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There is a shadow over the holidays this season, an inescapable sadness that descended as we learned of the 27 souls lost in the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School one week ago.

Twenty young boys and girls and seven adults had their lives taken suddenly by a gunman. A full understanding of why this occurred still eludes us, and perhaps always will.

Images of Newtown, Conn., show us a community whose holiday preparations were frozen in time on the morning of Dec. 14, overlaid with tears and funeral processions. That townís grief is the nationís. This time, the all-too-familiar news of an inexplicable mass shooting cuts especially deep. Most of the victims were 6 and 7 years old, the most innocent among us.

The debate over gun violence, gun control and the mentally instability that gives rise to unthinkable massacres has already been joined.

It is time, past time, to do more than retreat to ideological corners and battle until exhaustion and numbness sets in. But before that scenario can be altered, and a serious and meaningful national discussion can take place, comes a welcome and healing pause for Christmas week.

The people of Newtown will continue to cry and grieve their irrevocable loss. The rest of us may continue to grieve as well. Were we incapable of empathizing with the pain and suffering of these families, we might truly be living in an irredeemably sick society.

But we are not. This act, and the similar ones that have preceded it, are aberrations. We can see that as we lift our eyes to the generosity and kindness on display in St. Maryís County and communities across the nation at this time of year.

Focusing on the stresses that come with finding just the right gift and other holiday obligations seems trivial this year. But the family gatherings may be richer, as we cherish the moments we are so fortunate to have with loved ones.

With the coming of the new year, perhaps we wonít be so quick to put the emotions of this December behind us.

Far too often we can let strong differences of opinion sow seeds of anger and contempt. Whenever a tragedy of this nature occurs, the blame-game instantly begins. Particularly in the age of social media, where there is little accountability for statements posted online, the arguments instantly escalate to the point of incivility.

Often lost in the shuffle is respect for others — and for the lives lost. This yearís resolution for the new year should be to engage in a healthier dialogue this time, with open minds.

That means keeping the debate over violence in our society civil. If we cannot talk in a civil manner about finding ways to avoid further tragedy, we will never come close to addressing the problem.

Our words alone cannot soothe the loss of life, but perhaps the best memorial to those who died so senselessly at Sandy Hook Elementary School will be to change the usual narrative. Human beings showing respect and compassion for each other in spite of their differences of opinion is just a start.

The dialogue needs to be opened. This time, letís not forget why we are having the discussion in the first place.