Like most everyone I know, I spent a good part of yesterday watching the news, crying and feeling useless. The massacre at Sandy Hook is crushing. It, and the reactions to it that I saw on my social media feeds is what has inspired me to write this blog, but I’m not going to talk about it specifically. I want to speak in generalities because the topic I’m going to address is not specific to Sandy Hook and I don’t want to make it about that one specific incident.
“She’s so sick! I hope she burns in hell!”
“What kind of sick bastard could do that? Death is too good for him!”
These are some of the reactions I notice from people each time something tragic happens that can be blamed on a person. Those events always involve hurting other people often in large numbers or in especially brutal ways. I get it. When someone does something horrible, especially something that hurts other people, we hurt for the victims. It angers us and we want to vent that anger. What’s more we don’t understand it and that scares us. Or, it does me anyway. But here’s the thing… if someone is sick, can they truly be blamed for the results of that sickness?
If you believe in evil and you can dismiss a person and thus their actions as being evil, that is one thing, you might very well want them to burn in hell or think death is too easy a fate for them. However, if you believe someone is sick then how fair is it to blame them for things their illness causes them to do? No really, this is not a rhetorical question, I really want to know what you think because I’m still struggling with the answer myself.
No one would blame a person with a physical ailment for things that ailment causes, so how different should it be for people with mental diseases? People don’t chose to be sick. The same way no one chooses to become diabetic no one wakes up one morning and goes “You know what I’d like? I think I’d really like to suffer from paranoid delusions.”
To be fair, multiple sclerosis (just picking a random physical ailment here) has never, as far as I know, caused anyone to shoot another person. Or stab them. Or kidnap them. Or rape them. Hurting other people seems to mostly belong to the domain of mental illness, but still, if we are willing to accept that mental illness is an illness don’t we then have to accept that ill people can’t be held to the same standard as well people? Shouldn’t that increase our empathy for them, not decrease it?
It’s freaking tough though because who wants to feel empathy for someone who has done horrible things, whether or not we believe they are fully responsible for their actions? Um, not me. But, when I think about it for long enough, part of me does.
Part of me, a big part, is still filled with anger, confusion, fear and hate, but part of me, a small part, really does feel bad for the perpetrator of these sorts of things. What we see is the explosion that happens once a long fuse has burned down, we don’t usually see the struggling, the pain and the unhappiness the perpetrators have dealt with because of their illness often for years and years.
I was hoping that in writing this blog I would come to some clearer answers about how I feel about these questions about empathy, culpability, responsibility and tragedy, but I haven’t. I’m hitting ‘Post’ on it even more conflicted than I was when I started. I do know one thing though, the world has more than enough anger and hatred in it, so in the future, when horrible things like what occurred at Sandy Hook Elementary school happen again I am going to try to respond, not negatively toward the perpetrator, but positively toward the victims. How about you?
“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ To this day, especially in times of ‘disaster,’ I remember my mother’s words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world.”
~ Fred Rogers