how to respond to hatred and violence (especially in the wake of terrorism)

i was on a layover in los angeles when i heard about yesterday’s terrorist attacks in france. my husband, knowing my deep and pained response to violence, texted me so that i wouldn’t be caught off guard and rendered a puddle of tears as i raced through the airport. regardless of how the news was delivered, however, it made me feel sick, as i am guessing it did many others.

news of tragedies and terror acts capture our attention in complex ways. they raise our heart rate, activate our brains and endocrine systems, and create a weird soup of repulsion and interest. this heightened physiological response which sits alongside strong emotions and a sense of helplessness in the face of such personal, political, and national wreckage cause us to go into a sort of reactive state. for some of us this involves denial, for others anger/sadness/profound helplessness/fear, and, for others, an obsessive need to watch the news.

last week, while lecturing at a southern liberal arts college, i met with a group of media and journalism students for a conversation over lunch. one of the topics that emerged centered around what images are ethical to broadcast when covering a violent occurrence. the consensus was that the display of images that would compromise the dignity of a victim or sensationalize an abhorant event should not be displayed for public consumption. i agree with this and take it further to say that our every day exposure to simulated violence makes us overly comfortable with blurring the line regarding what is shown after actual traumas.

as someone who has given a bulk of time to determining how i choose to respond to violence and hatred in life and in the media, i offer my own response to how to live in the days following a traumatic event. i recognize that we are all different (we are all soooooooooooo different) and that each of us must discern our own best way of getting by and through. with that in mind, i humbly offer the following.

1 once you know what has happened, what is happening in response, and have educated yourself about the basic framework of the motivation behind the incident, walk away from the screens. while it is important to understand international politics, dynamics, and the tensions that exist, the days following a traumatic incident are not filled with high quality educational data. you can get that later (or now) from sources that are not presented in reaction and sensationalistic response mode. these first few days are filled with high emotion reactivity that will serve to stir you up and leave you over stimulated. this kind of human state does little to promote healthy response or action.

2 when taking in mainstream sources of news, heed mr. roger’s advice and look for the helpers. let their actions inspire you to go out and perform heroic deeds of love and peace making. similarly, when considering the victims, work to honor their lives more than remembering them in their deaths. this places the attention where it should be...on their dignity as fellow humans who were making their way through life in the ways only they could.

3 consider in prayer, intention, or deed those who are suffering losses, those who are required to take strong action, and those who will be deeply impacted by their associations with the perpetrators who would have, in no way, condoned their actions. practicing this kind of loving kindness helps balance out the anger, confusion, and tendency to want to stay stuck on the powerlessness that is understandable in relation to our thoughts and feelings toward the individuals who have perpetuated the terror. 

4 find places of beauty and hopefulness to soothe yourself in. for the world to become filled with more harmony and peaceful co-existence we will all be needed to respond to the pockets of hatred and systems of oppression that exist around us. for this reason, filling our minds with violence and the reactive information available right after an event uses up our energy in less than helpful ways. we can educate ourselves well and find potent ways of helping in the days to come but simply watching the news does not accomplish this. today we can find regulation and get to work on the number 5 suggestion below so that, tomorrow (or a week from now) we will be ready to dig in to the kind of education we really need to respond well and in a balanced way.

5 do something loving and kind. be it small or large, find a way to promote peace and friendship by getting active. write someone a note of encouragement, make a contribution to a ministry or non profit that promotes healthy relationships, bring cookies to the local fire station or emergency room staff or bring donuts to the responders at your local suicide hot line. get out your side walk chalk and write notes of gratitude outside your neighbor’s homes. go buy a large package of socks and fill your thermos with hot chocolate and walk through downtown giving the opportunity for warmth of feet and bellies to those without roofs over their heads. call a retirement center near you to see if you might join a resident without family nearby for dinner. donate to your local food bank. to really push the loving kindness, visit an ethnic market in your neighborhood and consider yourself an ambassador of friendliness. smile at those you encounter, purchase something you’ve never tasted, wish the sales clerk well and pray for/intend blessings for their business. if radicalism is your thing, forgive someone you’ve held a grudge against.

responding with dazed, blank stares, hopeless angry feelings, and fear does little to make the world a better place. intentionally chosen, wisely lived out responses to traumatic events, however, can create a readiness within us to respond in pro-active, community building ways. may we all, in as much as it depends upon us, choose love and peace and friendship and inspire these traits in others as well.

1 comment:

  1. this is brilliant and bold. imagine if we stayed away from screens in response to tragedy... it reminds me of what annie lamott writes, "Tom Weston taught me decades ago that in the face of human tragedy, we go around the neighborhood and pick up litter, even though there will be more tomorrow. It is another blessed sacraments. We take the action and the insight will follow: that we are basically powerless, but we are not helpless."