“…two bombs…Boston Marathon…is your family okay?…are you okay?”
A sinking in my heart. A weariness in my soul. An overwhelming sadness. I feel a welling in my eyes and a tightness in my jaw. A bright day immediately becomes obscured by swollen clouds of hate.
I go to my laptop to watch the news, to know what’s going on, to connect somehow with the suffering happening not-so-far-away. I get as far as the blasts and the screams, when my laptop goes black, but the screams continue. This chaos of screams coming out of blackness intuitively makes so much sense that it takes me a moment to realize it was just my laptop shutting down.
I plug it in and hit the power button, and the screams come back in short, fragmented bursts, like the fragmented lives caused by so many terrorists and wars already in my time.
9/11, as the victims jump out of the burning towers. Afghanistan and Iraq, as women and children run from bombs dropped in the name of freedom. Pakistan, as children digging ditches for water lines in the coolness of the night are targeted by drones.
Pune, Maharashtra, India, as people go about their daily lives and I prepare for my arrival. Newtown, as twenty children are gunned down. The Boston Marathon, as runners run away from the finish line.
My immediate reaction to these kinds of events is a deep sadness. My secondary reaction is to question them, as if questioning God: Why? Why does this happen? Why would anyone do something like this? How could anyone do something like this? I am confused; I don’t understand and I never could.
The terribleness is beyond my imagining. In my tertiary reaction, the more logistical question “How do things like this happen?” spurs me to a frustrating and seemingly fruitless urge toward action. What can I do—what can we do—to prevent this from ever happening again? The answer, given the complexity of these kinds of situations, seems to be: Nothing.
After these kinds of events, we all watch in despair, seemingly paralyzed with regards to meaningful action, as reactions spiral into politicized, meaningless discourses that do no credit to the immensity of the suffering at hand. Action of any kind seems as though it should be good, but so often it goes in such dark directions. False promises are made and arguments struck up. Bush talks of a war against terrorism.
The NRA is spurred into a mass mobilization. Activists speak of how this suffering is small compared to the suffering our country and people are inflicting on others. This all feels wrong to those who are still feeling the suffering, as if these politicized discourses demean and degrade their suffering, twisting it into something that is not theirs, but is only a word used as a political tool.
I could go on and on about how the politicized discourses which spring up in reaction to terrorism, leading to such horrors as racial profiling, human rights violations and Guantanamo, are not answers but atrocities.
But in doing so I would only be adding to these discourses, which are not only grossly insensitive to those who are still suffering, but also unlikely to be effective, as neither side of the argument is likely to add anything original that might change anyone’s mind. Instead, I propose a more humane, and potentially more effective, answer.
Every time a terrible event like this happens in our country, we experience a fleeting sensation of pain amidst the normal, desensitized state of our hearts. For just a small window of time, before the rhetoric starts back up again, we empathize with people we see as being like us, feel their suffering, and may even suffer ourselves.
We usually, for understandable reasons, close our hearts again–and quickly–because it is just too painful to allow ourselves to be vulnerable to all of the suffering in the world.
But in doing so, we allow each event to be just one more in a long line of events that desensitizes us to human suffering, allowing us to look away when we see dead bodies on television, to turn off the radio when we hear bad news, and to simply shake our heads and go on with our own lives.
But what would happen if we were able to keep our hearts open, if we saw these events as opportunities to resensitize ourselves to human suffering? What if, instead of shutting out the suffering we felt, we allowed ourselves to experience it, to work through it, and when it faded away, to remember it?
If, in the face of national tragedies, we wish that there was something we could do, maybe that something is simply this: To remember this feeling of suffering, and to use it to prevent more suffering. By remembering this feeling of suffering, we can empathize more often, with more people, in more places around the world. This process of empathizing would then catalyze our reactions to terrible events, spurring us to action to prevent the suffering that we can prevent.
Right now, we are at a time when we can empathize with others. Remember this feeling.