“We all go through something in life.” These were the words Antoinette Tuff spoke to the man who entered the front office of the elementary school where she worked. The man was carrying an assault rifle and five hundred rounds of ammunition.
As a school administrator, Antoinette had been through training in preparation for situations like this. She kept a calm, business-like demeanor as she spoke with the armed man and relayed his messages to the 911 operator on the other end of the phone. I recently heard part of the 911 call replayed during a podcast. I heard Antoinette’s attempts to mitigate the situation and knew she must have been terrified. But it wasn’t her ability to stay calm under pressure that struck me, that caused tears to roll down my cheeks as I listened.
It was her compassion.
Antoinette saw something in the gunman that wasn’t clearly visible. She saw his pain and suffering and fear and loneliness. She saw recognized him as a person and attempted to relate to him, to connect with him, human being to human being.
The gunman gradually revealed in conversation that he wasn’t on his medication, that he wanted to go to the hospital, that he wanted to surrender. Antoinette offered to walk out of the school with him to make sure the police didn’t shoot him. As he waited instead for police to enter the school to detain and arrest him, Antoinette waited with him.
“We’re not going to hate you. It’s a good thing that you’re giving up. We’re not going to hate you.”
The gunman set his weapon down and lay on the floor, all the while talking of remorse and suicide. Antoinette continued to talk with him:
“It’s going to be alright, sweetie. I just want you to know that I love you though, ok? And I’m proud of you. That’s a good thing that you’re just giving up, and don’t worry about it. We all go through something in life.”
“…I tried to commit suicide last year after my husband left me, but look at me now. I’m still working and everything is okay.”
She found a way to relate to him. She felt compassion for him, despite her fear. Not only that, but she expressed her love for him. She opened her heart and gave genuine love to another person, a stranger, a man who had walked into her school with a gun.
Listening to the recording of the call I couldn’t help but cry. The compassion and love was overwhelming. Sometimes that is all we really need – for someone to show a little compassion. Sometimes that is all we need to do – to be the type of person who is there to show that compassion.
I realized listening to Antoinette speak that I likely would not have had the same instinct as her. Attempting to connect with and relate to the gunman might never have crossed my mind at all. Even as the gunman, who was only 20 years old, surrendered, it probably would not have occurred to me to be compassionate, and that’s a sad thing. More likely I would have drawn a mental line in the sand that separated me from him, labeling us as entirely different people with nothing in common.
We may not always understand each other, but we all have certain things in common. We have all felt angry. We have all felt lost. We all want to love and to be loved. It’s important to recognize also that we all have our struggles. As Antoinette said, we all go through something in life. It isn’t easy for anyone.
Perhaps what we need is more practice in connecting with others on a more intimate level, on a more human emotional level. I, for one, know that I need more practice. Over the years I have gradually shied away more and more from deep personal relationships and recently decided to change that. Harnessing a sense of compassion and showing it towards others is a good way to start.
Love is another way. It is the ultimate in human emotion and need. We require love to survive. Perhaps if we spend more time and attention on the things and people we love and try to be more present in the existence of love around us, we will be more open and compassionate and connect more with each other on a deeper level.
We can generate more love and compassion, and perhaps one day we will use it to save someone.