I sat in a church Thursday among the wounded and the dead, seeking comfort while vowing not to get comfortable. It was in a sun-drenched room at the Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill, where paintings hung of people whose lives had been forever altered or lost to gun violence.
I'd been meaning to check out the traveling exhibition, "Souls Shot: Portraits of Victims of Gun Violence," for a while. Thursday felt like the right time.
That morning I had woken up to learn that there had been yet another mass shooting, this time in a bar in California, that left 12 dead. Some of the patrons had already survived the shooting a year before at a country music concert in Las Vegas, where 58 died. Telemachus Orfanos, who'd survived the Vegas shooting, wasn't so lucky. He was 27.
"My son was in Las Vegas with a lot of his friends, and he came home," his mother, Susan Orfanos, told reporters. "He didn't come home last night. I don't want thoughts. I want gun control. No more guns."
A man who had escaped with his stepson was on TV giving a gut-wrenching apology for getting out and not attempting to stop the gunman.
"I should've stayed 'til he changed his clip, but I was worried about my boy," said the distraught man. "I apologize to anybody who got hurt or passed."
On Twitter, Alex Millard summed up the horror of it all:
"This man is literally apologizing for surviving a mass shooting. This is America."
It was just too much.
And though it is my job to have something to say, to try to make sense of it all, Thursday was one of those days where numbness creeps in, where emotions begin to shut down in a selfish act of self-preservation. Survival.
What is left to say when millions of words have been written and said to try to stop the daily deterioration of our democracy: the lies, the hate, the gaslighting, the constant cosigning by people with the privilege to look away. And yes, I'm looking at you, white women who overwhelmingly chose to elect President Trump despite his dehumanizing treatment of women and then doubled down in Texas and Georgia by overwhelmingly supporting his surrogates in the midterm elections.
In 2016, I wrote that we need to stop playing nice with family members who voted for a racist and misogynist president just to keep the dinner table peace. Well, white female friends, colleagues, "allies …" — you're up.
But first, we need to push through. Because two years in, none of this is normal. Still. Not this president. Not these shootings by white American men — yes, domestic terrorists — while the administration chases black and brown bogeymen near the border. Not the NRA, in a tweet warning "antigun doctors" to "stay in their lane."
This lane belongs to all of us. The car is flying off a cliff.
At a Journalism and Women Symposium conference in Oregon last month, Elise Hu of NPR, spoke about the bleakness.
"I look to heroes who can't afford to go numb," she said. "Mothers fighting to find their kids and be reunited at the border. The sexual assault victims who keep using their voices in spite of everything. The Parkland teens. …"
And, I thought while sitting in that church building, the family members of the people in the portraits.
I thought of those people whose names were written across T-shirts right outside on the front lawn, another memorial to Philadelphians shot and killed.
I recognized many of the names. I'd written about them, sat with their families and friends as they mourned their losses and then fought their way past the numbness to commit themselves to getting justice, stopping the violence.
Among the T-shirts were 11 Stars of David, added recently to mark the deaths of those gunned down at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, the last mass shooting that got all of our attention, even though there have been at least 11 shootings of four or more people since, and 307 mass shootings so far this year. As the country mourned the loss of life in California, here in Philly on Thursday night there was a triple shooting. A 15-year-old was killed.
If you haven't seen the Souls Shot exhibit yet, go. As NPR's Hu said, look to the heroes who can't afford to go numb.