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When responses to tragedy are tragic

Brian E. Konkol

With each passing week we are confronted, not only with an unending cycle of disturbing atrocities, but also with a difficult and enduring question: Are we lamenting with, or merely fixated on, those most impacted by our perpetual state of violence?

As a society, when at our worst, we are mass producers and willing consumers of extreme violence. We feed off – and thirst for – various expressions of personal and public hostility. Many of our most popular television shows, films, video games, competitive sports, and even toys for children, are intentionally saturated with systematic aggression. While many debate the intent and impact of these diverse attention options, few can argue that such preferences are indeed evident.

Profiting off of pain

Within such an enormous culture of commodified intensity (and due in part to a complicit media industry) that frequently blurs the borders of fiction and reality, one can persuasively argue that even the most popular reporting and analysis surrounding violence is less about information and more about sensationalism. To think that some are willing to profit off the pain of heartbroken victims and survivors, by appealing to some of our worst human impulses, is nearly as disgusting as the original offense.

If we were to take an honest and intentional assessment of our current context, a troubling conclusion is that far too many of us follow the news coverage and commentary surrounding acts of violence not merely to be informed, but simply to consume, and perhaps even to be entertained. We too often fail to do unto others as we would wish to have done unto ourselves. So what does this mean? Instead of fixating on those impacted by the various struggles of violence, a more appropriate response is to lament alongside those who endure such terrible events. We should expect more from others and ourselves.

Whereas “fixation” is commonly defined as “an obsessive or unhealthy preoccupation or attachment,” to lament is an experience of “passionate grief and sorrow.” As we continue to hold our loved ones a bit closer due to events of recent weeks, and as some seek to fan the flames of fear and retribution, our responses to suffering should include not simply glaring at our screens but also lamenting alongside those who experience the awful pains of disaster. Instead of gazing or glancing (like watching a house burn down), a more fitting reaction is to help calm the fires of pain and alienation through attentive concern, sensitivity, and perhaps most importantly, sustained and collective advocacy. To fixate is an expression of selfishness, but to lament is an embodiment of solidarity.

The choice

Violent tragedies should indeed hold our attention, for apathy is by no means an acceptable response to the complexities of pain, and indifference cannot provide a pathway to examining that which may have led to such atrocities in this first place. Nevertheless, when acts of violence do indeed occur, the choice is whether to react as pseudo-informed spectators or engage as transformed participators. Despite the behavior of some, the past weeks have revealed the character in some of the most caring and courageous in our midst, as certain citizens have chosen to place the public well-being as a higher priority than personal impulses. When our collective lamentation is converted into such virtuous communal action, then restoration is indeed possible, and new beginnings are more likely to be recognized and even realized.

Tragedy occurs not only in violent actions, but also in the tragic responses of those with an opportunity to best respond to the act. We can do better. In honor of those who continue to suffer the direct impact of such unfathomable violence, and in order to embody that which we wish to see in our communities, may we refuse to fixate on, but instead commit to lament with, and in time, resolve to heal alongside. 

The Rev. Brian E. Konkol, Ph.D., serves as chaplain at Gustavus Adolphus College, St. Peter, Minnesota.

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Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by Holli Rietmulder on 09/27/2016 - 08:46 am.

    Appreciate your insight, thank you for sharing this timely message.

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