Tragic Irony and A Newtown Example

Heinz Kluetmeier for Sports Illustrated

Heinz Kluetmeier for Sports Illustrated

We are too often reminded of the evil that lurks in the human heart, yet we react in shock whenever and wherever it erupts. The examples are the favorite children of the media, the fertile ground for growing readership. We recoil from senseless acts of depravity almost as much as we stop and stare at these train wrecks that are memorialized before us and etched into our collective minds by print and other forms of media. We fixate on them and exorcise them by appropriate judgment and disdain for the insensibility of deranged souls that star in these real life dramas, but these tragedies and our reactions to them also reveal some ironic human tendencies.

We are often not moved to great acts of goodness, except in reaction to tragedies. The more exposure to tragedies, difficulties and hardships, especially ones that do not affect us, the less likely we are to be moved by them to help others. When tragedy hits too close to home, we can be crippled into inaction; while the same tragedy experienced from a greater distance inspires others to action.

Fortunately, for most of us, tragedies happen to “other people” and rarely hit close to our homes. Perhaps unfortunately for those of us so lucky to avoid the direct fall out of a tragedy, the shock waves quickly dissipate as we go on with our daily lives. Not many of us are able to shake off the sleep that sets in with daily routines in a way that affects any change. The emotion fades quickly to a factual memory, stored away with historical dates and numbers and other tidbits.

I dare say that we tend to remain largely unaffected by distant tragedies after the initial  shock wears quickly off.

People are a funny lot. When things happen to others, we are not nearly so affected as when they happen to us, or close to us. When tragedy hits close to home, we tend to be deeply affected, and often deeply changed. The people who have been personally affected by tragedy, difficulty or hardship are the ones who devote themselves to helping others with similar experiences. Charitable organizations are often founded by people affected by the particular issues that the charities are formed to address. In this way, some people reap the fortune of other people’s tragedies.

Almost every tragedy, whether it comes from human action, natural events or other ways, triggers an outpouring of generosity, kindness, good will and even heroism. The Sandy Hook shooting, 9/11 and many other human tragedies are followed by these outpourings of good. It occurs to me that this phenomenon is kind of like Newton’s Third Law of physics (every action has an equal and opposite reaction). For every evil that occurs, people are inspired to react with great goodness.

There is certainly some irony in that. I am not sure why tragedies bring out the best in people. Maybe we are too easily dulled by everyday life into forgetting that people are in need all around us. It takes a catastrophic event, and clear evidence of need, to spur us to good actions. We are shocked into reacting. Tragedies caused by other people, perhaps, spur reaction as if the reaction, itself, can redeem the human race.

No one would wish for tragedy to inspire goodness. Yet, tragedies do inspire goodness. We cannot avoid many natural tragedies like tornados, cancer and things out of our control, but there are things we can do to avoid man-made tragedies like the Sandy Hook shooting. A different kind of action is required to avoid these senseless actions by people. It takes pro-action instead of reaction. It takes intentional action in our everyday lives to be kind, generous, sensitive to others and willing to give ourselves to better others around us.

If we all lived intentionally like that every day in our lives, we would not have as many outcast, downtrodden and tortured souls who end up acting on their impulses – and reactions to “evils” they have experienced – that results in tragedies like the Sandy Hook shooting.

My inspiration for this piece actually comes out of the Sandy Hook shooting. The inspiration is a fourteen year old boy, Jack Wellman of Newtown, Connecticut, who is living the example of this kind of proactive life. He has turned his own setbacks, difficulties and “tragedies” into opportunities to help others in small, daily ways that have a very positive impact on those around him and his community. What I like about this story is that it overlaps with the Sandy Hook tragedy, but Jack Wellman was living this life before the tragedy occurred, and he continued to live this way in spite of his own struggles with grief that threatened to overwhelm him when tragedy hit his hometown.

Just as tragedy can spur heroic and good reactions, it can cripple action with grief and despair. Jack Wellman stands in contrast to Newton-like reactions we sometimes see and experience (or should I say Newtown-like reactions?). Tragedy did not spur Jack Wellman’s action, and tragedy did not stop him from acting either.

This is the beauty of the human soul. We do not have to be instinctual, reactive beings, though we often are. We have the freedom to rise above those things and be our own agents for action and change. We can all be Jack Wellmans.

If you have time, please follow this link to read the story of Jack Wellman in Sports Illustrated for Kids. Jack Wellman is the 2013 Sports Illustrated Kid of the Year. It is well worth your time.

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