On Bruised Hearts and Broken Hallelujahs

“I wish you were my daddy.”

The words hit me like a ton of bricks. It took every fiber of my being to not to fall apart – to walk outside and collapse into a puddle of infinite sadness. This child had known me for less than thirty seconds. We’d shared two sentences. One high five. And in those moments, I’d gone from stranger to role model. What could I say to something like that?

The encounter resurrected a familiar ache from my bruised heart. I come from a long line of broken homes, and am no stranger to the biting uncertainties and deep pain of divorce, custody battles, addiction, and death. But in that moment stood before me a child who knew an anguish that I will never know. I didn’t know his life story. I didn’t have to. Hiding beneath an anxious smile was a thin, quivering undertone of strife that shook me to my core. I can still feel myself shaking in the paradox of that moment – empowered by grace and good circumstances to help those less fortunate than myself, but rendered powerless by the inescapable shadow of privilege and the realization of my own human limitations. All of my compassion, all of my money, all of my time – none of it could heal his pain. My part to play was peripheral. It will haunt me for the rest of my life. 

Less than two weeks ago, I read that a teenager with an automatic weapon had walked into Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida and taken seventeen souls from Earth. I didn’t even finish reading the alert on my cell phone before a familiar electricity pulsed through my being. It was the same electricity I felt after the shooting in Las Vegas less than six months ago. The same electricity I felt after the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary less than six years ago. The same electricity I felt in all of those moments of deep tragedy and horror in between. But where once this electricity awakened a deeper call to action within me, it now brought paradox. I could feel again the surging energy of activism, but alongside it crept a deep numbness of defeat. I had been here before. I had gotten angry. I had marched. I had voted. But nothing had changed. What could I do now? 

I sometimes dream that I am standing next to those survivors that I see in the news – the children who watched their classmates and teachers fall to the ground that now look politicians in the eye and demand change, or the parents who somehow brave the weight of more sorrow than I can imagine, get out of bed in the morning, and continue to fight for the change that their family members deserved. I never know what to say to them. They wake up every day and do the impossible. As time goes on, the details of the tragedy will inevitably fade from my memory. But their voices will not. In their voices I find a broken hallelujah. I feel the biting cold of loss in the shrill of their cries. I see their struggle with an unimaginable paradox – the surrender to inner pain in order to fight for those they’ve lost. I hear them tell me, “Love is not a victory march,” as they trudge forward and speak truth to power in the face of unspeakable trauma. 

We live in a world of bruised hearts and broken hallelujahs. From the personal moments that reopen our own wounds to the collective experiences that speak to us through the pain of strangers, we are all confronted by the paradoxes of tragedy. I am not writing this to tell you how to find our way out of these paradoxes. I am not sure we really can. I am writing this to tell you that you are not alone. I feel it, too. And while I can’t promise you that it will get better, I can promise to navigate these paradoxes together.

Because that’s what a community is for.  

Photo by tamckile on Foter.com / CC BY

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About the Author

Gregoire Phillips is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Political Science at the University of California, San Diego.

He has been part of the Sojo Community since 2016.