Reacting to this week’s tragedies

What a week of horror this has been for the United States. I know at any given moment there are horrors all over the world but three unrelated tragedies in all in Orlando is striking and more than a little bit spooky. As with many people it has got me thinking. I’m not absolutely sure I agree wholeheartedly with Socrates’ comment that the “The unexamined life is not worth living” but I think it helps us get closer to our highest human potential if we spend time honestly examining our patterns, our thoughts, our habits, and our emotions. So today I am looking at how I react to death and mayhem reported by the media. And I am wondering about the influence of mass cultural reactions to massacres and murders on the individual mind.

The death or suffering of a loved one, or even a casual acquaintance, is a lot different from the death and suffering of people you know only from media reports. Some of us would like to say we care about everybody equally but unless you are a saint, it is not true. I’m not sure equal love is possible even for a saint. Even Jesus seems to have expressed more compassion and grief for his close friend Lazarus than for the rest of the suffering people he encountered and healed every day. Until I lost my mother, the most intense grief I ever felt was for a dog had that ran into the street and got hit by a car. I had a very close relationship with that dog, closer apparently than anyone else I ever knew who had died up to that point (age 25).

In this article I want to look at how I react when I hear of a horrible tragedy but do not know any of the victims. God knows there have been a lot of these. The number of horror events I have heard about on the news during the last couple of decades probably exceeds the number of individual deaths a human being can feel grief for. I think there is an actual psychological limit, but I can’t find the study at the moment. It’s why we focus more on Anne Frank than the other six million people who died in Holocaust.

Occasionally a horror will come along that really gets to me. A toddler was killed by an alligator at Disney World a day or two after that guy murdered 49 of his fellow human beings at a nightclub and three or so days after the singer Christina Grimmie was murdered by a fan. All three incidents were sad and horrifying. But the alligator story pierced my heart most sharply. It’s related to the old “How could God let this happen?” response. In the case of the night club massacre and the singer’s murder, the killers freely chose to murder people and I know God generally does not interfere with anybody’s free will. As cruel and unfair as that seems to the victims at least it is a sort of half-assed answer to the question.

angel
Painting known as the Lindberg Heilege Schutzen

But an alligator. Couldn’t God have sent an angel to lift that child, just for a moment, out of the reach of those snapping jaws? This child was a victim of God’s own nature, not free will. I remember that old picture of some little children walking over a rickety bridge and a beautiful guardian angel hovering over them. I learned about guardian angels from my mother before I learned about God and I’ve always sort of believed in them. Apparently that child’s guardian angel was asleep at the wheel. I am in no position to judge an angel but it seems like it would have been a simple enough miracle to lift him up or gently nudge him to shore before the gator struck. It’s strange what will test your faith.

Even in times of doubt I can only go to God with my questions. Whether you believe in God or not, it’s either God or the abyss. To pray for the peace and comfort of the child’s family is a better response than resorting to the abyss of despair. I have to believe the child is in Heaven, playing happily. Is there any message to be gotten out of such a thing? Perhaps something about not being so cavalier about the human relationship with the natural world? I know I am digging deep but it would be nice to think something of value could come out of the child’s death. Now we know this unthinkable thing can happen and Disney will surely not let it happen again.

I notice that whenever something horrible happens somewhere other than where I live, life goes on as if nothing had changed. Life always goes on, even though horrors are happening even as we load the car for the family vacation or decorate the Christmas tree. The only exception I can recall is 9/11/2001. For a week or so after that horrendous event life genuinely seemed to change. People were more tender with other, questioned the purpose of life, turned to God, became more engaged with the wider culture. We actually looked at each other more. I hugged a stranger in the grocery store parking lot. My kids had a ceremony with flags and patriotic songs at their elementary school and there wasn’t a dry eye in the room. I suppose something like that happened when JFK was assassinated. But most of the time, no one even mentions the latest horror. Maybe we are becoming hardened, reaching our capacity for grief, like in a war.

I read a memoir once about two Jewish sisters trying to survive Nazi-occupied Paris. One sister was walking down the street with a male friend and a German shot the man dead. The woman kept walking, not changing her pace or facial expression. (I hate that I keep remembering scenes from books I’ve read and then can’t remember the titles. I guess that’s why for the past five years I’ve been blogging about almost every book I read. But this was one I read prior to my blogging life.)

Monday June 13th, the afternoon of the day of the Pulse nightclub attack I got stuck in traffic on the two-lane road leading to my neighborhood. I made a U-turn and drove ten miles out of my way to get home a different way. Later I found out the cause of the road closure: a head-on collision that killed a young woman and her mother. I didn’t know the people, but because it happened less than a mile from my house, and because I happened upon the traffic backup, I felt the sadness of the tragedy.

So many things enter into how we react to tragedy: the individuality and possibly the innocence of the victim, how we relate to the circumstances (how easily could you or your children have been in the same situation?), and apparently the location. People die every day in car accidents and my rational mind know that every life is of equal value. But when it happens near my home or when somebody I know knows the victim or when the victim is like me or stands for something I believe in, I just care more. I don’t know that this is a good thing, but I know it’s a natural thing. It’s how we are and any awareness of how we are is for the good.

 

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