Tragedies

Yesterday I heard the news about a seven year old girl being washed off the rocks at Thunder Hole in Acadia National Park.   Though she and a few others were rescued, she died at the hospital, a victim of the surf from Hurricane Bill.   In the paper today was a story about a local man who is pleading guilty to manslaughter.   Apparently he was watching an 11 month old and, driven crazy by her screaming, hit her in the stomach hard enough to kill her.   He then tried to cover it up by claiming she fell down the stairs.   Also, he seems to be devastated by the event, and allegedly has contemplated suicide.

When I heard the news about the seven year old, I closed my mind and made a picture of a young girl, about Ryan’s age, excited to see the high waves at one of the most beautiful national parks in the country.   Her family was likely in vacation mode, relaxed, and not even considering that there could be danger at this usually serene park.   I imagined what it was like for the parents now, trying to cope, the girl’s shock, fear and pain as she was mortally wounded, and the emotions of the rescue workers and doctors as they tried to save her.    Did she have siblings, are her parents still together?   I don’t know, but I imagined what they might be experiencing.   As I did that, I made no effort to prevent my emotions from feeling that pain, or tears from coming into my eyes.

I can shut off emotions.   I’ve learned that if I think abstractly, remind myself of statistics, and put things in a different perspective, I could hear a story like that and think “oh well, that’s life.   People die in accidents every day.”   I mean, I teach about the Rwandan genocide which killed nearly a million in 100 days, Stalin’s gulags with 20 million dead, or Mao’s industrialization plan for China that lead to a famine which killed 30 million.   People are starving daily, children are orphaned thanks to AIDS throughout Africa, children are kidnapped and sold into sex slavery, and in war zones children face death and injury daily.

So if I think in those terms, I can completely avoid any tears or sorrow over a news story about one seven year old.   Yet I do not.   I choose to let the emotions come forward, feel them, examine them, think about what I would do if something happened to my child, and let the tragedy affect me.    Long ago I made a conscious choice not to shut off my empathy in cases like this.

I do so for two reasons.   First, I want to know myself and my emotions.  If I keep them bottled up, and abstract away chances to really think through the emotional meaning of an event, then I will hide a part of myself from myself.    I realized that if I did that abstraction thing, after awhile it would become second nature.  I’d never really feel emotion over something like the death of one stranger; at a logical rational level it’s meaningless.    At least she had a good life (I assume) for seven years, unlike seven year olds butchered in third world war zones.   Soon, though, it would be natural to turn off all empathy — I could abstract away every circumstance and event, and coldly yet rationally accept “that’s the way the world is,” or “their choices brought about the consequence.”   I might even fool myself that such an ability was “strength” and that those who felt emotion were being “weak.”

Yet that abstraction is the easy way.   It’s also dangerous.   If you hide your own emotions from yourself, then you may not understand what’s happening when a tragedy in ones’ own life forces unexplored emotions to the surface.    One time after my first son was born, I thought about what would happen if he were abducted or killed in an accident.  I went through it in a way that literally had tears running down my face (and hoping my wife wouldn’t wake up and wonder what the hell I was crying about).   Few people put themselves through that kind of experience, but I felt it necessary to explore how I would react and think.  Of course, I knew that it hadn’t happened, but oddly enough in the emotion of that kind of exercise reality isn’t always as strong as imagination.   To break out of it, I had to force myself back to reality.   I think, though, I know myself better because I don’t always shut down emotion.   If I’m in public I’ll do the rationalizing/abstracting thing quite often to avoid embarrassment, but otherwise I let myself feel.

Another reason is that I think it has an impact on how I look at ethics and choices in the world.   Take war.   For many people war is often chosen as a reaction to an evil leader, or a threat from a strange civilization or ideology.    The emotion there is fear, and war is abstracted into simply an act of providing security or implementing justice.   Yet for me, my first thought is the emotion of the people who will be killed, the human tragedy that war entails — especially in an era when 80% of the casualties are innocent civilians.   This causes me to view such things differently than I otherwise would, and makes me prone to oppose war and look at human ethics before abstract interest.

Of course, one could accuse me of mushy thinking — consideration of the suffering of innocents might blind me from seeing the stark reality that war is a necessity in this dangerous world and not fighting when necessary might cause even more suffering.    Yet my thinking isn’t mushy.   I understand the arguments about war, I have been studying and teaching that material for 20 years!   When I talk about, say, the Iraq war in class, I spend 20 minutes making the most persuasive case possible for the war, to show students why it could have been seen as logical, even necessary.   So my thinking is very clear on the arguments and logic.   In fact, one reason I choose to put the human ethic first is because from my knowledge of war and history, it’s rare that conflicts actually improve things.   The only time they seem to fix things is when they so utterly destroy a system so that the survivors have to start over from scratch.

In all political debates I try to take this notion of ethics as being connected to how we emotionally understand the predicament of others seriously.   This pushes me in diverse directions.   Sometimes towards what might be called socialism, sometimes towards libertarian views.    Ideologies are intellectual abstractions, they don’t connect well with taking the subjective human experience seriously.    The choice I’ve made on how to view the world seems to me to be emotionally and intellectually more robust and tenable than either pure emotion or pure abstraction.   Yet it creates calls I have to make based on purely subjective criteria — and, of course, there is no reason for others to adopt my criteria.

It’s also why I have mixed feelings about the second case.   If the killer really did simply lose control in a moment of rage, and is devastated by the result, how much vengeance is appropriate?   The family of the dead child may want the killer to pay severely, but does that do anything to bring back the child?   Does it just waste two lives, when perhaps it’s possible for the killer to learn, change, and do good?   Abstracting the case makes it easier — one can say “he killed her, he should pay,” or conversely “it was a rage crime, he can be rehabilitated.”   To think about the suffering of the family of the child, the child, the man’s own inner torment, and what’s best is a case with no clear solution.   Tragedies are like that.

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  1. #1 by Josh on August 24, 2009 - 23:40

    Very nice Scott,

    Just a couple thoughts:

    It seems to me that logic/abstraction and emotion are different things to different people. For example, those who may say, “he killed her, he should pay,” may be expressing that with tears running down their faces. A reaction purely from the heart. At the same time the attorney for this man, using his own logic and knowledge of the law, may say, “think about the suffering of the family of the child, the child, the man’s own inner torment.” No real care, just the desire to win the case through his intellectual talents. (I’m not saying defense attorneys are all like this!)

    When 9/11 happened, some folks could have wanted to go to war because they were emotional about what had happened to their fellow man. One could make the argument that they were not thinking logically in their wanting to go to war. They didn’t think things through, and look what happened…

    So to me, emotion and logic can both be good and bad.

    • #2 by Scott Erb on August 25, 2009 - 20:19

      Not only does one need a balance of logic/reason and emotion/sentiment, but I think it’s a challenge to control emotion. Emotions are powerful, and often driven by forces inside one doesn’t really understand. I think that’s part of what motivates me to try to experience my emotions (and, perhaps, logically analyze them). If I understand myself better, maybe, just maybe, I’ll be better able to judge between emotions that cause mistakes, and ones that motivate me in a positive way. Thanks for the response!

  2. #3 by helenl on August 25, 2009 - 03:22

    Great and honest post. Isn’t it great to be human.

    • #4 by Scott Erb on August 25, 2009 - 20:20

      Yeah, the Vulcans don’t know what they’re missing!

  3. #5 by notesalongthepath on August 25, 2009 - 04:21

    Scott,
    I hope your students take some of your perspective into the world with them, the way of coping with the terrible big picture, without hardening their hearts to the individual cases. A good balance.
    I did the same as you when my children were born. I spent a gut-wrenching, heart-wrenching, mind-bending period after each of their births, giving them to life and to the Higher Power, so that I could remain sane. Well, as sane as I am, anyway!
    Pam

  4. #6 by Mike Lovell on August 25, 2009 - 15:24

    “When 9/11 happened, some folks could have wanted to go to war because they were emotional about what had happened to their fellow man. One could make the argument that they were not thinking logically in their wanting to go to war.”

    I had just arrived at work when I learned about the 9/11 attacks. I seriously considered rejoining the army to fulfill my duty, and help out my borthers in arms I had left behind when I finished my obligations prior. After speaking to my wife, I decided not to. She had forced me to logically think through the economics on a personal scale. We were barely scraping by on our 2 incomes at the time. She wasn’t going to be an army wife, which meant I would’ve been supporting her and our oldest, and then figuring out how to support me. So my emotion and logic collided. Logic that my duty was to family first won out.

    I can get excited (happy?) and angry, but for the sad emotional equivalents, I basically suppress it all, choosing to be a rock, which creates a divide between me and my wife. I wonder why I can easily emote frustration or casual happiness at certain events, while almost subconciously halting any sense of sadness from ever physically manifesting itself?

    And on an off point…I read the initial reports about the tide incident, which didnt reveal info on the people. And I want you to know Scott, that I immediately thought that is that was you and your family I was going to be mad at you! LOL

    • #7 by Scott Erb on August 25, 2009 - 20:28

      The funny thing is, casting all gender stereotypes aside, in my marriage it’s turned around — I’m more likely to be emotive than my wife. Perhaps it’s good for couples to have a balance. (Though she gets angry easier than I do…and she might read this blog entry so I’d better stop talking about her!)

  5. #8 by henitsirk on August 26, 2009 - 02:03

    I can’t really ingest stories of death any more, especially involving children, after having my own children. The saga of that horrible car crash on the Taconic Parkway recently was haunting to me. I think the difference between that and, say, people being killed in a far-off country and/or time is that it is, as you say, more abstract. I’ve driven with my children on the Taconic; I’ve never been in a gulag.

    My stepbrother died in the WTC. While I had never met him, it also haunts me. But I never once have thought about vengeance or killing others for some sort of “justice”. Maybe it would be different if it had been my child that died, but I don’t think so. I’ve always felt strongly that killing is wrong, period. I can’t imagine any situation where I could honestly say, “That human being needs to die.”

  6. #9 by renaissanceguy on September 2, 2009 - 13:21

    It’s not about vengeance. It’s not.

    Vengeance would be for somebody who loved that child to go after the man and kick him in the stomach until he died. It would be understandable, in my mind, for somebody in that situation to be tempted to do so.

    Justice is werved when a person pays in kind for whatever wrong they have done. If the man is contemplating killing himself, I can understand why. He took an innocent life. What does he have that he can give in exchange for that life–only his own life. I’m sure that I would want to kill myself if I ever thoughtlessly killed one of my children. (I don’t mean in an accident, although that would probably drive me to think of suicide, too.)

    That’s why the death penalty is fitting. He took a life. He should accept the just penalty of forfeiting his own life. Anything less says that his life is more valuable than the precious, beautiful child that he murdered.

    • #10 by Scott Erb on September 2, 2009 - 15:07

      Well, he can’t get the death penalty in any event, it was abolished in Maine in 1887 (I believe with strong religious rationale — thou shalt not kill). I disagree completely with your idea of justice, but that’s why there are courts and justice — there is no clear measure of an appropriate punishment or response, each case is different. In this case, he pleaded guilty to manslaughter, since it was a reaction in a moment of rage, and I believe the state does not consider him dangerous to society, and believes he can still live a productive life. I think that is appropriate.

      Nothing will bring back the child. Taking another life doesn’t really do any sort of justice. I cannot see the logic in your position here, but hey — that’s OK, this is definitely a matter of opinion.

  7. #11 by renaissanceguy on September 2, 2009 - 13:25

    Oh, and in no way is it appropriate to call the murder of a little child by a man a “tragedy.” A horror, a henious crime, but not a “tragedy.”

    • #12 by Scott Erb on September 2, 2009 - 15:09

      Oh, I think it’s still a tragedy for the people involved. Definitions are always multiple and a bit fuzzy.

  8. #13 by henitsirk on September 2, 2009 - 15:26

    I’m going with the moral leadership of Jesus, who said that the Old Testament “eye for an eye” kind of vengeance should stop. And the Buddha, who spoke of the sanctity of all life. I don’t think of justice in terms of exchange — though I must admit I’m not sure how I *do* think of justice.

    I can’t dictate how other people should feel after the violent loss of a loved one. I can say that I could never willingly bring about the taking of the life of another human being.

    Historically, “tragedy” meant the downfall of a great man, e.g., Oedipus. Currently it has the meaning of “a disastrous often fatal event or series of events” or “an unfortunate, sad, or discouraging occurrence or situation”. The murder of a child is more disastrous than unfortunate, of course.

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