Remaining humble in the face of tragedy and the weird, emotional world of the Internet
At this past weekend's UMS music festival, my band was asked to lead the audience at 3 Kings Tavern in a moment of silence for the victims of the Aurora theater shootings. Into a microphone I usually use for inappropriate jokes and crowd prodding, I stumbled through the announcement, asking the people in the half-full room to think of someone other than themselves during that moment. I didn't have a message prepared...at all. Not because I hadn't been thinking about the shootings -- I had -- but because I just didn't have anything to say.
Save for a few face-to-face conversations, I've been quiet on the tragedy -- especially on social networks, where I usually am the first to share my bullish opinion. But this time, I stayed silent and let others talk.
I cannot begin to wrap my head and heart around how those directly affected by the Aurora theater shootings feel right now, nor can I qualify the scope of how many people are feeling it. The way we react to tragedy is different for every person: I wandered around feeling nearly catatonic when Amy Winehouse passed away last year, but didn't really expect anyone else to understand. In some ways, we all (however selfishly) internalize and process trauma in the best way that we know how.
As a child, I remember learning a lot about things that only seemed explainable in the adult world by watching Mister Rogers' Neighborhood. When I was sitting down to write this, I revisited his piece on death and dying. What struck me most was how calm he was talking and thinking and feeling about something as heavy as death. That calmness seems to be missing from my own grownup reaction to tragedy; it often feels like information is shoved in our faces every moment of every day, and there is an unspoken expectation of emotional reciprocation through actions or words.
It's like we have to say it's going to be okay, or we have to be angry and vengeful, or we have to desire retribution for someone's deadly and surreal behavior. But we don't have to do or say or think any of that.
At the same time, many of us seem to have developed an uncontrollable urge to have and voice our opinion right then and there, even as life -- whether a tragedy or a triumph of some kind -- is still happening. I don't know if it's perpetuated by the feeling of a constantly scrolling knee-jerk reaction to the Internet in general, or the way news is now reported before those reporting it seem to have completed a thought. Or maybe it's because we're tapping into our own desires to be relevant. I watched CNN's Don Lemon ask invasive questions of victims' family members, and thought he seemed uncomfortable -- but I can't really assume that he was uncomfortable. As a reporter, he was doing his job.
Over the past few days since the shootings, I've also seen some interesting behaviors surface through Facebook posts. I read as a gentleman berated President Obama for not caring "enough" about victims of the recently devastating wildfires, as if to say he was caring "too much" about the shooting victims. Though I try to keep from exercising censorship of other people's views in my Internet life, I do find myself muting them; deleting people's profiles won't solve the world's problems, but they can make regular interactions on the Internet a little less intrusive. And that seems to be something many of us could benefit from.
I'm the last person to tell someone when and where to be cynical and harshly judgmental -- I'm still learning how to temper both of those things. But it feels like a lot of us just need a little breathing (and grieving) room, more than we ourselves may realize. I even found myself getting heated over someone's post about gun laws being preserved, as if innocent guns are somehow going to start getting a bad rap from those of us who don't believe in them. (I had to excuse myself from that conversation altogether, because I was born too liberal to even talk about people ever needing to own guns. Ever.)
I guess what I'm trying to say is this: maybe take a step back from doing your own theorizing and judging for a while. Hug someone, call someone you've been meaning to call, sit down and write a letter. Volunteer your time. Give your money. Talk to that neighbor you see every day but have never said hello to. Human connection is a powerful thing.
The best way to learn empathy is to walk in someone else's shoes -- not re-post a senseless Facebook meme about it.
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