So, we are all in awe of Antoinette Tuff and her compassion and grace in talking down the gunman in a school outside Atlanta. He was dressed in black and carrying an AK-47 and 500 rounds of ammunition when he burst into her office, and she told him that she loved him, showed him there was hope for him, and promised to shield him with her own body when he surrendered to the police.
In accord with all great spiritual teachings, she saw herself in him.
Slate’s Dahlia Lithwick, whose lovely column appeared on this page Aug. 27 (“In Georgia, a lesson in empathy”), pointed out how Ms. Tuff utterly demolished the NRA claim that “the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.”
It would seem the better thing is a good guy or lady with a big heart who doesn’t think the other guy is hopelessly bad after all. Wounded, misguided, dangerous, of course, but still a human being who will respond to empathy and love.
But I take issue with Lithwick’s statement that Tuff’s “stunning calm, compassion and control is something absolutely nobody else could have achieved under the circumstances.”
Ten years ago, my husband and I and some good friends started a small foundation to seek out and honor (with unsolicited $1,000 awards) people who express the same heart energy that Tuff exhibited: unconditional love, drawn from their higher power, offered with no personal agenda, which enables ordinary people to do extraordinary things.
The interesting thing is that we have found such people all over — in advocacy groups and relief agencies, of course, but also in schools, shops, and neighborhoods. Sixty-five at last count.
We gave an award to a man who carries out groceries at a nearby Lunds. He happens to suffer from schizophrenia, and he also calls many customers by name and exudes love and goodwill toward everyone.
We gave an award to a woman who has been moved to repeatedly approach the stunned families of shooting victims in north Minneapolis and facilitate funeral arrangements for them.
We gave an award to a woman who works in a group home, then goes over to a homeless shelter after work and spends the night there as a volunteer. When her agency’s board of directors heard what she had been doing, they gave her a paid vacation to go anywhere she chose.
We gave an award to a “boy soldier” who escaped the Sudan to comfortable Minnesota and chose to go back to rescue others.
These are the kind of people who would talk down a gunman, or stare down tanks if it came to it, to protect others.
Here is an even more interesting thing: We all have access to this kind of heart energy.
We all know what it is — the feeling in your chest when you look at your child sleeping. Or listen to Mozart. Or sit quietly in a church or a canoe. Or pay close attention to your breath. It’s called soul, the life force within us all, the universal background consciousness of our collective existence.
The problem is that for most of us most of the time, this still, small voice gets drowned out by traffic and chatter and busy work and our own endless stream of egocentric thoughts. But it can be nurtured and strengthened by intentional practices like mindfulness exercises, meditation, consistent prayer or almost any regular contemplative practice.
Within every person is the seed of a spiritual warrior like Antoinette Tuff. She is not an abstract heroine; she is the goal.
Heaven knows these times call for plenty of Antoinette Tuffs. Children are gassed in Syria. The violence in Egypt escalates. And somehow our beautiful democracy has wound up with more African-American men in prison than were brought here as slaves.
Yes, there is a dark energy in the world — egocentric, full of fear and hate. It leads to violence, cruelty and oppression. But outside Atlanta on Aug. 20, we were shown another path. And given the intense response to what happened there, just maybe we are getting ready to take it.
Elissa Hulin Peterson, of Minneapolis, is a psychologist and is president of the Sullivan Ballou Fund.