4 Productive Things You Can Do After a Tragedy
ABOUT A WEEK AGO MY MOM called me with some bad news. My aunt, who has been there for me since day one, was going into hospice after a resurgence of the cancer we’d thought she’d beaten ten years ago. When I got off the phone, I turned to my wife and ranted about how fucking pissed I was at my mom for phrasing the news in a certain way, and about two minutes into the rant the thought suddenly crossed my mind, “Wow, this is a stupid thing to be angry about.”
I paused and said, “I’m sorry. I’m not angry. I’m sad.” My wife gave me a hug. “I’d rather be angry, though.”
When I woke up this morning to news of the shootings in Dallas, right on the heels of the police killings of men in Minnesota and Louisiana, I noticed something on social media: unbridled fury. Outrage, everywhere you looked. Gun control! Institutional racism! Police violence! Terrorism! Mental health! The media! Donald Trump!
While no doubt these are all issues worth discussing (save, perhaps, the last), it struck me as the same basic reaction I’d had weeks before: fury that served mostly to push out sadness. The fury is often followed by a sort of apathetic resignation — “Well, Congress won’t do anything. Guess this is just going to happen again.”
There’s no real mourning in this reaction. Without coping with our loss, we can’t grow from it. And so there’s no real action taken as a result.
If we are to break the cycle of tragedy-anger-apathy-tragedy, we need to think of steps we can take to move productively into a better future. Here are a few proposals.
First: Give yourself a minute to feel sad.
Instead of instantly fixating on the shooter, on the weapon that did the murdering, on the institutions that enabled that weapon to be bought, or on the politicians cynically exploiting the events for their own gain, take a moment to think about the victims and their families instead.
In this current tragedy, the victims are Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, and Brent Thompson, and Patrick Zamarippa As of this writing, Thompson and Zamarrippa are the only police officers that has been identified in the Dallas shooting, but there are three more that have been killed.
This pause for the victims is not an attempt to lessen the political and systemic issues that led to their deaths, and it’s not to avoid a conversation on those issues, it’s simply to allow us to feel the loss. Unless we can feel the loss of each unnecessary death, we can’t fully come to terms with the tragedy we’re fighting. Mourn your losses before starting your fight.
Second: Get off social media. Go somewhere and listen.
You almost certainly got to this article through social media, so I may be putting my foot in my mouth here, but social media is too frequently a toxic place for these conversations. There are too many friends tallying up lives (“THIS is how many cops die in the line of duty!” “THIS is how many unarmed black men are killed by cops!” “You’re BOTH ignoring the number of Syrians that were killed this week!”) and venting their anger on your comment threads for you to get a good feel for what’s going on.
Go to a protest. Go to a memorial service. And try to talk to people who have been through something similar. Don’t look to fight or argue — just look to listen. As a white dude who is not a cop, I can say with a pretty solid amount of confidence that I don’t know what it’s like to be a black man in America, nor do I have any sense of what the life of a law enforcement officer is like. It’s tough for me to have an informed opinion if I don’t listen to others.
Third: Contact your local representative.
It’s easy to read the news about deadlock in Washington and think, “they can’t change anything.” But the reality of the situation is that political solutions are way more broad and effective than person-by-person solutions. Sure, I could get rid of my gun, but that doesn’t really do much about the 300 million guns that are already out there. Local, state, or countrywide gun control measures are going to do much more than you ever could personally to lower gun violence.
So instead, talk to your local representative. Is there something your town or city could do to lower gun violence? Could a better dialogue be started between police and people of color in your community? What is being done, if anything, to make your community safer in this way?
Local and state government is much more nimble and able to make quick changes than national government, which is much more beholden to the media, special interests, to party politics and to expensive re-election campaigns. You can find all of your elected representatives at this website. And don’t hesitate to call them: it is literally their job to listen to your concerns.
Finally: Don’t let the size of the problem make you apathetic.
In a 1948 speech, future Nobel Laureate Albert Camus said, “Perhaps we cannot prevent this world from being a world in which children are tortured. But we can reduce the number of tortured children.”
It’s easy to feel helpless in the wake of these tragedies, and it’s easy to feel like nothing you can do will be big enough — like whatever you do will only be a drop of water in a vast, vast sea. To that, we turn to another Nobel Laureate, Desmond Tutu, who once said, “The sea is only drops of water that have come together.”
Do not give into anger and resignation. Most of us never would have known Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, and Brent Thompson if they’d never been killed. There are plenty of people out there today who are alive and anonymous who have been saved by the thankless activism of people such as yourself.