Scarlett Lewis’s 6-year-old son, Jesse, was among the 20 children murdered at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012. On Tuesday, the 46-year-old single mother spoke to Education Lab about her journey from despair to forgiveness for shooter Adam Lanza, and the surprising power she discovered through practicing compassion.
The conversation has been slightly condensed for space. A story about the conference where Lewis spoke Monday is also here.
Q: You talk about creating compassionate schools. How would they be different from traditional schools?
A: I see compassion woven into regular lessons in each classroom. There can be compassion in science, in math, in English on a daily basis. I think we assume that compassion is taught in the home, but when I look back on raising my own boys, I don’t remember ever sitting down and specifically teaching a lesson about compassion. This needs to be consistent across society — not only in schools, but in our homes, our governments, our hospitals, our police departments. And this isn’t just a feel-good movement. We know that compassion actually helps corporations’ bottom line.
Q: How do you actually teach someone to be compassionate?
A: Mindfulness is one way. I talk a lot about gratitude and service to others. I also talk a lot about frustration. Jesse’s older brother, JT, was 12 at the time of the shooting, and we had some frustration receiving help from the school in Newtown. They said we weren’t trained in trauma, but I said we were just looking for human compassion.
JT wouldn’t go back to school, and I couldn’t force him because I had sent one child, and he didn’t come home. So we were just there in the house together, immobile, in despair, both angry. We weren’t able to move forward.
Then this woman from Rwanda said there were two orphaned genocide survivors, kids, who wanted to Skype with us. One of them had watched her whole family butchered by neighbors when she was 8. They’d slit her throat and buried her in a shallow grave before she crawled out and found her way to an orphanage. This was something quite possibly worse than what we’d endured. She said she wanted to tell us that we were going to be OK. “You are going to feel joy again,” she said. That was so profound to us because we really weren’t sure.
Q: You say compassion is love. Do you love Adam Lanza? If he hadn’t killed himself what would you say to him?
A: Do I love him? I’m working toward that. But yes, I do feel compassion for him. That is how I can forgive. It’s not that I don’t fall back into anger — I do. But I choose to forgive again. I do feel that he was let down by society, and I would tell him that. Because he was not born a mass murderer. I know that he reached out for help and was not given the help that he needed to overcome his feelings of anger. If he had been given that, this never would have happened.
And of course there’s his mother, who armed him. That’s another person who needs to be forgiven. What did I know about forgiveness on Dec. 13? I just knew that you should do it. What I’ve learned is that it’s for yourself. You do it to release your anger and move forward in peace.
I would tell him that I forgive him, but that he would have to forgive himself, and that’s the hardest thing to do.