I was sitting in the chaos of my office hear in Suwon, accustomed to the loud chattering in Korean, English, and Konglish that had so stressed me when I arrived five months ago. As usual, I had jammed my second-hand headphones into my ear canals in the attempt to drown out the cacophony with electronic music. Six classes and a four-hour training in another city had made for a rough Friday, not to mention that I had to be back in that exact seat less than 12 hours later.
I lazily opened Twitter.
My eyes wandered over the stories. The usual. The…wait…It flashed across the bottom of the page. 12 killed. Colorado. What? Where? Aurora. My best friend lives there.
It was as if the blood had drained from the top half of my body.
I’ve been through shootings before. As member of the generation that came of age around the time of the shooting at Columbine High School, I grew up with the images of that day burned into my mind. I especially remembered the kid throwing himself out a second story window, clearly wounded in the leg. My parents had tried to keep me from seeing that. I watched another shooting at a high school in the mountains unfold, and later that same year the Virginia Tech shooting from my college dorm. I was in California when the news of the attempted assassination of Rep. Gabriel Giffords broke last in January 2011.
Almost exactly a year ago when I lived in Chile, that country experienced its first random shooting ever. A man walked into a subway station armed with a handgun and killed two before turning the gun on himself. I sat watching the news with my host mother in the living room of her pension house, calmly absorbing the news. She rounded on me.
“How are you so calm? Why aren’t you reacting?” she demanded.
Truth be told, I was too calm. I wasn’t reacting. I’d grown so accustomed to these situations that I accepted them in a fatalistic way, the familiar turns of phrase (“turned the gun on himself” included) absorbed in years of watching them unfold periodically and nearly predictably. When I worked at a university, I occasionally feared the errant student who would have acquired a weapon days earlier. I grew up with the periodic interruption of random, senseless, unpredictable violence. She was seeing it for the first time at 58. It brought home how desensitized I had truly become.
As I read the sickeningly familiar reports that come in the wake of a mass random shooting, I became overwhelmed at my desk. The students were safely back in their classrooms for the final class of the day, and the only ones there to see my reaction were my coworkers. Still, I thought it best to stand up and move out of the office.
I reached the hall, feeling dizzy. In these kinds of moments, when one doesn’t know what else to do and one can do nothing, many turn to prayer. I haven’t been a fan of religion for some time, particularly disenchanted with the preachy prayer types. Recently, I began to admit I am no longer a believer in the paradigm in which I was raised. I told friends. I admitted my lack of belief in “The Jesus” (Big Lebowski or otherwise) to questioning students here in Korea. My Twitter handle says that I am a Teapot Atheist…based on Russell’s Teapot. I haven’t prayed in a very long time.
Looking out the window, pacing through the halls with my head in my hands, I thought of those I know who live in the Aurora area and especially my best friend. I couldn’t know at the time whether he was all right, whether he was involved…I could do nothing from that window looking out over Yeongtong.
“Our Father, who art in heaven…”
The word’s unexpected arrival on my lips startled me.
“Hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on Earth as it is in heaven.”
This was not a plea to an unknown and omnipresent god, who could change the circumstances and magically Deus Ex Machina the future. This was the only response I could find when the desire to do something mingled with the powerlessness of being alone in a dark stairwell, the burden of not knowing fell heavy on me. This was a plea to that Something in the dark, that Something that our puny human brains decided to try to write down and claim to have full knowledge of. That mystery, that massiveness of the universe against our tiny struggles.
“Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.”
I thought of the gunman, at the time unidentified. I thought briefly of whether I could forgive him if he had actually killed someone I knew. I doubted. I looked in the darkness for the Something, and found nothing but myself and my hope that all would be well. It is so brave to go through life without relying on that Something in whatever form it takes, knowing that there is no plan and that your incantations are unheard by anyone but you. I realized that I make a rather shoddy atheist, since the second the shit hit the fan I dropped the ball.
An hour and a half later, the text came from my friend to confirm that he is well and safe. “‘I’m ok, thanks for checking! Holy fuck it’s horrifying isn’t it?” I was one of the lucky ones. So many are not in the same circumstances.
I don’t believe that my prayer helped to keep my friend safe. I don’t believe that it was really heard by anyone but me. I don’t believe that prayer serves the functions that so many seem to think it does (a cosmic candy store just waiting to give out goodies, or a means to condemn one’s enemies while appearing pious).
Despite that, it did something for me in a moment of difficulty. Maybe that was the original point of prayer, after all.