people should be as safe as possible, even if there are unconditional dangers in society. Have freedom, but be careful, because you never know what could happen.

Friday, March 1, 2013 at 6:23 AM