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Learning from Tragedy

Posted by on Dec 15, 2012 | 4 Comments

This post comes amid a great deal of personal debate… I’m not terribly confident that my lack of writing eloquence can effectively convey my thoughts on the matter, but I’ll give it a shot.

The tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut has shook many people, as it should. It was an unspeakable tragedy. As the news was unfolding, I was filled with the gut-wrenching feelings of placing my own children at that school. I also thought of the school personnel and the number of times Shelly and I went through drills to prepare for such an event. Finally, I thought of the shooter himself. Just hat would have compelled him to do what he did?

All of these thought patterns aren’t uncommon; they’re the same thoughts that run through my head whenever there’s a tragedy of this type. They happened after Columbine, Erfurt, Winnenden, Red Lake, Mercaz HaRav, Virginia Tech, and Realengo. The tragedies brought about a strong desire to change our world.

I don’t think those feelings are unique. Based on the Facebook discussions from my friends, most are feeling the exact same thing.

Unfortunately I’ve seen the same unfortunate pattern happen time and time again:

Tragedy happens -> people are scared -> people are outraged and call for change -> people mourn -> feelings soften and that drive for change decreases -> people go back to the exact same life they lived before.

It’s great that so many people are shaken to the reality that our world is filled with incredibly cruel acts for it gives us an opportunity to change that world. But only if we actually change it.

How do we change the world to prevent tragedies like this from happening?

That’s the million dollar question. Some are calling for strict gun control. That’s a great idea… if those people actually understood the dynamics of our gun culture. We have a bazillion guns floating around. Banning all guns (or just a class of guns) just takes guns out of the hands of those that would legally obtain said guns. The gun control advocates have no idea how easy it is to obtain guns illegally. And they assume banning certain guns will somehow prevent gun violence, which again shows their naiveté. Anyone with even rudimentary gun handling skills could inflict a lot of casualties with even a single shot .22 rifle. If we’re going to get serious about banning guns, we need an effective way to eliminate all guns from the world. And the guns are just tools… anyone bent on inflicting mass casualties can just use another tool like poison or bombs. Finally, we have the whole Second Amendment issue. We have to seriously consider our willingness to give away our rights in the name of supposed safety.

Others are calling for greater mental health expenditures. Like calls for gun control, this is a good thing… but it’s not necessarily going to prevent these types of tragedies. First, there’s an assumption that the mentally ill are dangerous. Anyone working in the field will tell you otherwise. At this point, we don’t know if the perpetrator of the CT shooting had a diagnosed mental illness. Second, it causes us to make an attribution error- we assume someone that could go on a shooting spree and kill innocent children (and adults) must be mentally ill. That conclusion allows us to dismiss situational factors. The dude may have been completely “normal.” Maybe he was bullied. Maybe he just broke up with a girlfriend, lost his job, had seemingly insurmountable debt, or was the victim of a crime himself. He may have been put under tremendous stress and just snapped. Most people that commit murder aren’t psychopaths… they’re seemingly normal people that are in a situation that causes them to do unspeakable crimes against others.

The conversations about gun control, mental health, or even prayer in school are good conversations to have… but they are attempts to treat symptoms of these tragedies, not the root causes. While many people have opinions about the root causes (violent video games, lack of God in schools, Hostess going bankrupt… whatever), we fail to create effective, lasting change because we don’t understand our role as agents of change.

So What’s the Solution?

I like this quote from Gandhi:

“If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. … We need not wait to see what others do.”

It puts the onus of change on us as individuals. Instead of thinking of the CT tragedy as an act perpetrated by a crazy individual in a land with rampant gun use, think about the role each of us plays in creating and maintaining a society where this could happen.

When we begin to use this line of thinking, we begin to see the world in a different light. We see that we all bear a tiny bit of responsibility. That realization, while uncomfortable, also empowers us. We CAN change the world around us, and that change doesn’t come from calling for more gun control or spending more on mental health care. It comes from the way we see our own existence. We’re not living in A world filled with evil; we’re living in OUR world filled with evil.

We can change our world by making a positive impact on all those around us. We can empower ourselves to genuinely help make the world a better place. There’s a very specific reason I promote healthy exercise (via barefoot running), life simplification, and healthy sexual expression… all three activities make people happier. It’s the most effective way I’ve found to make a positive impact on as many people as possible. Does it really change the world? Maybe. Maybe not. At the very least, it keeps me from doing things that negatively impact the world.

To get to a position where we can effectively make positive changes requires some degree of self-reflection. Ultimately we have to be healthy enough to be able to help others, which means making sure WE’RE okay. We need to take care of our own needs first. Once that happens, we can take care of our families. Once our families are okay, we can be in a position to help others in our own unique way. In short, we’d all be working to make the world a better place by helping others get in a position for them to make their own special contribution to make the world a better place.

We need to be selfish in order to be selfless. The problem is too many people simply focus on being selfish without the selfless part. Or worse, they focus on being selfless without taking care of their won needs. Both patterns are dysfunctional, lead to serious problems, and are entirely preventable.

The prevention of unspeakable tragedy isn’t found in treating the symptoms; it’s found in treating the underlying illness. We all play a role in treating the underlying illness, but it requires us to start with ourselves. If all of us took care of our own needs with the help of those around us, we would then put ourselves in a position to help others that are in need so they could eventually help those around them.

That’s the solution. Most of my readers are probably experiencing some pretty raw emotions right now. Use that emotion to really consider this idea. Consider your own needs that aren’t being met and how those needs prevent you from truly helping others. Set up a plan to take care of those needs today. After your needs are met, consider how you can make a positive impact on the world, then do it. Don’t waste your life chasing trivial matters; be an agent of positive change. Together we really can make a difference.

That’s the change I want to see in the world.




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  1. Phil
    December 25, 2012

    The problem with your opening statement is that most of these shootings are with legal guns. And how come the US leads the way in deaths by shootings? Many other countries with strict gun control don’t have the same level of shootings. To name 3 the UK, Canada and here in New Zealand (where hunting is a regular past time). One of my favourite sayings is it takes a village to raise a child. It is too easy to blame individuals, there is such a thing as collective responsibility. I think the citizens of the US needs to start looking after each other and not just themselves

  2. Il cambiamento può essere anche positivo: non dobbiamo avere paura di cambiare | RunLovers
    December 17, 2012

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  3. Ben W
    December 15, 2012

    I think you are spot on, Jason. We can only change ourselves. And it’s often changing the little things we tell ourselves don’t really matter, than can often really make a difference. Especially in relationships, it’s often the little things we do for or against each other that maintain or break connections between people. I think there is a great deal of loneliness in the world, which in some part lies at the root of these tragedies.

    That’s another reason why I think your blog makes a difference bigger than you might think. It connects people to each other. Anything that lets people know they are not alone is a very good thing.

    One of my goals as a teacher is to be kinder to my students. By this, I don’t mean just loosening the “rules,” but rather learning to take the time to listen to their side of the story and talk through issues that come up, rather than just enforcing compliance.

    While there is no way to prevent all tragedy in the world, we are only really responsible for the people we meet in the world. Learning to see each person as a person, rather than an object is a good way to start making real change.