Thursday, July 26, 2012

Compassion for Strangers

The events of last Thursday night still have me reeling. James Holmes walked into a movie theatre and unleashed an unfathomable terror that left 12 dead and over 50 injured. While we wonder what motivated him, our hearts reach out to those who were lost, those who are mourning and those survivors starting the long road to recovery. Even those witnesses who managed not to get shot will have a heap of healing to undergo.

On Friday, I was listening to my favorite talk radio shows, the Dennis Prager Show, and, of course, this was the top story. As the host and callers expressed their shock and dismay, one caller, a 17 year-old man, had a different perspective. Actually, he had a question. Why did we care? He just didn’t understand. He didn’t get why all of us, who weren’t there, were so concerned about the people who’d been shot. After all, he reasoned, people get shot and killed every day so why was this incident such a big deal? It wasn’t like the host or the callers actually knew these people. For him, expressions of concern and caring only made sense when applied to a loved one and these people were strangers.

Other callers weighed in trying to explain his lack of compassion. Everything from psychological disorders to his youth were suggested. Maybe he’d never been touched by tragedy and couldn’t relate, another suggested.

Here I am days later and I still don’t know what to think about that young man. I guess I start by feeling sorry for him. Yes, I feel a compassion towards him he’d be unable to feel towards me. In my eyes, it’s the appreciation of loss and suffering (or happiness and elation in the good times) which makes us human.

Most of us are capable of both empathy and sympathy. Empathy being the ability to connect on a mental level with what someone else is going through. Even if you have never experienced a loss of your own, the empathetic reaction allows you to look at that situation and recognize how difficult it must be. You can imagine what it might feel like to have that experience.

Sympathy is the actual feeling of that connection. Anyone who has lost a loved one or experienced the fear of losing a loved one will feel badly. Naturally, they won’t feel it to the depth of the person who experienced the loss but they will feel it. A parent fears the loss of a child or a spouse the loss of their other half or a friend the loss of another. When someone else actually has that experience, it triggers something within us and we respond. We sympathize. We empathize. We care.

It is this caring that allows a passerby to stop and aid a person in trouble. It is this caring that prompts a stranger to run into a house based solely on the cries of help from a child they don’t know. It is the caring that lets a stranger embrace an anonymous someone who has suffered a terrible tragedy just to give this stranger some comfort.

So while we pray for those victims of this senseless tragedy, let’s also say a prayer for those persons unable to reach out beyond their inner circle and experience the kind of feeling that connects us all into a living, breathing mass called humanity.

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