I had a very simple task to do yesterday.
All I had to do was stand in front of a staff meeting and invite them to visit a few of our locations for an Awareness Tour.
No big deal. I stand in front of this group all the time. I’ve known most of them for many years so there’s no “stage fright”.
And I completely lost it.
One of our staff had just delivered a passion-filled update on our organization’s planning and upcoming practices for how to respond to an Active Shooter incident. We’d love to say it’s something that can’t happen in our area, but probably every community in the US says that until, suddenly, it does. And it already has affected our community. There was a shooting at the high school less than a mile away from our office about 10 years ago. His heart and passion for protecting our organization and our youth was inspiring and had the room choked up and searching for Kleenex.
After he left I had a few minutes to compose myself while the next few speakers took their turns.
All I had to do was invite staff to come to one of two tours in our facilities, including one at our resident camp.
And I lost it.
All I could think about was the evening of the Sandy Hook shooting five years ago. I had just dropped my oldest son, who was 8 at the time, off for a weekend winter camp. Because of the news I was reeling and anxious to let him out of my sight, but the staff at our camp is superb and it was probably exactly the place he needed to be. I was walking the dark trail back to the parking lot and heard joy and singing and laughing floating up through the woods and knew, then and there, that the answer to all of this was right in front of me.
There is nothing more powerful and transformative than an honest, genuine, heartfelt and accepting relationship.
Most of us have those experiences regularly. We thrive when we feel we can be open and honest and accepted for all that we are and not just the masks we tend to put on so often.
But for the person who isn’t experiencing that, life can be hell.
There may be nothing more soul-destroying than feeling like an unwanted, unloved, unworthy outsider looking in. It’s overwhelmingly depressing and can lead to all sorts of reactionary behaviors and feelings: drinking, drugs, anger, resentment… and rage.
And the answer is so simple and yet so hard.
The answer is to see and hear and feel and connect with that person and embrace them. To wrap them in the giant hug they are longing for.
But it’s so hard to tell who that is, because we all wear such effective masks. It may even be ourselves, from time to time, that need that hug, but can’t figure out how to ask because that would mean appearing weak.
And I lost it.
I lost it because I know our organization, the YMCA, is doing this work all day, every day, and has for over 150 years. It’s easy to try to peg us as a gym or a camp, but the real mission is to build connections. To build relationships. To be open and accepting and transformative and healing. And we do it really, really well.
And it’s not just our organization. It’s Scouts. It’s Boys and Girls Clubs. It’s churches. It’s schools. It’s the group of people sitting at a table at the mall playing Dungeons and Dragons. It’s any where we make the effort to reach out, open ourselves up, and connect.
It’s easy after yet another shooting to feel powerless. We want somebody, anybody, to do something to make it never happen again.
We want a hero.
But we aren’t powerless. The opportunity is right there in front of us to make a difference.
But the hero, in this case, is only heroic when the mask comes off.
You make a difference. You matter. You, in all your messiness and uniqueness and wonderfulness can change a life and change the world.
Changing the world will not come from clenching our fists or pointing our fingers or launching yet another round of social media blame bombs.
It will come from opening our arms and our hearts and taking off our masks.