Still More Violence: How Do We Respond?

For all of us — but particularly for the children in our lives: in the aftermath of yesterday’s bombing.

It’s difficult, if not impossible, not to feel this as close to home, with all the news coverage, with all the videos, with all the photos. We can remember how rare such incidents are, at least in the United States. But it still feels real, and close. Our fear systems may be triggered. We can respond with the unthinking natural responses: aggression, withdrawal, denial. Or we can make a choice to shake off our fear and respond differently, including with social engagement.

Not everyone responds the same way. I’m someone who needs information, as much as possible, in order to gain back my rational self in such times. Some need to get away, to more peaceful activities: a walk among tall trees, playing a game with family, just doing a normal day’s work.

Gradually perspective sets in. For me, it’s the knowledge that so many helpers stepped up and stepped in. The immigrant peace activist who lost two sons, one in Iraq and one to suicide, helping to save another man’s son by holding tight his tourniquet. The surgeons, the nurses, at the hospitals. The medical people who rushed to help and save lives, some after having just run 26+ miles themselves. The bystanders who tore down a metal fence to get to the injured. The thousands in Boston who reached out to runners who could not get to their rooms and belongings, to say, “stay with me, I’m here, you’ve got a place to go right now.”

Those are the lessons our children need to hear. Those are the role models we all need to hear. Perhaps one person, perhaps a group brought on the bombings. More than a hundred were injured. Far, far more stepped up to give of themselves, to bring peace and support and understanding. That is a far more important lesson.

And it’s one that gives ourselves and our children something to hang on to. We are not powerless in the face of such tragedies. We are immensely powerful. Every peaceful act we do, every kindness we do, may influence someone, in ripples, every bit as much as harmful acts will do.

We can make the choice to bring more kindness and peace to the world. So what kindness will you be doing today — for yourself? for your children? for strangers?

In the Face of Violence

© - Used with Permission

When I woke up this morning, the first thing I read in the news was the horrible news from Colorado.  An audience full of excited mostly-young people had gathered for a midnight showing of a much-anticipated movie — and a gunman took advantage of that full theatre to … do what?  Get noticed, I imagine.

What does it take to blind oneself to the natural emotions of empathy and compassion in order to do such a deed?  It’s beyond me; I only know that it’s happening more and more often.  It’s also enabled by the availability of technology that makes it possible to fire hundreds of rounds without stopping to reload — and giving anyone an opportunity to stop the bloodshed.  And the ability to gather such supplies without calling any attention to the one who is preparing for a massacre.

What response does the tragedy call for from us?  To hug our own loved ones, first, remembering that life is sometimes tenuous.  To continue, or begin, to do the work of teaching empathy to children and adults. To reach out to anyone we know who was touched by the tragedy.  To help our own children and grandchildren understand that this is actually very unlikely to happen to any one person (the ubiquitous media makes it seem so close, especially to young children who don’t really comprehend distances and statistical probabilities).

It also calls for a moment of reason and compassion — to not quickly buy into conspiracy theories, political or religious explanations, or even to try to find what’s to “blame.”  The reasons are complex in any such incident.  There are no easy answers, and no easy ways to prevent the tragedy.

For me, I don’t want to add to the shooter’s fame by repeating his name.  If I’m right and one of the primary motivations today for such mass killings is to “make a name” — to get famous — then I won’t be complicit in that.

But my heart goes out to the injured, to the families and friends of the injured and dead, to the people who escaped and who will still be scarred from the memories, to all who are scared and scarred by such events.

I find myself even more resolved to do my part in building a more peaceful, more compassionate world.

Editing Jefferson

How the National Prayer Breakfast invitation edited Thomas Jefferson:

“In extracting the pure principles which he [Jesus] taught, we should have to strip off the artificial vestments in which they have been muffled by priests, who have travestied them into various forms, as instruments of riches and power to themselves….We must reduce our volume to the simple evangelists, select, even from them, the very words only of Jesus…. There will be found remaining the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered to man.”

More: Doubting Thomas: Prayer Breakfast Theocrats Try To Baptize Jefferson

Remembering 9/11

On this day, these are my hopes:

Remember life: that it can end so quickly, so senselessly is a reminder that life is precious.  Can we enjoy more moments we have of life?

Remember what matters most: did people call others on 9/11 from their burning buildings to tell them how far they were on a work project?  Or did they call loved ones to say a good-bye, if they could?  Can we say “hello” and “welcome” while we’re all here? To our loved ones, friends, and people who may become friends if we open ourselves?

Remember risk: on  that day, so many we now call heroes simply did what they could to try to save and preserve lives of others — total strangers, often.

Remember community: one immediate reaction to 9/11 was people reaching out to others, to neighbors, to people they met in stores or on the street, to talk, to share emotions, to help each others.   Can we carry more of that spirit into our daily lives, not waiting for tragedy to bring us together?

Remember justice.  What conditions make it likely that some can be convinced that others, strangers, just becaue of who they are, where they live, or where they work, are to blame for their misery and therefore deserve killing?  Can we learn to create conditions which nurture sharing and unity even in diversity rather than blame, enmity, violence?

Remember love.  We lost much on 9/11 — a sense of security, many individual precious lives, a sense of expansive possibility rather than constricted limitations — but we still have the choice of love.  Can we bring compassion and love to our own selves, and to those in our lives and far away, even when we are afraid?

Those are, I believe, crucial questions of human possibility that we can ponder, questions about the future, even as we acknowledge the reality of that terrible day in the past and all the days since then.

Remember.  Put that which has been broken back together.  Re-member.

Are Pigeons Smarter Than Human Beings?

We as humans factor in far more than basic probabilities — hope, greed, whatever. I found this article fascinating! Are Birds Smarter Than Humans? – PDF file

A Time to Mourn

I cannot fully celebrate anyone’s death. It would make me less than I want to be. It was Osama bin Laden’s celebration of death of others in the service of his ends that led him to inspire so much pain and suffering. I don’t want to be like that, even in a moment.

I mourn the pain that he caused to not just those killed by acts he inspired and planned, but to their families. I mourn the happiness lost to millions billions of people through the fear of terrorism. But I also hold just a small place to mourn the person he might have been but was not — the person he chose not to be.

I remember hearing just after 9/11 from someone who’d met Osama in college in America. That person remembered an evening when Osama was sitting at a piano and picking out notes and singing “The House of the Rising Sun.” I remember, in the pain and shock of what we call 9/11 as shorthand, thinking of what might have been had he not made some choice, somewhere along the way. I can mourn that self he didn’t become and could have become.

That humanity which he long buried in himself and stamped out so that he could do hateful things is one small part of what I mourn today, along with all the other human losses that choice he made led to.

One way we can refuse to be like Osama bin Laden is to stubbornly refuse to be drawn into the denial of any person’s core humanity in service of our own ends.

Yes, it was probably the lesser of evils BY FAR that he was killed rather than left to live and inspire more death and pain and suffering. But I mourn that killing him was the only alternative we could find, based on his own choices.

A Holiday They Can Believe In?

We are mentioned in this article in the Post:

Atheists gather for a holiday they can believe in: Independence Day

Glad to get a mention. Our Ethical Society is definitely an atheist-friendly group with many atheists, but we’re not exclusively an atheist group. We’re nontheist in that belief in deities is not required or even important to our identity. Thus, atheists are comfortable, and so are mixed families and others who don’t believe that people must have a deity to ground ethical behavior.


As Memorial Day approaches, I remember that the day was initially created to honor the dead on both sides of a major conflict – the American Civil War – and in that remembering, to re-unite the nation that had nearly split in two. It was not to glorify war, or to justify the rightness of either side, but to mourn those who’d died and honor them as people, and to move forward in unity. (more on that: Memorial Day Origins)

In that same spirit, Bonnie Hurd Smith tipped me off to this video of an Eric Colville song, End of War (on YouTube).  I had tears in my eyes by the end of it.  I hope that it inspires some thought and dreams in others, as it did in me.

Empathy in the White House

On January 4, I spoke about empathy and its role in ethical living.  The link below will take you to a Google Video on empathy — it’s definitely a “rough, rough cut” as the producer has begun by putting together about 30 clips of Obama talking about empathy.

Have we ever had a leader, I wonder, who understands so much about empathy — not “I feel your pain” but “I can try to connect with you because we are both human beings”?

What do you think?  How might empathy in the White House make a difference in the ethics of our country, of the world?