Scarlett Lewis, the founder of the Choose Love Movement and writer of the book Nurturing Healing Love, shares with Girl Power Talk her journey of grief, forgiveness, love, and finding gratitude amidst the hardest of times.
Every Christmas, my family used to read stories about people who overcame their difficulties. I feel there is a lot to learn from other’s struggles, and now that I’ve experienced tragedy myself, I share my story so that someone in a similar situation can find a way forward and choose love as I did.
I had a beautiful childhood in Illinois. I am the elder sister to two brothers and I would often babysit. I loved horses and wanted to buy one so my father promised me that if I earned half, he would match me dollar for dollar. It was a wonderful lesson in discipline and responsibility, and eventually, I was able to buy one! I still love animals and I have quite a few of them on my small farm.
Everything was great and I was very happy until my parents divorced when I was eighteen. After that, I started having anxiety and feeling depressed.
Perhaps that is why I attribute what happened at Sandy Hook Elementary School to the shooter’s emotional state, culture at home, and school experience. I feel we always focus on the outcome of a tragedy, but I wanted to address the cause. My son Jesse was murdered in his school by a student who had once attended there. How much pain and anger must he have been in to cause so much pain and suffering to others?
Yes, I was grieving after losing my son, but I quickly realized after Jesse’s death that I did not want my story to be one of only sorrow and pain. So I found the courage to forgive my son’s murderer and to start Choose Love. I remember praying, “Dear God, please use the boys and I as instruments of your peace,” every night. When this happened, I realized that God had heard me. Jesse was a hero; he had helped save nine lives before he lost his own! And even though he was gone, he led me to my life’s purpose. The Choose Love movement is based on my heroic son’s message to me on our kitchen chalkboard that he wrote shortly before he died: Nurturing Healing Love. We derived the Choose Love Formula from this. This is my purpose.
Building an organization from scratch wasn’t easy. My father helped me but even he and I had conflicts. Once, we didn’t speak to each other for three months because we didn’t see eye to eye about how to run the program in schools. There were a lot of nay-sayers, but I felt very strongly about our vision and stood my ground with those who doubted and with the organization’s board (who were unsurprisingly a lot of men).
Some major points of conflict for us were that I wanted the programming to be free and we had different opinions about how certain character traits should be defined. However, these conflicts made me even more steadfast. Having to make sound arguments just made it clearer to me what we were doing and why we were doing it. There was a time when a lot of people left, and that is when I realized that I could do it alone. In fact, I had been doing it alone. This strength has been helping me to grow and cultivate the movement.
The Choose Love Program teaches people how to deal with difficult emotions and much more. It provides post-traumatic support and helps individuals build mental and emotional strength. We began by introducing this program in schools and now we also know of prisoners who have chosen love. At Choose Love, we validate all emotions. It is okay and important to feel anger, sadness, or resentment. I believe if we didn’t know and feel pain, we wouldn’t be able to recognize happiness. It is interesting how joy and sadness come from the same synapse in our brain. So I believe if we numb the pain, we numb the joy too. We must face pain and sadness with courage, choose to forgive, and then focus on the blessings. That is the formula we provide for healing.
We must consciously choose love every day. Breathe, inhabit the moment, and give your body symbols by standing in power poses. Tell yourself, at this very moment, you are okay. In the Choose Love Movement, we reiterate: We cannot choose what happens to us. But we can choose our response. For there are two options: either we choose prolonged resentment and hurt or we Choose Love. As Viktor Frankl, a psychologist and Holocaust survivor wonderfully put it, “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”