By Scarlett Lewis, Founder of Jesse Lewis Choose Love Movement
Following the murder of my 6 year old son in his first grade classroom at Sandy Hook Elementary School, I asked myself the same two questions that everyone was asking: how could something like this happen, and what can I do to make sure this never happens again?
I knew that anyone who could have brutally murdered 20 first graders and 6 educators in his former elementary school, must have been in a tremendous amount of pain. This pain fueled unrelenting anger. I realized, this whole tragedy began with an angry thought that was precipitated by pain. And an angry thought can be changed.
Pain is a catalyst for anger. Instilling character values such as gratitude, forgiveness and love helps us choose the right thoughts and provides us with tools to understand and overcome our pain and thus deconstruct anger. Character values give us basic tools that are the foundation of essential 21st century life skills.
I imagined the perpetrator as a young boy, having an angry thought without the tools and nurturing environment to deal with that thought. His anger slowly escalated until it became rage. We know through neuroscience that each thought impacts us physically, mentally and emotionally, and literally changes the wiring in our brains. I believe rage leads to many of the acts of violence we are seeing in society.
I forgave the shooter so that I could be a part of the solution, instead of another victim. I felt compassion for this human being, who I learned after studying his background, cried out for help on many occasions and was ignored. Ostracized by many for his differences, he lacked a nurturing environment and the care and concern that children need to feel connected, and be resilient and thrive. I realized as part of his community that I too, was part of his environment, and decided to take my part of the responsibility for what happened. I wanted to help solve the issue for myself, my son, our community and the world. Forgiveness, I came to learn, didn’t mean forgetting, condoning, or not holding someone accountable for their actions. Forgiveness was a gift I gave myself that cut the cord of pain that bound me to Adam Lanza. Forgiveness gave control of my thoughts back to me, and allowed me to move forward with my personal power intact.
Shortly before Jesse died, he had written on our kitchen chalkboard, “Nurturing Healing Love.” These three words, not usually in the vernacular of a 6 year old and phonetically spelled because he was in first grade and just learning to write, are in the definition of compassion across all cultures. When you define each of the words, the character values create a powerful and profound formula for choosing love: gratitude + forgiveness + compassion in action = choosing love. I felt as if I had been handed a torch by my beloved son to spread his message of choosing love.
I started the Jesse Lewis Choose Love Movement and have spoken all over the world about lessons and insights I’ve learned: the power of choice; that we are all here to help one another; that love and fear are the basis for all decisions in our life; the power of presence; and that it is essential to incorporate these lessons into our children’s education.
Along with devoted educators, I am creating a Choose Love Enrichment Program that is based on Social and Emotional Learning and Character Values. Backed by neuroscience and brain research this free program will be available on our website, www.jesselewischooselove.org, and teaches the formula for Choosing Love plus an added character value - courage.
Jesse saved 9 of his classmates before losing his life. It is Jesse's example of courage that inspired me to create the Choose Love Enrichment Program. Not what we see on TV or in video games, but the courage that we all have within us to feel grateful when things aren’t going our way, to forgive even when the person who hurt us isn’t sorry, and to step outside our own pain and find meaning in our suffering by being in service to others.
When we incorporate character values, we instill within our children the ability to choose love. Teaching character values is one of the most powerful and proactive mental health initiatives we have. You can't always choose what happens to you, but you can always choose your thoughts. We can always choose loving thoughts over fear based thoughts...Imagine a world where everyone chooses love.
Want to learn more about creating safe and positive school climates? Download our free school reform framework:
The 11 Principles of Effective Character Education