Editor’s note: Susan Bodnar is a clinical psychologist who teaches at Columbia University’s Teachers College and at The Stephen Mitchell Center for Relational Studies. She lives in Manhattan with her husband, two children and all of their pets.
By Susan Bodnar, Special to CNN
(CNN) – Too often, we allow ourselves to be defined by our differences.
We are either red state or blue state; 1% or 99%; Muslim, Jewish, Catholic, Protestant; black, white or brown; pro-life or pro-choice.
For or against gun control.
The citizens of this country speak strongly and divisively. After all, it is baked in our American identity. This dissent, we argue, creates a healthy democracy, and an inquisitive mind.
But sometimes too much difference can cause dysfunction.
As a psychologist I have often witnessed the distinct parts of a person’s mind come apart so strongly that extreme mental illness emerges.
Let’s not let this be our country’s fate.
Unity holds our country’s promise. May we offer it as a legacy to those taken away from us so senselessly?
Let’s let the little angels and their keepers who died so tragically become our inspiration for a society of difference that works together.
When so many little children die, as they did in the Sandy Hook tragedy, and when heroic teachers, a school psychologist and a principal are called upon to defend the lives of little ones with their own, we have two choices.
We can succumb to the base ugliness of despair.
Or we can repair.
Can we finally admit and agree that we have a problem with violence in our country and decide to fix it?
Sometimes so much focus on our collective differences obscures the valiant and expansive nature of the American character.
This weekend, however, we cried together.
Perhaps we found a way to honor our differences while also unifying for our children.
At the Sandy Hook memorial service, the nation witnessed Jews, Christians, Muslims, B’hai - black, white and brown - come together to mourn and to pray.
It felt like the template for our future.
President Obama asked us, “Can we say that we’re truly doing enough to give all the children of this country the chance they deserve to live out their lives in happiness and with purpose?”
We are not.
The knowledge that we have not done our best for our children lingers: Our kids need to know they can rely on us to manage our differences like the adults we are.
Coming together despite – or even because of – our differences happens more rarely than hearing about another episode of mass violence.
There is a better way.
The courage to create a country where all people can be different but equal, the same but also unique, characterizes the potential of our American identity.
We have shown this when we abolished slavery, rose from the ashes of war, and how we rebuilt after 9/11.
Now, again, is the time to build unity in our diversity – without losing the vestiges of a cultural past to which we are attached.
We can comfort our children, everyone’s children, and the children we once were with the patchwork quilt that symbolizes our national character and identity.
We can make collective decisions about mental health care, better gun control and rein in aspects of the violent entertainment world that holds our kids’ dreams hostage to cynicism and rage.
We can create an economy that fairly enables every person to enjoy individual levels of success while protecting that patchwork quilt that keeps us going, makes us strong and gives every child the same fair chance to thrive.
We can create a society where every person has the chance to live out his or her life in happiness and with purpose.
Will this prevent tragedy?
Will it prevent evil?
But it can make overcoming evil possible.
When the adults of this world can say we have done our absolute best, we can blunt evil’s impact, and provide our children an example that can sustain them through the worst of times.