On February 21, President Donald Trump met with teenage survivors of the Valentine’s Day massacre at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. The shooter with an assault rifle had murdered 17 students and teachers. The group included parents of victims of this and other school massacres.
Trump said he was there to listen.
The delegation had come to talk about the death of their children and schoolmates at the hands of a disturbed young man on the other end of an assault rifle. Trump is a strong supporter of the right to carry guns, so I imagine this could not have been easy for him. Compassion is not his comfort zone; neither is vulnerability. But he allowed the meeting to be filmed, not knowing what his visitors would say. He was willing – and prepared – to listen to some hard messages from people who were suffering.
Part of his preparation was a handwritten note with six sentences written on it. We don’t know whether he looked at it or not, but it gave him confidence. He held it in his hand, and someone took a photo.
Here’s what was written on the paper:
1. What would you most want me to know about your experience?
2. What can we do to help you feel safe?
3. Do you feel see something say something is effective?
4. Resources? Ideas?
5. I hear you.
A Washington Post headline mocked him: “Trump’s empathy problem is revealed [by using notes] in talk with survivors of school shootings.” Was this fair?
I know how it feels to be on the listening end of a tough conversation, and not know what to say. Haven’t we all been there? Tongue-tied when you know you’ve offended someone, even unintentionally? Speechless when your best friend confides she has stage-four cancer? Or when any unspeakable tragedy strikes someone we love and all words seem inadequate?
So, for once, I want to cut the President some slack. Offer some grace. It doesn’t matter whether his notes came from his own heart or some other source — they were exactly right. They are open questions. They don’t turn the conversation to himself. They don’t lecture. They don’t give advice or try to deny the horror of another’s lived reality.
He listened. Time will tell whether the listening will cause anything to change.