How to Move On in the Face of Westboro, Sandy Hook, and the Taliban

December 21, 2012

The Westboro Baptist Church, those hateful wingnuts who conduct anti-gay protests at the funerals of fallen soldiers and Marines, have announced they’ll do the same at services for the victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary massacre. In Pakistan this week, UN workers giving polio vaccines to children were shot dead by gunmen. And then, of course, there were the murders at Sandy Hook themselves. How is it possible to go on with our normal lives in the face of news, and people, like this?

It would seem like the only two sane reactions are to give up on humanity or drop everything in our lives and join the fight against these irrational evils. But almost all of us choose a path of acceptance and moderation, do what small things we can to help, while moving on with our regular existence. Many people, I hope, will turn out in Newtown to serve as a buffer between the Westboro crazies and the grieving families. People in Pakistan, I hope, will fight back against the self-defeating, medieval and mindless forces that would kill those who are saving children’s lives. The rest of us, I hope, will support them with our donations, votes, and voices.  But mostly we will shake our heads and go on with life.

That capacity, for better or worse, is built into us. For most of human history, when CNN was not looking, everything was far worse. Ignorance and the brutality of power were nearly universal, and an everyday fact of life. The ability to move on from gross unfairness and cruelty was a necessary skill for survival. Those who curled up in a ball, who couldn’t continue with the necessities of daily existence, did not survive to produce us. So the ability to live with horror is in our genes.

But that should not an excuse for inaction in the face of brutality. Our society has only gotten fairer and less violent because some people also pressed for a better world. (It seems crazy to call us less violent after this week, but the truth is that the world has gotten much less so over time. For instance, I doubt anyone born next Tuesday will end up dying by crucifixion, a formerly common practice.  For the full argument, read Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature. The enormous exception, of course, is when the violence happens to you – then the world is much worse than it ever was.)  

So how can we live our normal lives and help move society forward, other than forwarding online petitions? I don’t know, but my guess it that it starts with choosing one problem you want to help fix and asking yourself how you can be most helpful. Make sure to differentiate between what actions would simply relieve your anger or guilt, and what can really help. Accept that you can only do so much – you can’t fight every problem – and understand that results will be slow. The time between when the first person realized that slavery was wrong, or girls deserved to be educated, or torturing someone because of their religion was immoral, and when the world caught up was vast. And even those fights are not over yet. But playing a part in a long struggle toward a great end is a worthy response to the craziness that still exists in our world. 

 

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