A Country's Sympathy: Lessons Learned From the Tragedy in Newtown

Mike Mariani





In the past few weeks, there has been a vast spectrum of reactions to the shooting in Newtown, Conn. Some people responded quickly with acts of generosity and kindness, sending flowers and coffee and stuffed animals to Newtown; others offered their sympathies through Facebook and Twitter; and still others looked on in silent shock. It is not overstating things to say that this horrible tragedy—which left 20 children and eight adults, including the shooter, dead—has swept through America and touched every single citizen of this country. The tragedy has had the effect of an electrical current, and each and every American has felt some volts pass through them. For some, it was only a few volts. For others, it was galvanic, and everything since that fateful Friday has existed in a surreal state of aftermath. If we take the time to truly look at the heterogeneous grieving process of Americans to this unfathomable tragedy, we might find an opportunity to learn and grow as a country.


The first group of mourners expresses that passing, depthless shock, as if they are cognitively blindsided but remain emotionally apart from the tragedy. They express disbelief—again only an admission that their cognition is perplexed and disoriented by something so out of the ordinary—but never connect that shock and awe to sincere, vulnerable emotional inroads. Their routine is minimally disrupted, if at all; their attitude and dialogue are pierced for a moment or two, but not substantially altered; and they are emotionally and ideologically unchanged. This group restricts their response to the tragedy, their "grieving," to the initial cognitive impact. The slaughter of children and faculty at a quiet elementary school is shocking and appalling. End of story.


The second group feels the volts running through them as an activating agent, a catalyst for change. These are the bloggers who immediately publish posts calling for a ban on semiautomatic weapons; the Facebook users that post exasperated calls for gun control, as if they have been publicly vying for new legislation for years.  They are the journalists, columnists, and commentators who immediately attack politicians, lobbyists, and the organizations that allegedly collude with them. In short, this group politicizes the tragedy. But contrary to a popular assumption, most of them are not seeing the event in these terms for political gain. "Political gain" is one of those rhetorical counterpunches, like "class warfare," that is stretched far beyond its useful merits in public dialogue.


Those journalists and Twitter and Facebook users do not have a surreptitious agenda when they see an unspeakable mass shooting, made possible by a military grade .223 caliber rifle, and call for political action. They are simply thinking pragmatically. They immediately assess the causality of the event, which goes something like this: This killing spree was only possible because the killer lives in a country where powerful automatic weapons with large magazines are available to almost anybody; without that environment and unique combination of freedom and accessibility, this simply would not have happened. These people are the pragmatic sympathizers. They are not content to passively commiserate and abstractly wonder, out loud or in thought, if things could be different in their country. They fundamentally believe that a human reaction must be concrete and tangible, especially when it is a reaction to such calamity and horror.


Then there is the third group that feels the current of human suffering pass through them. This group is perhaps the most poetic, the most soulful. When they heard about the shootings in Newtown, their reaction was not restricted to the cognitive sphere, nor was it immediately transferred into action and the desire for change. They heard about the little children, teachers, principal, and school psychologist, and let the reality, the absoluteness of it all sink in. This is the distinguishing quality of their sympathetic nature: they are patient and do not rush to solipsize the event, either as a cognitive object or a call to arms. They try to accept and conceive of the event as a reality autonomous from their own. They actually try to imagine the horror that has befallen the Connecticut town; they consider deeply what the families of the victims are going through. They open themselves up emotionally, willingly imagining that it was their child, their sister, their mother at Sandy Hook Elementary School. This is, of course, what it means to feel compassion and empathy.


But how often do we really stop and think about what is behind these emotions, which rarely crop up in contemporary culture? Empathy requires that we use patience and imagination to actually fathom the suffering of another person.  This is one of the higher forms of sympathy, because it is an earnest attempt to behold the consciousness of another person. The horrible irony of such a thing, though, is that although we believe we are thinking compassionately and selflessly, we still remain in the comfort and convenience of our own minds. We are still to some dangerously selfish extent solipsizing the tragedy and losing grip of its excruciatingly painful reality outside of our own minds.


The tragedy in Newtown should provide a lesson in sympathy to us all. No matter what we feel and how we choose to handle those feelings, we should at least know that, theoretically, we have a responsibility to others, and that responsibility can inform and inspire the inchoate sympathies we all feel at one time or another in our lives.


Let's start with this simple maxim: Everything we do in our lives is implicitly self-serving until it explicitly is not. In other words, all the emotion, grief, and compassion we feel, and the attempts we make to imagine the anguish of the victimized families, are only self-serving thoughts and actions until we commit a concretely selfless act. We are capable of experiencing the gamut of emotion, an internalized histrionic theater. We could feel existential terror from realizing that if this happened in Newtown, Connecticut, then it can happen anywhere; burning indignation from accepting that Adam Lanza will never stand trial for his crimes; or vicarious heartbreak when we consider that many parents have been forced to bury their children in the days following the tragedy.


But in these forms, sympathy is completely ethereal, no more substantial than a daydream or a fleeting reminiscence. As much as these thoughts feel noble, they require nothing of the thinker, and fail to accept the realities outside of one's own consciousness. Because once we accept those realities—of the inconsolable parent who must wake up every morning knowing that her child will never come back, the father who remembers, over and over, how kind and generous his daughter was, and the mother who wonders if she will someday see her son in heaven—then we must also accept our responsibility to them.


We become selfless through actions, not thoughts. For all the different thoughts that can run through our minds after a tragedy like the one in Newtown, so there are just as many actions that can be carried out. Americans that live nearby can drive to Newtown, pay their respects, and contribute to one of the many kindhearted memorials that have been started throughout the town’s thoroughfare. They can make a concrete ideological change in their lives by giving up their guns through a local buyback program. Or they can give money to the various Newtown funds that are providing assistance to the bereaved families and planning to build a permanent memorial in the town. Imagine if every single American put just one dollar toward the cause of creating a memorial for the 26 victims shot down in Sandy Hook Elementary School. That amounts to more than 310 million dollars. Some of the more utilitarian-minded people might find fault with this sort of investment, believing that 300 million dollars could be put to better, more functional use. But in times like these we come together not as fellow citizens under the auspices of the same government, or at the mercy of the same economy. We do not act because we are beholden. We act because we feel compassion, that gossamer emotion that is nearly indiscernible in the myopic march of autonomous lives. Compassion is not some superfluous evolutionary digression, like a second kidney in a genome’s search for symmetry. It is central to the meaning of life. But if it is left only as a thought, a wilting dream in our minds sustained by the alluring chimera of sanctimony, then we will have betrayed it.


In Newtown we find a compelling opportunity to distinguish between the kind of sympathy that matters and that which does not. To quote John Donne, when the bell tolls in Newtown, it tolls for thee. Those empathic feelings deep inside of us affirm this. Those sensations are assured by human nature. What we do with them, however, is up to us.

Author Bio:
Mike Mariani is a contributing writer at Highbrow Magazine.

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