Monday, April 15, 2013

How We React to Tragedy

Tragedy is a funny thing. I certainly don’t mean that it’s funny in the traditional sense, today was anything but humorous, but I mean to say that the collective emotions of a nation defy simple definition.

It makes you feel, you know, “funny.” Weird. Strange. Overcome. Indefinable.

Like the majority of us today, my connection to the city of Boston is family and friends that happen to live there, a few acquaintances in the race itself and general trepidation as information doesn’t emerge at the comfortable speed of my laptop’s refresh button.

I don’t have much to add that hasn’t already been said in the millions of people offering condolences to today’s victims.  We close today with more questions than answers—certainly not unfamiliar territory on days like today. We’ve all been here before: posting our thoughts and prayers in a sea of thoughtless prayers and prayerless thoughts.

Today felt a bit like going through the motions. I found myself second-guessing even the simplest of Twitter or Facebook posts. What am I adding? Am I just crowding the cacophony of social media with condolences that no one actually needs? In the end, we’re all just consoling each other, which, in a way, is actually still quite comforting.

In an industry practically defined by news outlets discussing how desensitized video games have made us, I saw that we are all quite far from a numb sensation to violence. Today struck quite the nerve.

And then we struck each other.

I think that’s the rub of a connected society. News hits at the speed of social media, and there’s nothing we can do. We are powerless. The entire nation swells with anger, rage and indignation. Emotions of that magnitude have to go somewhere. It used to be that we would sit around at work or school and discuss tragedy in a circle of trusted friends and peers. It stayed sane, self-contained and self-policing. This is a world that doesn’t exist as it used to. Think of it this way: when the news hit, did you post to Facebook or Twitter within minutes of hearing about it? Was your first instinct to release tension by way of public statement?

Is that weird? Has our collective unintentional arrogance made us all believe that, in the face of sudden tragedy, our responsibility is first to make a social press release so that people know that our sympathies are with the hurt, wounded and dead? I don’t intend to point any fingers, certainly not fingers that could just as easily been pointed at myself, but it did seep into my thoughts over the course of the day—thoughts that amplified as the day went on.

I watched my circle of peers begin to turn on each other. It wasn’t enough to simply make a post. As the day went on, we turned on each other, proudly proclaiming that our sympathies were more correctly articulated than your sympathies. You're grieving wrong, it felt like the mass was crying. Look. No one grieves well. We suck at it. That’s what grief is.

Today we saw people run against fear and back into certain danger. They did it to help. These people are, without question, true heroes. But in the face of humanity’s brightest light, it might make us all feel a little weird; just a little bit more helpless.

Why can’t I help too? I certainly thought that today. I know, I’ll show them, I’ll post something even wittier and thought-provoking than what that other guy could fit into 140 characters. I certainly was not helping anything but my own selfish desire to appear as if I contributing in a positive way. It's a painfully honest way to reflect on my habitual desire to jump into the fray; to help in a quantifiable way in a time of great distress. As this blog can attest, I'm no stranger to peril; and yet, I make light of it for comfort. Simply, I believe we make it about us. We view tragedy through the lens of our own suffering, however great or small it might be. We speak out to comfort the royal "us."

But it’s not about us.

Outside of simply putting our arm on each other’s shoulders and realizing that we are greater than our sickest outliers, it's about the people we cannot help, regardless of intent. Our perpetual desire to feel heroic in the face of sickening events, though perfectly reasonable, denies the true victims. Our condemnation of others emotional reaction is fruitless and ultimately self-serving. It's a comfort to ourselves.

And that's okay. It really is. Emotions create insatiable chaos within all of us. We will look back on today with different eyes tomorrow.

When something like this inevitably happens again, and it will, we should take a moment to give each other the benefit of the doubt. Grief is an ugly monster that can take on many forms. There is no such thing as a perfect reaction to insidious tragedy.

The thing we should take away is that we all need that pat on the shoulder, to tell each other that it doesn’t make sense and it’s okay that none of us are making sense right now.

Because it doesn’t make sense.

And for most of us, there’s not a lot we can do for the people struck by today’s tragedy. So the best we can do is make the world a little calmer, and a little saner, for when the wounded come back into it.

Boston, we love you. We’ll be here when you get back.


  1. It really upsets me when people turn on each other when we should be holding each other close on a day like today. I completely agree with you about giving others the benefit of the doubt. Grief is no stranger to me, and it is definitely a complicated being that affects us all differently. Thank you for this post. It gave a new perspective to contemplate on.

  2. My first reaction yesterday was to shut down, try to hide from the internet as much as possible. Use my mute button on twitter. It felt callous, but I also know the hole I let myself slip into after Newtown took days to get out of. It was simply self-preservation to try to avoid it as much as possible.

    But it wasn't possible, and I finally joined in the discussion, just in small ways. Ways that felt comfortable. And I'm glad I did. Because in my arrogance (as you so aptly point out that we believe WE can be the most poignant in 140 characters), I actually managed to say something that DID seem to resonate with some folks. So I think that was worth it.

    In the process though, I saw something I wish I hadn't. It's an image that will take a lot of scouring to remove from my brain. It just hit me in the gut, and in the process of working through that, I stumbled upon Amanda Palmer's call for 2 minutes of silence/meditation/prayer/whatever. Which seems silly. But like you said - we all grieve, and we all do it wrong, but we figure it out together. And afterward, it was nice to know I made a little connection to hundreds of other souls doing the same shit-job of figuring this all out. So thank you for the reminder - we none of us have the answers, probably aren't getting it right, but that's ok. As long as in our grief we're not ADDING to the pain, it's all good.

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