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  • Writer's picturejamesbriankerr

“One Foot in Front of the Other”—The Heroes of Sandy Hook

I was listening to an inspiring conversation last week on National Public Radio with David Wheeler, whose son was killed in the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings in December of 2012. Wheeler was being interviewed about the landmark $73 million settlement of a suit brought by the families of the victims against Remington Arms, the company that made the weapon used by the shooter.

I remember vividly the horror of hearing about those shootings on the news. Nearly ten years on, I continue to be haunted by images of little children hiding in closets to try to keep out of sight of the deranged shooter. It’s hard to get things like that out of your head.

As I listened to the interview with Wheeler, I was amazed to hear this man who’d lost his child speak so calmly and with such poise about the families’ tireless crusade to find justice in the wake of losing their children. I kept thinking: as a father myself, would I be able to show such poise if my kid had been taken away from me by a madman?

But it was what Wheeler said at the end of the interview that really struck me. Leila Fadel from NPR asked him what was next for him and his family now that the long legal battle was over.

“Well,” he said, “we just go on, you know. One foot in front of the other.”

That, for me, sums up what is so remarkable about human beings. It’s our incredible ability to find the strength to keep on going when the unspeakable happens to us. To get up in the morning and put one foot in front of the other when there’s no logical reason to even put on your shoes.

It’s something that fascinates me. What makes people go on when the pain is so awful and the way is dark? Where do they find meaning when everything seems so senseless?

I never fail to be inspired by the resilience of the human spirit in the face of adversity. There are stories of that resilience everywhere. For me, one of the most inspiring is the story of the Austrian neurologist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl, who wrote the classic book Man’s Search for Meaning about his experiences in the Nazi concentration camps. Frankl lost his parents, his wife, his brother, many friends—essentially, everyone who was important to him—at Auschwitz and other camps. What kept him going?

According to Frankl in the book, it was his ability to choose his own meaning and attitude in the midst of unspeakable atrocities and suffering. His German captors could take away everything else—his freedom, his clothes, his food, his family, even his life—but they could not take away his spiritual freedom to think his own independent thoughts and find hope and meaning in the darkness of circumstances.

We live in an age of hero worship, when Hollywood actors, music stars, beautiful models, and professional athletes are frequently held up to us as worthy of our attention and emulation. But to me, it’s people like David Wheeler and Victor Frankl—everyday people who find themselves in tough circumstances and don’t give up—who are the true heroes that light my way.

Blessedly, I have never had to go through the unimaginable suffering of losing a child. But I’ve had lots of other adversity in my life, from cancer and divorce to black bouts of depression so deep that I saw no way out. In the worst of it, as I describe in my forthcoming book The Long Walk Home, I would sit for hours on the front porch of the old farmhouse where I grew up talking through my troubles with my dear mother.

My mom, who will be turning eighty-nine in a month, is a woman of deep Christian faith. Throughout her long life, she has met adversities—and there were many of them—through the power of prayer and novenas said on her well-worn rosary. Many of those novenas were said while rocking on the front porch of the farmhouse. After the prayers and novenas, she would rise from that chair, rejuvenated, and put one foot in front of the other.

And that was always her message to me when I was going through my own troubles. Just keep going, she would say. From her, I learned that trouble is a dark tunnel, but it’s a tunnel that does not go on forever. On the other side is light and joy, if only we keep walking, keep believing, keep looking for the good.

Much has been said and written about strategies to get through adversity, loss, tragedy, depression, anguish, job loss, divorce, and the thousand other natural shocks the flesh is heir to. But in the end, I think it all comes down to a decision we make deep down inside. Do we want to go on, or do we not?

If we want to go on, we put one foot in front of the other and keep walking. If we don’t, we lie down in the muck and give up.

The first path is the path of faith. The second is the path of desolation and despair.

The thing about taking the path of faith is that it’s blind. You can’t see the other side. There’s no tangible evidence that it even exists. And yet, there’s a guarantee that by taking the path of faith, you will find a way out of the desolation. That you will get to the other side.

It’s a mystery, best expressed by the apostle Paul in that wonderful line from his letter to the Hebrews (11:1, KJV): “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” I’ve always loved the way Paul uses scientific words to describe something that is fundamentally ineffable. Faith is substance, he says. It is the tangible evidence of something very real and powerful, if only we believe that to be so.

Why do we go on? We go on because we have faith that we are more than our present circumstances, because we believe those circumstances won’t last, that things will get better, perhaps in spite of all evidence otherwise. Thinking won’t get you there. Reasoning won’t get you there. Drowning in your sorrows won’t get you there.

Only faith. Only believing.

Heroes are people who forge meaning from the steel of their own making. Who reach down deep, deep, deep and find the will and meaning to keep going. People like the parents of the victims of Sandy Hook.

I shake my head in amazement at them. Mostly, I thank the Lord for them and the inspiration they provide the rest of us.

So thank you, David Wheeler, and all the parents of Sandy Hook victims who have made the decision to keep going, despite unspeakable losses, and create meaning where there is none. You are an inspiration to all of us.

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