The Three Questions for a Swingset Activist in the Shadow of Uvalde by David Charles Metler

The Three Questions for a Swingset Activist in the Shadow of Uvalde

By: David Charles Metler

Swingset Activism asks us to close our eyes and feel that exhilarating freedom you feel as a child on a swing soaring to new heights, perspective, and possibilities.

Swingset Activism is activism generated by love that is integrative, relational, and imaginative.

Why is Silence Important?

A Pause to Connect to Integrity before Your Response

A moment of silence. A Pause. Breathing in. Breathing Out. For three years, I have been the Mindfulness Coordinator at Detroit Leadership Academy (DLA), a PK-8 inner city school on the west side of Detroit and today my Principal is leading a moment of silence over the morning announcements.. It was first thing in the morning of May 25th 2022, the day after 19 children and 2 teachers were massacred at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas. The school shooting carnage took place primarily in two conjoined 4th grade classes. The first class I teach each day - 4th grade.

It was 8:44am and my 4th grade class was about to start in one minute. I stood there in front of the 4th grade class for a second, practicing a moment of full loving presence, to take in the beauty and sacredness of each and every one of my students. And to be grateful that they were still here; they showed up, and they were alive. I then asked the class the question “so, why did the Principal just lead a moment of silence.” The students had heard the news but they didn’t know why a moment of silence was significant. I paused and began to create and hold space for all the big feelings in the room. And I felt that we all needed to be together and to be there for each other. The students rose to the occasion and shared in ways that came from deep within their hearts and speaked into each other's listening. “We are in fourth grade, that could have been us,” said one of my students.”I don’t know if I feel safe being here at school”, another student shared. I affirmed their feelings and shared that our deepest sense of safety is relational, meaning that we all needed to take care of each other and look out for each other while also acknowledging that it was not 100% safe. It is brutal to face the truth - but that is what mindfulness is all about. As the poet Danna Faulds says “mindfulness practice becomes simply bearing the truth.” I was proud of them not just because they were demonstrating what I have taught them in mindfulness class at DLA ( hearing their own wise inner voice clearly, awareness and expression of their emotions, peace and calm amidst chaos, and deep relational empathy), but I was proud of them for showing up despite all their fears, especially fears for their own safety. I mean most kids don’t really have a choice to show up at their elementary school the day after a mass shooting at an elementary school but what I mean by showing up is mind, body, and soul - being fully present.

Most adults seemed to immediately get to making creative memes and into political debate right after the mass shooting in Texas without even a moment to pause. Maybe adults feel like they can’t pause. In a 24/7 news cycle world, a short pause by any company to release a statement about the shooting or posting a meme to their socials might mean they are perceived to be unaware or worse targeted as not loving children. And, even as MLK has said that “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter”, a brief silence or a pause can be wise in the immediate space between an incident and the response. In fact, that may be the most humane and respectful thing we can do to honor our own emotions and practice self-love before we try to support others and solve the larger systemic problems of our day. As Viktor Frankl has said “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” Right after the Texas incident happened I remember that my Principal shared to our staff group chat that she was at a loss for words. At first, I was upset by this because I looked to her to say something to reassure me. I then realized that it was an important message that it was not the time for words yet. The incident was so incendiary there were no words. It is actually quite a powerful thing to be literally speechless, to not know what to say, and to lean into the vulnerability of that space of pre-language. Most of the time when we are in this uncomfortable space it is because we have not yet truly felt what has happened. We have not comprehended or processed something to a point where we can organize it into a coherent statement or response. And that is okay. In that moment of being at a loss for words, we are truly vulnerable to the sensory and visceral bodily experience. For some this is overwhelming and to avoid discomfort or awkwardness many will choose to prematurely speak from what they know from before the current experience in a way to protect themselves from the pain of not knowing or the pain of silence and pause. It takes discernment to know that It was not okay for the Uvalde Police Department to pause for over 60 minutes before entering the school but it is okay to pause for a few minutes in the immediate aftermath of an overwhelming tragedy like what happened in Uvalde to allow yourself to bear the full truth of what happened before trying to respond. In fact, that pause may be the greatest way to honor yourself, your own community, and the victims and their families – a pause to connect back to your most whole integrated yourself before you respond.

Why are Thoughts and Prayers Important?

Relating the Intrapersonal, Interpersonal, Institutional and Societal

I once heard someone say that as humans we have two superpowers - the power of our example and the power of prayer. As Parker Palmer has said “We teach who we are.”

We each have our lives to create as a piece of art as examples for what we stand for and what we value. What I found myself telling my 4th grade students is to be an example of what they want the world to be like. If they want the world to be kind, then be kind. If they want the world to be more loving, then be more loving. This is one way in which we can see how the personal is connected to the planetary and how the intrapersonal work of eliminating oppression and human caused suffering is connected to the interpersonal, the institutional, and the societal. This is “the Ecology of the Child” to create change across all levels from the personal to the planetary. This encourages agency at a time in which some can start to feel nihilistic and hopeless especially as the adults of this country pick up the stagnant old debates over gun legislation.

As the memes began to circulate, the one that frustrated me the most was the ones which called out “thoughts and prayers.” I do believe that this phrase has become commonplace in the US after national tragedies but only because they happen so frequently and that it could easily be seen in the visible world as meaningless if they are not also supported by direct actions that are within the power of the people. I get that. However, I became frustrated to see the power of thoughts and prayers be minimized. We know the loads of research out there these days about the power of the mind, especially the power of the mind in healing. As Angela Davis said “We have to talk about liberating minds as well as liberating society.” We know that oppression is both internalized and external and our work to dismantle oppression must involve the mind, body, and the larger ecology we are all an interdependent part of together. Also, mindfulness teaches us to become more curious, kind, and non-judgmental towards our own thoughts. Every action begins as a thought, and every thought begins as a feeling. We can explore where our thoughts come from, to not believe every thought we have, we can befriend our negative thoughts and seek to understand what they are trying to tell us and discern if it is our voice that is truly behind them, and we can inspire new thoughts in our minds that give us hope, a more genuine feeling of connection, and a deeper sense of perspective. We can see the world with new eyes beginning with a new way of thinking about our thinking. So, when we say that we are holding the victims of this tragedy in our thoughts, we can truly mean it and feel the power of that. My class did this by practicing a loving-kindness practice by JustMe found here . Students reported feeling their true feelings and extending their love across borders to their fellow students and families in Texas. They shared that it felt good to hold the memories of those lost in their thoughts with kindness and love.

And the power of prayer cannot be understated. Even for those who are not spiritual, we all have hopes and dreams and empathy for others hopes and dreams. Prayer means to me that we have hopes and intentions and a desire to connect to something beyond ourselves. Before I became the Mindfulness Coordinator at Detroit Leadership Academy, I was the Spiritual Advisor for Pediatric Oncology at the University of Michigan Children’s Hospital. I saw every day the power of prayer to focus the mind and the heart on the miracles in the present moment and I felt awe of the deep searching for meaning and purpose of the events of our lives in a bigger context and perspective. I saw that prayer is sometimes all we have to connect beyond the human experience on this planet and to touch into the divine and to what love really is from a spiritual perspective. Regardless of your spiritual background, we can see there is power to staying focused on what we can do instead of getting distracted by what we can’t do. We can’t bring the lives back that were lost that day. We can hold them in our hearts so that their memories can be a blessing and as Rabbi Heschel said “we pray with our feet.” That means we do everything that is humanly possible to change the systemic conditions that caused this tragedy and the numerous ones before it.

Why is it Always a Male Shooter?

Imagining a World Beyond Patriarchy

The last question I asked my 4th grade class was “Why is it always a male shooter.?” Their answers were very wise and touched on everything from suppressed emotions, to toxic masculinity, to how we can support true women’s empowerment. Now, I know you may be thinking that I am going to turn this article into a piece all about how mindfulness is going to fix everything. It is not. But I do believe we need to embrace the imagination to go beyond the usual rhetoric and partisan grid-lock that arises after each tragedy in the US. As Audre Lorde has said, “The Master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” We need to stretch the elasticity of our collective imaginations of what is possible. As James Baldwin said “But in our time, as in every time, the impossible is the least that one can demand-and one is, after all, emboldened by the spectacle of human history in general, and the American Negro history in particular, for it testifies to nothing less than the perpetual achievement of the impossible.”

My favorite meme was this one below that makes the case that even though a lot of people are talking about gun control or mental health, or the connection between the two - that it is problematic because it simplifies the truth. The truth is as it says that “this is a white male patriarchy problem. This is more about racism, sexism, privilege, and entitlement than it is anything else. All the mental health treatment in the world is not going to stop a group of men who society teaches that they have a historical, spiritual, and even moral right to exalt themselves above everyone else and that it is heroic to exalt themselves by force.” Mindfulness will not solve this. Even 4th grade students in Detroit practicing loving-kindness practice will not solve this although that is an important and beautiful thing.

We need to begin to imagine a world beyond patriarchy. We need to begin to imagine a world in which we truly empower our babies and our families from the start. We need to begin to imagine a world in which boys learn how to be human, how to be kind to themselves, how to be allies, and to unlearn toxic masculinity. As Teresa Graham Brett has said ““Imagine a world where mistrust, power-over dynamics, domination, and oppression no longer exist because children have never experienced them.” We need to realize that centering childhood illuminates the foundation of all oppression in childhood because “social justice begins with childhood.” The promise of Swingset Activism - activism generated by love that is integrative, relational, and imaginative is this: When we are integrative, we reconnect to our own authentic voice and our wholeness. When we are relational, we see opportunities to create social justice in our everyday moments and relationships in solidarity with our communities and connect that women’s empowerment empowers the whole world. When we truly imagine, especially imagining a world beyond patriarchy, we can see that if we transform childhood, we transform everything.

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