Dear Parkland Teens: From One Survivor to Another

Dear Parkland Shooting Survivors,

I’m not sure how to start this letter, so I guess I’ll begin with a little about me. In a very real sense, who I am is not important to this letter, but it will give you some perspective as to where I’m coming from. I am a survivor of twenty years of child abuse and domestic violence. When I was in high school, a friend of mine was shot and murdered. My dad was a sexual predator with an explosive temper who threatened to shoot my entire family if I ever told anyone what he had done. To prove that he was capable he once shot our neighbor boy’s dog.

So, while I was never personally shot at, I do know what it’s like to face the probability of death. I know what it’s like to fear the terrible power of a gun in the hand of an evil person.

You and I came about our injuries in very different ways. Nevertheless, our spiritual wounds likely bear many similarities. We are made in the image of the same God. We are members of the same fallen race. Because of this, the way you feel betrayal, sorrow, anger, fear, and guilt, is very similar if not identical to the way that I feel these emotions too. So here I am, writing to you, hoping that I can spare you from some pain.

I’m not here to talk about politics.

I am here to talk about your soul.

I’m not writing to you because I’m a journalist or a parent, though I am both of those things. I’m speaking survivor to survivor. Because, no matter how smart, strategic, or passionate you may be, you have been sent out as sheep among wolves.

Beware the Wolves.

This world is a dissolute place. A lot of people will try to tell you that humanity is “basically good,” but you and I both know that it is basically corrupt. Sometimes when I look at the world I can almost hear the voice of the prophet, mourning, “There is no one righteous, no not one. There is no one who understands. They have all turned away, and together they have become worthless.”

By the way, if you ever need some cathartic bedtime reading, I highly recommend Ecclesiastes.

On the one hand, some people will intentionally dehumanize you. They’ll use your pain, trauma, and youth, to discredit you and dismiss your intelligence and convictions. They will say that your sorrow makes you biased and shortsighted. They will say that your fear of violence makes your reasoning invalid and your opinions unbalanced. They will question your sanity and claim you’re too mentally damaged by pain to be taken seriously. Some will even say that your trauma never happened at all; that you’re lying to get attention or exaggerating to push an agenda. They do all of this because they don’t like your ideas and it’s easier for them to destroy your credibility than to debate you honestly.

On the other hand, some people will seem to be your friends and advocates, but they will only stick around to exploit your story. They’ll carefully reinforce your outrage, confirm your worst fears, and remind you of all the things that trigger your anxiety. In that moment, it may feel like they are affirming you. In reality, they are exacerbating your pain to perpetuate drama, create chaos, and push their own agenda at your expense. This too is a form of abuse, because they care more about your cause than they do about you.

There will even be people who want to listen to your story, not because they care about you, but because they find your pain and the horror you’ve experienced morbidly entertaining. There will be people who claim to want what is best for you — and maybe on some level they genuinely do — but they’ll give you terrible advice, or gossip about you, and ultimately break your heart.

I do not say these things to discourage you or make you paranoid. Rather, I want to warn you and put you on your guard. It is when we are at our most vulnerable that the wolves gather around. And while your pain is real and your beliefs are authentic, the rawness of your trauma makes you vulnerable. This is something you will learn if you have not already.

Guard your heart. Learning to discern the motives of another person’s heart is difficult, but over time, you will grow better at it. Sometimes, the people who use and betray us are our own parents, siblings, and friends. Sometimes they are press agents, journalists, and pastors. If you get an uncertain feeling about anyone, trust your gut, and be cautious and observant of that person.

I have had complete strangers call me a liar and a narcissist, claiming that I was never abused. I have had journalists and friends sensationalize my story because they wanted a juicy bit of gossip to draw attention to themselves. I have had people who claimed to love me betray my confidence and use my pain to turn others against me. I have had my own parents spread lies about me, question my sanity, and seek to damage my credibility with my friends and even my husband. People who love authentically do not do these things.

It is important that you never blame yourself for these betrayals. It is even more important that you never blame God for the treachery of people. God is sovereign, but every person’s sin is their own. God is good, and unlike people, he is faithful.

Your Pain is not You.

Right now, your pain and rage feel all-consuming. You can’t go a day, let alone an hour, without thinking about it. It can help our healing to use our pain to help others, as you are. It can give us comfort to see a little good come out of the evil we endured. While advocacy, political engagement, and community involvement are all wonderful things, do not let your pain become your identity. It’s not who you are. You are so much more.

You are not your scars. You are not your school. You are not your parents’ ideals. You are not your situation. You are not your politics. You are not your Twitter follower count. You are not other peoples’ opinions about you. You are incalculably greater than all of these things.

Eventually, your pain will fade, but your value and uniqueness will not fade with it. It is vitally important, particularly now, that you root your identity in the love of God. Political causes will grow irrelevant, loved ones will disappoint, and the cameras and microphones will eventually go away.

The only constant you can count on is the faithfulness of God. He is the only One guaranteed to still be with you in five years’ time. Some will think that’s harsh for me to say, but I will not lie to you. Everything you now know will change and change again.

When It’s All A Memory

Someday, you will look back on today and you will have regrets. Maybe it will be sorrow over a friendship you damaged. Maybe it will be remorse that you trusted someone who proved untrustworthy. Maybe in your pain, anger, and confusion you will say and do things that haunt you.

It’s very likely that by the time that you reach my age, your political convictions will have altered or at least developed. Very few people reach 33 still thinking like their teenage selves. Your childhood ended abruptly on February 14, 2018, but that precious childhood innocence is shed painfully and by increments for years after it is forcibly destroyed. What you are enduring is a long, drawn out process.

Forgive yourself.

Apologize if you need to, repent if you have to, but always forgive yourself.

If you can’t, you might have to ask God to give you the ability to forgive yourself. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to pray that prayer.

You may come to feel angry at the adults in your life who should have shielded you but failed to do so. Maybe they are teachers. Maybe they’re police officers. Maybe they’re your mom and dad. Becoming a parent really opened my eyes — and reopened my wounds — to see how profound my parents’ failings were. Someday you will look into your own child’s eyes, and you may wonder how the adults in your own childhood could have let so much damage to occur.

Know Yourself.

People will compliment you on your courage and poise even when you feel broken and despairing inside. People will get used to the adrenaline that fuels your commitment and may come to take for granted your energy and endurance. They may act insulted, disappointed, or confused when your strength finally runs out. Let them go. Give yourself space to heal and permission to grieve and pay no mind to what the critics say.

They do not understand the magnitude of your pain, or the relentless waves of grieving that toss you between anger and anxiety, sorrow and guilt, loneliness and overwhelm, helplessness and responsibility.

When you need to rest, rest. When you need to step back, give yourself that right. Everyone grows tired, and if you push yourself too hard your pain will grow worse. You cannot force yourself to be strong forever. You cannot muster motivation when you have finally given everything you have.

It is not your job to teach humanity that shooting kids is bad. They already know. It is not your job to pass new legislation, change laws, or bring peace to a polarized society. These are monumental, if not impossible tasks. It is not your purpose in life, as Obama put it, to “remake the world as it should be.” The world was a wicked place for thousands of years before you or I were ever born. There isn’t a quick or simple fix to depravity outside an act of God.

Your only responsibility is you.

Find your identity in things other than pain and politics. Trying to change the world is a noble thing, but it cannot be accomplished at the expense of your physical or emotional wellbeing. The world will not be made better if the survivors of Parkland wear themselves thread bear. It can only be made better when you are healthy and happy in it.

Permit yourself to feel joy again. Someday, the momentum of your cause will die, the media attention will fade, and no one will talk about Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School anymore.

In that day, you must be secure in yourself as a valuable, meaningful, and unique child of God. Otherwise, you may feel as though you faded with the din; as though your purpose was lost when the last mic switched off. The loss of that false identity will cause you even more sorrow. Do not cling to victimhood. Grasp at survival and build a new life.

Ignore the foolish adults who call you names, question your intelligence, or claim that you don’t have a soul. Disregard the politicians and myopic zealots who burden you with too much responsibility, heaping chaos upon your turmoil. Surround yourself with bulwarks — counselors, therapists, pastors, and friends — who care more about you than your cause, more about your emotional health than your politics, and more about your spiritual wellbeing than your next interview.

In Conclusion

I hope by some miracle you read this letter. I hope my words make it through the din and bring you comfort and encouragement. Either way, I will be praying for you, hoping for you, and thinking of you.

Regardless of your politics, your opinions, or any words spoken out of pain or pressure, people should treat you with respect and mercy.

Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

Sincerely,

Jennifer

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