This week I was asked on Facebook why people seem to be more compassionate during times of natural disasters and tragedies. My question is: What does this say about what people yearn for in their lives and in their communities?
I'm now moderating the process in Newtown, Conn. to decide the future of Sandy Hook Elementary School – should they renovate or rebuild on the current site, or move to an entirely new site? In my role, I have faithfully witnessed teachers recounting the horrors of watching a gunman kill first-graders and their colleagues, and their heroic acts to protect students. I have heard people express their terror when fleeing from the gunman to the nearby firehouse. I have listened as parents of surviving children and those who lost their children have told their stories. And I have heard other townspeople speak about their experiences.
What I have been struck by is the compassion of both those who have spoken and those who have listened. As people talk of their own trauma and nightmares – and struggle with the path forward – they are quick to tell the task force of 28 elected officials I am working with how much they appreciate their effort. They want the officials to know that they recognize how gut-wrenching their job is, and they talk about the need for the community to make decisions that serve the greater good.
This compassion comes from those who have been hurt, who grieve deeply, and who long for their lives to return to the more ordinary days before the December 14 tragedy. They cannot rewind the clock, and so in the midst of their despair they somehow muster the wherewithal to express a sense of compassion for others.
Then, in a different way, others in this process - such as the task force and community members at large - have demonstrated their own kind of compassion. While they express their own views on the future of the Sandy Hook School, they extend an open and warm hand to those who have been inflicted with pain. They, too, seek to do what is best for the community amid imperfect choices.
This has not been a political debate over the future of a school; it has lacked the kind of animus, finger-pointing, and grandstanding that so often drives public discourse. It has, instead, been a heartfelt discussion among a community attempting to work through its trauma, its pain, its sorrow, its sense of disbelief – its horror.
To me, this sense of compassion boils down to a base yearning within people to express their humanity. In such moments, we are reduced to those things that matter most to us – not being alone, reaching out to others, allowing love to emerge to those we know and the stranger alike, and we confront a simple truth: there are no easy answers to such tragedies, nor are there simple ways to heal and move forward. All we are left with is ourselves. What we have (and need) is one another.
Compassion is about our ability to understand the suffering of others – to come to see and know it – and to help people relieve their suffering. That means we must be willing to bear witness to it, to sit with it, and then to act. We are impelled not to turn away from the pain, or simply wish for it to disappear, but to face it, and walk with others.
What I have found in Newtown is an example of true and genuine compassion. This doesn't mean that everyone will agree on a future course, or even how to make sense of the events of December 14. But compassion does not require such agreement. Instead, it makes an entreaty to each of us to be with others and to help in taking the next step forward.