When I’ve encountered sad and negative issues over the last few years, including my own severe depression, the same word often comes up in my mind. It usually arises spontaneously, unconsciously.
It’s as if someone else is putting the word into my head, and I begin to dwell on it, to repeat it to myself over and over again. That word is unnecessary.
How many things in life fit this bill: depression, pain, loss, illness, etc., etc. We could go on and on. And now, after Newtown, we are confronted once again with a situation in which words are viewed as futile or impotent; they seem useless in the face of such horror and violence.
We are “at a loss for words”, we say that “words cannot convey. . .”, we can’t “put our feelings into words.” And yet unnecessary continued its drumbeat in my head, hinting at something, persistent, insistent. I just wanted it to go away.
The definition in the Oxford English Dictionary is simple: not needed; more than is needed; excessive. Eloquently applicable. Of course it’s a negative stemming from the root need, which is defined as “a thing that is wanted or required”, or "to require something that is essential or important rather than just desirable.”
We now, as a nation, cannot stop expressing our need for better gun control laws, for more accurate predictors of potential violent acts, for better understanding and care of persons with mental imbalance or disease. No one will argue with that.
The origin of this word once again gave me pause for thought. It is related to the Dutch nood and the German noun Not, and has a variety of meanings, including: distress, misery, privation, calamity, adversity, and even danger. This information seemed to fortify my already speechless state. But it makes sense, doesn’t it? In a very basic sense, by attending to the needs of the situation, we can hope to avert these dreaded outcomes.
We cannot turn back the clock. But in reminding ourselves of the hidden meaning of someone’s needs, can we perhaps try harder to prevent unnecessary and painful circumstances in the future, even in the smallest of cases? By fulfilling the basic human need for kindness, a habit so beautifully endorsed by the slain Sandy Hook School principal, we will be doing our part to reduce another’s pain or suffering, we will be performing something essential or important, something that might pre-empt calamity, that might minimize or remove a threat or a danger.
My daughter is a senior at Niagara University studying to be an elementary school teacher. We spoke on the phone after the shooting; she was shaken and upset, thinking the obvious: What if this happened to me? Without waiting for her to ask, I reassured her that I was absolutely certain that if she were faced with that horrific scenario, she would do the right thing.
She would give up her life for a child, of this I am certain. We both started to choke up when I told her that, and she said “Mom, I already decided that I would do that.” A solemn silence ensued. She chose teaching because she has an unbounded love for children, as all dedicated teachers do.
Deep, deep inside I believe that she will never have to face this situation, but I could be wrong. We know that the lives of the families and friends of the Newtown victims are forever changed, and we feel helpless in our efforts to console.
But I also believe in the power of words, and that this time I can use a word that consumed me to see the common phrase “filling a need” in a different way. When a need hits me in the face, perhaps I can try harder to not retreat, to not walk away and tell myself that “somebody else will do it.”
Perhaps I can strengthen my resolve, and not be intimidated by what seems to be a soundless sea of voices that cautions me to be careful, to be “politically correct”, to not make waves or even ripple the waters, to not take an unnecessary risk. When I address someone’s pain, when I stand firm against ignorance or aggression, when I answer with a smile instead of a smirk, I may find that the word unnecessary becomes less and less a part of my daily working vocabulary.
Maybe a word can do something big this time, maybe just this once.