By Eric Clayton
May 31, 2022 — Last Wednesday was my eldest daughter’s half birthday.
I’ve resisted celebrating half birthdays — despite doing so growing up. More cake, more presents, more special dinners — that’s a recipe for a spoiled kid, right? You get one birthday a year, as God intended. But we needed a little spark of joy during these many pandemic months, and so the half birthday celebration was adopted, even if half-heartedly.
And it’s too late, it seems, to put that proverbial toothpaste back in the tube.
“We should go out to dinner tonight,” my daughter said, mere moments after waking up last Wednesday. “It’s a special day.”
Is it? I thought.
I rolled my eyes, but several hours later would find us sitting outdoors, waiting for our hummus and guac and mac and cheese and chicken fingers, in a parking-lot-turned-patio dining space. Our youngest dipped her pita bread into ketchup and then into hummus, and the half-birthday-girl happily gobbled up my plate of guacamole. Special dinner success.
We did get her a small gift and my wife made brownies and we lit a candle and sang.
I guess we are officially the kind of people that celebrate half birthdays.
Honestly, though, for the amount of gray hair those kids have summoned out of my head, I’m more than happy to celebrate them, to make them feel special, to create these memories of love and family and safety. Celebrations keep us focused on the present, living in the moment, grateful for and mindful of the people in our lives.
I wonder if our culture, our society, might benefit from celebrating one another more often.
Because as you undoubtedly know, the day before my eldest daughter’s half birthday, Tuesday, May 24th, saw another mass shooting in the United States: 19 children and two teachers gunned down in their school in Uvalde, Texas, and this not two weeks after a racially motivated massacre saw another gunman murder ten African Americans in a grocery store in Buffalo, New York.
An utterly shameful travesty — and something we cannot grow numb to.
That Wednesday night, by complete coincidence — if you believe in such things — I sat down to continue my prayer through the Spiritual Exercises. The Scripture reading I was given for that evening was Mark 10:13 – 16. Jesus and the little children.
We know the story, right? The disciples keep the little children at bay, thinking Jesus won’t want to waste his time with them. But that’s not Jesus’ way at all.
When Jesus saw this, he became indignant and said to them, ‘Let the children come to me; do not prevent them.’
Praying with that Scripture story on that particular Wednesday night, I couldn’t help but feel as though Jesus was pointing his finger and becoming indignant with me, with us, with our society that continues to obfuscate in the wake of more and more senseless killing, more and more frightened school children.
Because here’s the thing: We’ve done exactly what Jesus found so repugnant. We’ve prevented these 19 young lives from encountering Christ in their parents and grandparents, in their friends and neighbors, in their teachers and coaches. We’ve robbed the world of these nineteen unique and irreplaceable expressions of Christ’s love.
And that’s to say nothing of the two teachers killed, the ten folks killed in Buffalo, and the countless, countless other lives lost to gun violence this year alone.
It’s tempting in the wake of a tragedy like this to retreat into our respective ideological camps, to consume — and overconsume — hot takes that reinforce our prevailing worldview. It’s tempting, too, to fall into complacency or apathy, to assume there is nothing to be done to prevent this unnecessary slaughter of human lives, that this is just the way it is.
In the Spiritual Exercises, we pray to discover and act on God’s will for our lives and our world. Ignatius wants us to cultivate a healthy indifference toward all created things so as to have freedom to act on God’s will in our lives. This necessarily means letting go of those things that get in the way of hearing and responding to God’s will.
What are we holding too tightly to in our political discourse? What do we need to let go of to allow God to work in new, life-saving ways?
God does not desire this slaughter. And Catholic social teaching reminds us that our rights come with responsibilities: namely, the responsibility to care for the most vulnerable. If our rights infringe on those responsibilities, then we might need to reevaluate.
This is a long road. And still, many of us might wonder what we in our unique settings and situations might contribute. We can call our legislators and hold our prayer vigils and protest peacefully.
But I think first and foremost, we must look to those around us — particularly, those young lives in our immediate orbit. How might we celebrate them? How might we make them feel special, safe, included?
A kind smile to the kid kicking our seat on the plane. Letting the tired parent, laden with kids, go ahead of us in line. Paying more attention to the language we use, particularly those violent or offensive words or phrases. And celebration of even the little things in the lives of our children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews, students and more.
These are simple acts, yes. And no, they won’t feel like they’re adding up to much of anything. And yet, these are the little cultural shifts we need to make to build a foundation for lasting change.
Do we have the audacity to continue to trust in our God of love — even in these moments when we know Jesus weeps?
Eric Clayton is the deputy communications director at the Jesuit Conference of Canada and the United States and author of the book “Cannonball Moments: Telling Your Story, Deepening Your Faith.”