April 20, 2007

Reacting to other people's tragedies

Perhaps one of the hardest things to deal with is how to respond when tragedy strikes other people.

When tragedy strikes you personally, then any response by you is fine and no one else has the right to tell you how you should feel and what is appropriate behavior. I find it strange when others sit in judgment and look on disapprovingly if someone does things that they themselves would not do in a similar situation. For example, Elizabeth Edwards' decision to continue with her life just as it was before her cancer struck again was her right to make and should not have been second-guessed by anyone. She said that the only alternative was preparing for death and she rejected that option.

It is a little harder to know how best to respond when the tragedy bereaves not you but someone you know personally or, in the case of the Virginia Tech shootings or the death of a much-loved and much admired figure like Martin Luther King, affects such a large enough number of people that we feel a collective sense of loss. But however close I am to the people who actually lost a loved one, I try to remember that what I feel empathetically can never be anywhere close to what they actually feel.

For example, on NPR earlier this week, they quoted a resident of Blacksburg who was attending the memorial service for the dead people at Virginia Tech out of a sense of solidarity. That was admirable but in trying to convey the depth of his sympathy, he said that he felt like one of his own children had been killed. I am sure he meant well, but I personally avoid that kind of sentiment. As I have said earlier, the reason people grieve so deeply over the loss of a loved one is because of the sense of yearning for the missing person, the loss of the relationship and companionship that they once enjoyed. If you never had that companionship to begin with, then the feelings you experience are unlikely to have the deep poignancy that the truly bereaved feel. We can try and imagine what it would be like to have that experience, but I doubt that it comes even close to matching the intensity of the real thing.

I see a lot of this generalized adoption of other people's grief these days. It strikes me as a little bit of verbal overkill. We seem to think that people will be comforted if we say that we are feeling the same emotions as they. When the 9/11 attacks occurred, some people around the world said "We are all Americans now." When major tragedies strike people in other countries, similar sentiments are expressed. I am not sure if this kind of thing really helps the people who are bereaved or instead strikes them as cheap and shallow sentiment. Perhaps the best thing to do in such situations is to express your sympathy for their loss, and simply support them as they work their way through it and not prescribe what they should or should not do. We have to realize that our words can never really capture the emotions that they feel.

It is odd how some people react to the Virginia Tech shootings. Dinesh D'Souza, who had already made a fool of himself on the Colbert Report for suggesting in his new book that the 9/11 attacks were partly due to actions of FDR (!) and the liberals in America (see the postscript to this post) emerges from wherever he obtains his hallucinations to make the strange argument that the response to the recent shooting reveals the deficiencies of atheism! He asserts that 'atheists were nowhere to be found' and advances the argument that because noted atheist Richard Dawkins (who has no connection to the university) was not invited to speak at the Virginia Tech convocation, this shows that atheism is of no use at these times and that therefore god is necessary.

If his appearance on Colbert left any doubt that D'Souza was a silly person not to be taken seriously, this latest evidence sealed the case. It takes an extraordinary level of obtuseness to suggest that events surrounding the cold-blooded slaughter of 32 innocent people are an argument against atheism and in favor of a providential god. Any junior varsity debater could demolish his arguments and the inimitable TBogg shows the way with a cartoon as a bonus. As the Carpetbagger Report says: "Honestly, one might think D'Souza was trying to sound like an idiot."

Hilzoy at Obsidian Wings provides the definitive response, especially about D'Souza's statement that: "What this tells me is that if it's difficult to know where God is when bad things happen, it is even more difficult for atheism to deal with the problem of evil."

Hilzoy points out "What's especially silly about this sentence is that the problem of evil is a problem specifically for Christians. It is, basically, the problem of how a good and loving God could have created a world with evil in it. Atheists do not have this problem at all. So I guess they don't "deal with it", in the sense in which they don't have to "deal with" the problem of how Christ's body and blood are truly present in the Eucharist."

D'Souza seems to be under the weird impression that to be an atheist is to not have emotions like love, sadness, grief, joy, etc., that to be an atheist is to be a machine. He points to poet Nikki Giovanni's speech at the convocation as "as heavily drenched with religious symbolism and meaning" and suggests that atheists have nothing similarly uplifting to offer at times like this.

But what is odd about this assertion is that Giovanni is reported to be a secular person (though I have not been able to confirm this). Here is the text of her speech in full:

We are Virginia Tech. We are sad today and we will be sad for quite awhile. We are not moving on, we are embracing our mourning. We are Virginia Tech. We are strong enough to know when to cry and sad enough to know we must laugh again. We are Virginia Tech. We do not understand this tragedy. We know we did not deserve it but neither does a child in Africa dying of AIDS, but neither do the invisible children walking the night to avoid being captured by a rogue army. Neither does the baby elephant watching his community be devastated for ivory; neither does the Appalachian infant in the killed in the middle of the night in his crib in the home his father built with his own hands being run over by a boulder because the land was destabilized. No one deserves a tragedy. We are Virginia Tech. The Hokier Nation embraces our own with open heart and hands to those who offer their hearts and minds. We are strong and brave and innocent and unafraid. We are better than we think, not quite what we want to be. We are alive to the imagination and the possibility we will continue to invent the future through our blood and tears, through all this sadness. We are the Hokies. We will prevail, we will prevail. We are Virginia Tech.

I don't see any religious symbolism at all. What I do see in her words is a stirring affirmation of life and solidarity, linking the recent sorrow with that of suffering people and animals everywhere, and calling us to draw upon our reservoirs of strength and courage to be unbowed by the madness of the events and fight back to sanity through the tears.

It is an uplifting message for everyone, flying high above the petty divisions of private beliefs and the mud in which people like D'Souza wallow.

POST SCRIPT: Another new episode of Mr. Deity

Mr. Deity is the hilarious set of short films that feature God (Mr. Deity), his occasional girl friend Lucy (Lucifer), his assistant Larry (who seems to have a Mr. Burns/Smithers relationship with Mr. Deity), and Jesus.

In Episode #10, Mr. Deity tries to figure out why hell is so overcrowded.

The full set of clips can be seen here.


Trackback URL for this entry is:



D'Souza's comments are either referring to another comment that Giovanni made (which I doubt) or they are stupid and misplaced. You are correct that he ought to do us all a favor and shut his pie hole. If anything the comments Giovanni made were criticized for their lack of religious symbolism (note that it was not by me). I mean she compared the unsenseless loss of human life in this and other instances with that of elephants hunted for ivory for crying out loud. It does not get more post-modern that that.

I have interesting debates with my friends over issues religious all the time (including on this site as of late) but this (the VT tragedy) is simply not the stage for the debate. This despite my postition as an evangelical Christian that such debates matter in an eternal sense. If you want to debate how athiests grieve vs Christians or other believers in a god then I am game because there is a difference but doing it on that stage is rediculous, senseless and just plain old fashioned stupid.


Posted by Jim Dudones on April 20, 2007 03:16 PM

I'll comment on a lighter part of this entry, as the blogosphere (including my blog) is heavy with reactions and commentary on Virginia Tech.

I love Mr. Deity! This podcast is very addicting. I always want more, more, and more. I like how they make fun of things in religion without being offensive, and this in turn opens the door to discuss the issues they present. They have atheist and religious fans both. The Bellagio joke in this episode is funny, and it makes you wonder why some people believe God punishes people for trivial things.

Posted by Shinichi Evans on April 20, 2007 05:41 PM