Our Best Defense Against Tragedy
Like most Americans, when I learned that twenty children and six adults had been massacred in Newtown, Connecticut, I recoiled. Like most parents, my next thought was for my own son, the image I retain of his happy, smiling self for one moment replaced by an image of his tiny body lying twisted on the ground. Even as I write these words, an emotion I rarely feel—one I often can’t even make myself feel—threatens to overwhelm me.
And then, of course, came anger. I wished I could bring Adam Lanza back to life to ask him why he did this, and then beat him to death myself. Many might be surprised to learn that a physician would feel this way, but the sad truth is that after nearly twenty years of practicing medicine, my ability to muster compassion even for angry, demanding, and ungrateful patients has eroded. How then am I to find compassion for someone like Adam Lanza? And more to the point, why should I even try?
But when I ask myself this question, I realize I have an answer: despite our nearly universal attraction to the belief that human beings come in one of only two flavors—good and evil—and that evil acts abolish the humanity of those who commit them, I know full well that the most noble and kind among us are capable of committing great evil; and more, as a famous Buddhist saying goes, that even a heartless villain can love his wife and children.
We don’t hate or condemn a three-year-old child who points his father’s gun at his brother and pulls the trigger because we understand that he doesn’t understand the consequences of his actions. Why then, I ask myself, should we hate adults who lie, cheat, steal, or even murder—even when they commit these heinous crimes against us or the people we love? We may think they should know better, but wisdom isn’t an inevitable consequence of aging. Why then shouldn’t we feel compassion for an adult as we would for a three-year-old? Why not, in fact, as if he or she had once been our three-year-old? For were they not at one point someone else’s? My heart cries out for the children and teachers who Adam Lanza killed, for their families and their friends. But it cries too for Adam, who to me, ultimately, was nothing other than a three-year-old boy hiding in a twenty-year-old body.
If we can internalize two premises, that we all want to be happy more than anything else but that many of us are profoundly confused about how to become so—as Adam Lanza so obviously was, whether we ultimately understand him to have been mentally ill or not—we may be able to interest ourselves more in understanding people, in figuring out the reasons they do the things they do, than in condemning them. Not that our sense of righteous outrage at the actions of those who hurt us or the ones we love is misplaced or unjustified. But we can condemn such actions, we can even punish such people—as we must when laws are broken—without pretending that such people have ceased to deserve our compassion. Without forgetting they were once small and full of hope for a good and happy life. That they are in reality only tragically deluded—deluded into thinking that they must harm others to lessen their own pain or to find joy. For in refusing to dismiss the humanity of those our emotions tell us deserve only our hatred, we find that which is best in ourselves.
Next Week: Leveraging Anticipatory Joy
Alex, I am so glad you wrote this!
For me it is a matter of suspending judgment. It should be easy to suspend judgment since I don’t know Adam Lanza, his values, his history, his biology . . .
We cannot answer the “Why did Adam Lanza do it?” Nor can we answer the “Why do we find it so hard to suspend judgment?”
It is easier for me to suspend judgment when I recall a piece in the news about Lanza’s mother saying that she was afraid she was losing him (Adam) in the days/weeks/months leading up to the shootings. Another story told of Lanza’s mother sitting outside Adam’s room when he was sick. He didn’t want her to be in his room, but he kept calling out to her, asking if she was still there outside his door.
Alex, you wisely say that Adam Lanza, like so many of us, was confused about how to be happy. So we have this in common—that we stumble and bumble about and sometimes make terrible choices as we try to become happy. Another reason to suspend judgment.
I agree with you, but I think our best defense against tragedy is for us as a culture to stop worshiping violence.
Such a wise piece, Alex, reflecting just how I felt. I read it aloud to my husband, especially since he initially expressed the same anger you did—wanting to get a hold of Adam Lanza himself. But of course, upon reflection he knew that that kind of thinking doesn’t ease suffering, not his own, not anyone’s. If we as a society and as individuals put our energy and expertise into trying to understanding people rather than condemning them (as you so aptly put it), we might be able to intervene at an earlier stage in the life of someone like this poor twisted kid who must have been among the most miserable people on earth to have done what he did.
You had me worried there for a while Alex ! I was wondering what variety of Buddhism you were claiming adherence to. Certainly not a brand that I have ever heard of! But then, fortunately, you saved the day with your final sentence: ” For in refusing to dismiss the humanity of those our emotions tell us deserve only our hatred, we find that which is best in ourselves.”
On the other hand, how can you practice medicine & feel/write : ” …the sad truth is that after nearly twenty years of practicing medicine, my ability to muster compassion even for angry, demanding, and ungrateful patients has eroded.”
“Eroded!” Surely the persons you describe are those that need/deserve/would benefit from your compassion the most.
Your post so nicely covers the wide range of conflicting thoughts and feelings possible when confronted with events beyond easy formulation of response. It brought back to me a quote from Alexander Solzhenitsyn, which keeps me balanced when I am in my role as a member of a tribunal.
“If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being and who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart.”
No compassion for Mr Lanza. No compassion for his parents who ought to have sought help, but chose not to.
Closer home, no compassion for those wicked Delhi rapists.
Thank you for this. I am deeply affected by your message and am moved to reconsider my own assessment of our current society. Peace.
There is a name for this: compasssion fatigue. It happens to medical professionals. Probably happens to others in the caregiver role, as well.
Alex, nice article. I worked for 40 years in the criminal justice system doing what I call human salvage—for eight years. In Canada I ran an residential program for extremely high-risk young adults. Several had been classified as sexual psychopaths, etc. I knew them as human beings and also as people who are capable of unspeakable acts. I continue to do some clinical work here in Estonia were I’m now based as I work on penal reform. In Estonia I got a probation order for a sex offender who had targeted children for many years—first I made sure that the police knew about him, and that he was charged—then I tried for a better solution than just incarceration. I worked with him for three years; he is now off probation, but the police continue to watch him. He is still dangerous, and while I can understand and have some compassion for him, I also know he needs to be stopped. If he starts to target vulnerable children again, and the desire is there, then I will do my best to see he is buried in a cell for as long as possible. It would be a lesser of evils, but caging a human being is fundamentally an evil thing to do. Take care.
I’m not a parent, but it seems as if you can imagine beating someone to death, you could imagine shooting up a bunch of people (which seems a lot more remote). Both are unleashing anger to make the world fit your idea of what you want it to be, to address an injustice. And if you’re not really aware of the reality of other people, there’s not much distance between imagining and doing.
Thought you might enjoy this article:
I agree, your job is fantastic but can also be weary!
I ask myself: When a drama like the thing that happened in Newtown happens, why does our brain automatically want to take revenge?
Well, then if we know how difficult was Adam Lanza’s life and as you said “we understand,” don’t you think people will find an other thing to condemn this behavior? (Law on arms, society, education…)
My question is: Why do we need to condemn automatically somebody and/or something? To keep our minds safe?
Hope my English is not too bad and you will understand me 🙂
Even though it’s hard on an emotional level to have any compassion for the shooter, on an intellectual level, I recognize that compassion is needed. The mental health care system is overwhelmed and broken and—in many cases—abusive. I don’t know whether Adam’s mother sought help for her son or not, but I do know that help is not there when it’s needed. The mass murders get all the publicity, but this type of tragedy plays out every day in the lives of those who have mentally ill family members.
A few days before this happened National Geographic had a short article by a fella who studied toxoplasmosis in cats I believe. It was his contention that the toxoplasmosis parasite could get into your brain and change your way of thinking. I think he claimed it had happened to him. As a neurologist do have any thoughts on things like that messing up your emotions/brain? A lot of homes have cats in them.
Hi, Alex, I agree with what you say.
Please note that I said that IF you’re not really aware of the reality of other people—perhaps you’re quite young, you live in your head, and you’ve never had an emotionally close relationship—then there’s not much distance between imagining horrific acts, and doing. Just an idea.
[…] Our Best Defense Against Tragedy « Happiness in this World. […]
And, again, even here, there is mention of Only 6 adults being “massacred” on that horrific, sad day, the same as in all media, thus far. Does Mrs. Lanza not count, having been shot four times in the face/head, as she slept that morning? If so, then why not?
Also, not everyone can choose which feelings dominate and their resulting actions, which is often a result of some form of mental illness/brain aberration/anomaly. Not all perpetrators are evil, per se, perhaps “deranged,” but not necessarily evil.
I was hoping you would write about this difficult topic as I have been chanting to understand what Buddhism says about such events. I found your post very moving, especially the last paragraph. My first reaction to Sandy Hook was utter despair. Then I came across these words of our fellow Nichiren Buddhist Mariane Pearl and they restored some of my hope. As you may know, Mariane was married to murdered journalist Danny Pearl and her book A Mighty Heart was made into a film starring Angelina Jolie.
Here is how she describes her feelings when it became clear that Danny had been decapitated by Islamic fundamentalists: “As the hopes for Danny’s release grew fainter, our son continued to grow inside me. Of all the journeys I had taken, none had prepared me for the one across this blurry frontier between life and death, hope and despair. All I knew was that one of the two men in my life was not born and the other might be dead. And when it was confirmed that Danny would not come home, I flew to my brother in Paris with my husband’s little legacy kicking in what felt like the very centre of my soul. I thought about a Buddhist saying I’d once heard, about how even a cave plunged in darkness for millions of years can be illuminated by a single candle. This thought gave me hope: I wasn’t powerless, I told myself. All I had to do was nurture my faith—my own flame—and inspire our son to do the same. Throughout the flight, I prayed. I prayed for the new life inside me. I prayed that Adam’s light would shine brighter than the darkness that had claimed his father’s life.”
Mariane has since written a superb book called In Search of Hope filled with portraits of inspirational women around the world who are battling against seemingly impossible challenges such as child prostitution, sex slavery, AIDS and extreme poverty.
My own personal experience with Buddhism is that I have sometimes chanted with absolute hatred for other people (a boss who sacked me, a lover who left…)—some people find this surprising. But I have always found that over time the negative emotions have turned into compassion and into insights that have changed my heart and made me a better person. As we say, the lotus flower only grows in a muddy pond and one of the things I love about Buddhist practice is that we start from where we are when we chant, often knee-deep in crap & sometimes with very negative emotions towards ourselves or others and then we have that mystical experience of “poison turning into medicine” as Nichiren describes it.
May we all shine brighter than the darkness that claimed so many young lives at Sandy Hook.
Thank you, Alex, for describing so clearly what you mean when you use the word “eroded.”
My tendency to black & white thinking caused me to imagine that your compassion had gone for good with respect to challenging patients. Not so. You describe how there are days when you have difficulty finding your compassionate self. Fortunately for your patients, your compassion fatigue is not a permanent feature of your practise.
The article posted by Acorn above is a powerful read for anyone interested in the subject of forgiveness!
I vividly recall being at a Nichiren Buddhist meeting shortly after the first Gulf war broke out in 1990. After the meeting one of the members was almost in tears speaking to a leader about how upset it made her. I still remember the leader telling her that as a result of being involved in this war she would notice our society becoming more violent.
22 years later we have had the second Gulf war with its “Shock and awe.” How many were killed there? We have misplaced bombs and drones and wedding parties in Middle Eastern countries splattered in the sand. “We express our regrets, it was an error,” our diplomats say.
Then we have the nerve and gall to wail about the “tragedies” that happen here, tragedies, which pale against those we have wrought elsewhere.
I really am starting to believe that the much maligned Reverend Wright was on to something when he said, “America’s chickens have come home to roost.”
It is so difficult to work out my own feelings. I still feel angry at these evil deeds. But reading your article and those of others who have written here, I find myself about many other facets of this tragic drama?
Am I so certain that it was evil, or was it a (literally) sick mind that did not know what it was doing and why?
Was the mother also a victim and not only because she too was killed?
Is it a sign or our society’s attitude or does it seem so because we have better ways of seeing all the tragedies in all the world?
Do we feel our home-grown tragedies and ignore the many others overseas? And should we?
How do we square up our emotional and logical feelings?
So many questions, not many answers yet, but this blog is helping me to sort out the wheat from the chaff.
To differ from some other readers, after reading this, my mind is very clear. Sometimes you only need someone to contradict you to figure out what you really think… I can’t disagree with you more, Alex!
Asking ourselves why the Evil Queen is evil is important; however, the answer to that question DOES NOT justify her actions. To quote you, you say Adam Lanza was like that little boy, in a older mans body, but that is entirely untrue. He WASN’T a little boy. He was a grown man, who, without a doubt, was fully aware of how horrible the crimes he committed were.
You also say: “…once small and full of hope for a good and happy life,” referring to Adam Lanza. Well, I was once small and full of hope for a good and happy life. I’m sure you were too. I’m sure every reader here was! But you don’t see us going around massacring half the town! We have ALL been through stuff. Just look at “Mares” life, (from the previous discussion) and so far, HE hasn’t gone and decided to do everyone in!
Yes. It is important to waste away our lives pondering pointlessly depressive questions such as: “Did we, as a society, create the monster that did this?” “Did we create the events that lead up to that moment, that state of mind?” That kind of thinking is what separates us from the monster… That kind of thinking makes us human, even if they are stupid questions that don’t deserve our time or distress.
He had no excuse. We all go through stuff, but he dealt with HIS stuff in a totally incorrect way, and what more, is he realized it, and then killed himself, like the little cowardly shit he is. (Excuse my french.)
This is one of the most balanced and reasoned posts I have read about this tragedy. We are taught by many faith traditions that when we separate ourselves from anyone through judgment or anger, we separate ourselves from God or the divine or whatever you want to call it. It is easy to feel compassion for the families of those who were killed. But “practicing” forgiveness and compassion for Adam or for someone who causes such pain and devastation is what we are called upon to do. This is where it we struggle, on the razor’s edge.