Cheez-It crackers and the importance of stories

Cheez-It crackers at a blood driveWhen we’re confronted with a horrific tragedy, like the most recent cluster of mass shootings, we feel powerless. It doesn’t help that our leaders seem to have no interest in unity and healing. In fact, they see it as an opportunity to settle scores and boost their agendas. We are left trying to piece things together, find solutions, and figure a way out of the abyss. But what do we do? What can we do?

I recently listened to an episode of the Relatively Sane Podcast where Jessica Kirson interviewed Fred Guttenberg. Fred spoke about his experiences since the murder of his daughter Jaime at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. This includes the infamous encounter when Justice Brett Kavanaugh refused to shake his hand and had the police remove him from the chamber. Towards the end of the podcast, he talked about his interest in writing. He wants to write a book about Jaime and what happened. He also described writing as therapeutic, something all of us writers know.

If you look only at the numbers of mass shootings, it’s easy to mutter “thoughts and prayers” and move on. Numbers are why Neil deGrasse Tyson made that insensitive tweet. Even a number like 40,000 gun-related deaths per year seems insignificant when around 16 times as many people die from heart disease over the same period. Politicians and lobbyists find such numbers easy to dismiss and could ride out the calls for change until some other outrage catches the public’s attention.

This is why Cheez-It crackers matter.

This was Jaime Guttenberg’s favorite snack. She used to finish a box a week, which is easy to do when you had the metabolism of a 14-year-old competitive dancer. When she wasn’t dancing, she was teaching dance to kids with special needs. She took a stand against bullying and befriended kids who were left out. I can think of a number of people who would have appreciated having a Jaime Guttenberg in their lives.

When you learn Jaime’s story and the stories of all those who were victims of mass shootings, they cease to be mere statistics. You learn who they were when they were alive and the hole left behind by their deaths. You understand that the ones they leave behind will suffer pain that will never go away. The more you learn about them, the more you listen to their loved ones talk about them, they begin to haunt you too. You won’t be able to wave them away with “thoughts and prayers.”

This is the power of art. Art can make us feel. When we feel, we can care. When we care, we want to do something.

If we want change and to escape from the horror we’re in, we need to share and listen to stories. Stories give the dead a voice. They declare what matters to us, what we hope for, and how we can overcome our fears and pain. They can drown out the voices of hatred and cynicism. More than ever, we need writing, art, and better stories.