Events like Newtown, 12/14, reveal the full range of contradictory feelings within us all. At the most fundamental level, there is the first question: do you say anything at all? Or does saying something somehow detract or distract us from the essential meaning of the event, which is, paradoxically, its manifest meaninglessness? Is it perhaps better to say nothing -- not even a couple heartfelt, incredulous words online or at the water cooler -- and simply allow ourselves to be in the presence of horror?
But then we are contradictory creatures, and for most of us, such a horrible event demands some kind of reaction. Maybe we’re afraid that saying nothing seems heartless, like we don’t care (even though inside we know that silence itself is the most profound expression of shock). For some of us, it comes naturally: what could be more natural than to respond to an outrage with outrage, to voice -- no, scream -- our anger to the heavens.
And just as naturally, when all the voices fill the airwaves and social media and our own homes, then we recoil from the empty words: the 24-7 news coverage, the social media acquaintance who immediately jumps on the opportunity to pour out their feelings about gun control, mental illness, Barack Obama, or whatever was floating closest to the surface of their consciousness when the news broke; friends or family members who either seem obsessed with the news or not nearly concerned enough, to the point of callousness; the list goes on.
Words, words, words -- and none will bring back the dead. Here I am, filling the world with even more words. I guess it is simply cathartic to share our feelings.
I will confess that (like most people, I suspect) I’m prey to my own very contradictory, and not particularly pretty, feelings after Newtown. As noted, many people have fixated on the issue of gun control, which, whatever your views, can’t come as much of a surprise. For some reason however I am more focused on the other likely subject, mental illness -- and not in the calm, reasonable, technocratic way we’re supposed to approach this topic.
I’m angry at crazy people. I know we’re not supposed to be angry at them for being crazy, but I can’t help it. With our political sensitivity and clinical disinterest, we treat them as victims when all too often they are the wolves among the sheep -- or in this case, lambs. We are supposed to pity them, somehow, and maybe even forgive them, “for they know not what they do,” but all I feel is towering rage towards crazy people. And I know it’s irrational; it’s just a contradiction that I may never resolve.
It’s more acceptable to be openly angry at the news media and politicians, laying bare another contradiction in our conflicted society. Yes, newscasters may appear repulsive as they seem to feed on the suffering of bereaved parents -- but they are just journalists doing their jobs, and we are the ones who choose to watch them. Meanwhile some people were predictably angry at Barack Obama for “grandstanding,” and “using” the event to lay the groundwork for more gun control, but was he really supposed to say nothing, do nothing? Yet he can’t be surprised by the public’s fevered reaction: we’re reeling, and as the president, it is natural that we project our conflicting impulses on to him. Just as we all want to say something but find words inadequate, we all want him to comfort us but then recoil at the idea, and refuse to be comforted.
Words, words, words -- and none will bring back the dead. Maybe it really is better to lapse into silence again.