Why I Never Discuss Tragedy in Its Immediate Aftermath

Short answer? Because it’s maddening. It’s so infuriatingly predictable and horrible. In fact, it’s gotten so bad that when tragedy strikes, my first thought, after registering the shock and horror of what happened, is to consider all the ways that the tragedy will be exploited, and guess how long it’ll take until that happens. I’m rarely wrong. Every time there’s a mass shooting, I count the seconds until Wayne LaPierre issues a pro-gun statement, and wonder whether it’ll be him who speaks first, or the anti-gun crowd, neither side able to wait until the bodies are actually cold and buried before they pick them apart for scraps of an argument.

 

Here’s the long answer. Every single time I’ve lost my cool, and in a moment of pure anguish and frustration written a diatribe against whatever social ill I felt was the “real” cause of whichever tragedy had just happened, it made me feel good for around 10 minutes, but then inevitably sucked me into an irrelevant argument that left me feeling terrible, and utterly disconnected from the empathy I knew I should be feeling. In the aftermath of the Yishai Schlissel stabbings at the Jerusalem Pride Parade, I was so angry I got on Facebook and said that I hoped this would cause the Nations to hate us, because maybe if they used this as an excuse to start persecuting us again, we’d get an idea of how wrong and hurtful our homophobia really is. But of course the world doesn’t work like that. Violence doesn’t beget understanding, it begets more violence, until the whole world is blinded by it.

 

This is especially relevant when we have a suicide in the religious, or formerly-religious world. Immediately, the vultures descend on the body, from both sides, each claiming the suicide victim as their martyr. He died because of mental illness, and we need to do our utmost to address this serious problem. No, counters the other side, she died because her frum family, shitty, callous people that they were, tortured her so relentlessly about her choice to leave religion, that she finally killed herself. No, you don’t know the whole story. No, you don’t know the whole story. And on it goes, the buzzards feast, and secondary to the entire discussion, is the reason the discussion is happening: A person died.

 

A few years ago, an IDF soldier was found dead with his weapon next to him. The circumstances around his death were a little murky, but since he had been an open survivor of abuse who had described his struggles on his blog, certain activists immediately jumped to the conclusion that it must be suicide, because it fit the narrative they wanted to promote. And as just a cause as I’m sure they felt their co-opting of tragedy was, as just as I’m sure everyone who exploits tragedy for their agenda feels it is, they did so without regard to the feelings of the family, the actual mourners who were now left bereft of a son, a brother, a cousin, and on top of all that had to read agenda-driven speculation online while their loved one awaited burial.

 

Personally, I decided not to discuss it at the time. I can’t tell you why—it wasn’t because of this policy that I have, which, at the time, I didn’t yet have—but something stayed my opinions. About two years later, I got a Facebook message from the sister of that soldier, thanking me for not jumping on the bandwagon that was using her brother’s supposed suicide as a soapbox for their opinions. She told me that they still weren’t sure what it was, and that she appreciated the fact that I hadn’t used his death to make a point. That was the moment that I realized what had stopped me from discussing it—the understanding that the very worst time to discuss tragedy, is immediately in its aftermath.

 

If we intend to teach, to educate, to change the world in a way that prevents tragedy from happening again, then the absolute worst time to discuss it is when emotions are running high, no one is particularly interested in discussing things rationally, everyone already has an opinion that you’re not going to change, and nothing new will be added to the conversation that one billion other people with a Facebook account won’t already be saying. And of course all these post-tragedy rants range from the mildly to wildly offensive, not just to people on your friends lists, but also to the victims and their families who have to hear the world fighting for the endorsement rights to their pain and suffering.

 

If you must speak following tragedy, if you absolutely must say something because it hurts too much to keep it all in, try to think about what the victims and their families want to hear. Make it about them, not yourselves. What we might call slacktivism might just be compassion. A world standing in solidarity, saying “We’re here for you, all of us, and we have a lot to say, but we understand that right now is not the time to say it.” And yes, changing your profile picture to include a different overlay might not actually change anything, but you don’t need to immediately start changing anything in the direct aftermath of tragedy. If there was something you could have done about it, presumably you would have.

 

But the tragedy happened. And there are people who suffer in its aftermath. And those people need love, and support, and a feeling of safety and security while their world crashes down around them. They don’t need your opinions, and they don’t need your agendas. There’s always time for that later, when the passion and anger has subsided, and we can begin to discuss how to prevent it from ever happening again. When you won’t say things you’ll later regret. When you won’t lose friends because you absolutely had to speak your mind. When your words are motivated not by an angry desire to watch the world that allowed such tragedy burn, but by a love and empathy that needs the world to heal.

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Looking Past Politics and Seeing Humanity

On April 17, I attended a protest outside the UN, the purpose of which was to to demonstrate our belief to the UN Security Council that withdrawing their (embarrassingly paltry) peacekeeping force from Darfur would leave Darfurian refugees with nothing to protect them from the Sudanese military. The sign I carried, which read “To NCP: Rape is not a weapon of war,” was in reference to the Darfurian village of Tabit, where the Sudanese army following government orders systematically raped over 200 women. The genocide, to date, has killed 500,000 people, and within Darfur alone, displaced an estimated 2,500,000 people. As causes go, you’d think that’s a pretty good one, right?

As we were standing there, holding our banner and listening to a speech from one of the leaders of the protests, three counter-protesters showed up and tried to shout us down. They were shouting something about western imperialism and intervention in internal African affairs, when one of them, the whitest white man I have ever seen, completely lost it. Literally shaking with anger and spitting with rage, he got in the face of the man giving the speech (a Nigerian man), and raged about how we were western imperialists who were promoting the destruction and murder of Africa and its people. So deep was his hatred of anything Western, that he wouldn’t even begrudge a protest asking for a UN peacekeeping force comprised entirely of African soldiers, because he truly believed that the UN was an American puppet organization.

But what was really incredible, was when the counter-protestor got into an argument with a Sudanese man who now lives in New York, a man who lost family to the genocide, a man who would still have that family if someone—anyone—had intervened to stop Omar Al Bashir, the political Islamic genocidal president of Sudan, and told that man that the intervention he was begging for, the intervention that would have saved his family, 500,000 people, and millions of people from being displaced, raped, maimed, and herded into displaced persons camps, was wrong because no one has any business telling an African nation what to do. Not only that, but he equated the desire and request for intervention with Hitler herding Jews into cattle cars for transport to death camps (Don’t ask me how he arrived at that conclusion; I have no idea). Godwin rolled over in his grave.

I wonder if once—just once—that idiot ever sat back, shut his stupid mouth, and really put himself in the place of a Darfurian rape victim, or the lone survivor of a family butchered by genocidal murderers. I wonder if he ever let his ideology, his political preconceptions, take a backseat for a second, and just thought about what it would mean to be in such a position. To be in the position of that Sudanese man he equated with Hitler. It may not have led him to the same conclusion, but I doubt he would have ever let himself rage like that in public against a man begging for the lives of his people.

This callous disregard for the humanity of a problem in favor of its politics is unfortunately common among discussions of social and human rights issues. I was talking to a woman who had been abused by her ex-husband. She told me that when she asked her rabbi for advice, he told her to, “Go home, wine and dine him, look good, and get pregnant.” The idea being that their marriage and relationship could be saved through the mutual bond of a child to care for. What would that rabbi have said if he had paused for a moment before responding, and put himself in that woman’s position. What would he have felt had he considered, just for a moment, what it must feel like to be beaten by the man who is supposed to love you most. Would he have told her to go back, prepare food for him, and have sex with him, if he had instead pictured himself ostensibly being told to reward his abuser for his abuse?

Would anyone tell a survivor of sexual abuse to just “get over it,” or stop “using it as an excuse to justify their sins,” or call them “attention seeking” or “drama queens” or ostracize, shun, or publicly humiliate them if they just stopped for a second and put themselves in the shoes of a boy or girl, man or woman who survived sexual abuse and is now suffering with depression, PTSD, or eating disorders, who, by necessity, became addicted to drugs and alcohol just to escape the horrifying reality of what happened to them, who daily has to fight just to give themselves a reason not to kill themselves and end the endless pain—would anyone who really empathized with a survivor ever let those words pass their lips if they really understood? Would anyone every tell an LGBT person that they were a damaged, disgusting, loathsome, unnatural abomination if they, even for just a second, truly felt the pain that LBGT people experience every day that they’re forced to deny who they are for fear of what their family and community would do if they found out?

None of this is to say that everyone must agree on exactly how to solve these problems. There will obviously always be differences of opinion on how to fix any problem, from how to solve inner city poverty to raising awareness about child sexual abuse. What does need to change is the focus on the politics of the problems rather than the problem itself. Politics need to come secondary to the needs of the people in pain. Extending or eliminating the statute of limitations for child sexual abuse might open yeshivos to more litigation? Ok, there may be a solution to that problem for yeshivos, but shouldn’t an organization claiming to have the best interests of klal yisrael in mind have as its primary focus the physical and mental wellbeing of its children rather that sacrificing them on the altars of their constituent organizations’ reputations? Shouldn’t ensuring that child sexual abuse ends and that survivors can get the help they need and bring their abusers to justice without fear of retribution take precedence over anything else?

The resulting problem is not only stagnation on finding real solutions to these problems, but a widespread refusal to even discuss problems for which solutions don’t seem readily available. Homosexuality is considered an abomination by the Torah, so why even discuss it? Never mind that our children are suffering, harming themselves, being sent to traumatic reparative therapy programs, and killing themselves when the pain becomes too much to handle. Let’s not discuss it because the Torah says that gay sex is an abomination and therefore a solution isn’t readily apparent. Let’s not discuss the plight of agunot because Halacha is Halacha, this is how it works, and there don’t appear to be any solutions that will satisfy everyone, so why even bother? I’ve encountered this attitude far too often, and it is what is holding us back as a community from coming up with real solutions to help those among us who have been ignored for years and most need our attention and support.

I’ve always been of the firm belief that even if we don’t see a solution, it is still our obligation to discuss these problems as a community, and it is still our obligation to feel the pain of those experiencing these hardships. Necessity is the mother of invention. If we truly felt their pain, we would move heaven and earth to help them. We would move mountains to ensure that not even one woman is chained to a marriage she doesn’t want. We would bend over backwards to ensure that not a single LGBT member of our community contemplates suicide. We would do everything in our power and then even more, to prevent another child from ever being raped or molested, and that if by some unfortunate circumstance they were, they would be believed, accepted, supported, and given the help they needed, and see their abuser, whether he or she be yeshivish, chassidish, modern orthodox, secular, or non-Jewish, prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.

The next time you hear someone telling you that they’re in pain, instead of dismissing them—listen. Take a second to feel their pain with them; let them know that you’ll be there to help carry their burden and that you won’t rest until they have justice—until they have peace.

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The Gift of Pain

Tisha B’av (Fast of the Ninth of the Month of Av), 2013 was the day I started this blog. I remember it. I was sitting on the floor of my bedroom, bawling, writing what would become my first post on this blog, the words swimming in an out of focus through the tears. I had a lot to mourn for last year. I was just coming to terms with some things about my past that I’d recently discovered, my best friend, the person I love most in this world, was raped on her birthday, and, overall, the enormity of suffering in this world was just hitting me particularly hard. I was almost looking forward to Tisha B’av last year; I was looking forward to the crying, the catharsis. I was looking forward to screaming at God for the evil allowed in this world. The words of Eicha (Lamentations) still felt fresh on my lips:

The Lord has become like an enemy; He has destroyed Israel; He has destroyed all its palaces, laid in ruins its strongholds, and He increased in the daughter of Judah, pain and wailing.

I was exposed to suffering I’d never experienced up close before. I’d read about how people suffer, but I’d never seen it firsthand. I’d never actually heard someone say the words “I was raped last night” before. I’d never felt the rage, the all-consuming bloodlust, the powerlessness, the simultaneous desire to hold the person I love most close while we both watch the world burn for its crimes. I’d never seen the effects of domestic violence, the terror and confusion in the eyes of a wife at once petrified but still protective of her husband. I’d never been the person to whom other people turned when life violently flung them out of their element. It was all new to me. So raw. So abhorrent and aberrant. It was so far outside of the standard deviation of my life, and it needed to go somewhere. Tisha B’av couldn’t come too soon last year.

When I was finished writing, I knew I had written something special—something that should be shared. It felt like an opportunity for a new beginning, to do something that could actually make a difference.

It’s a year later, and I’m sorry to say that it’s no longer raw, no longer unusual—it no longer has that effect on me. These issues are common, almost foregone conclusions. While hearing people’s stories of abuse and hardship used to throw me for hours, sometimes days, rendering me incapable of functioning properly, it has become, in this past year, just another day in the life. I used to cry when I heard about terrorist attacks in Israel; now I keep scrolling down my news feed and laugh at something funny from 9gag. Every once in a while something comes along which arrests my attention and violently awakens my empathy, but those instances are becoming fewer and farther between.

Last year I wrote that I was mourning for the conscience that died in those who made us suffer. I cried as I wrote those words. I meant them with all my soul. I don’t feel that way anymore, and honestly it scares me. I sat on my floor this year and read Eicha just as I did last year, and I found myself counting pages until I could go back to checking Facebook. The things I had cried for last year didn’t even register this year. That scared me. It almost made me cry. Almost. And that scares me even more. I feel myself beginning not to care. Tonight I mourn the empathy inside of me that I feel slowly ebbing away with each passing tragedy.

There is what to be said for becoming jaded. We have to cope somehow. Holding on to every ounce of grief is unhealthy. We need to forget, let go, move on, and stop caring. We need that to live. By the same token, however, we can’t afford to entirely lose the pain we feel when we see a fellow human being suffer. Tonight I pray that God grant me the strength to live with the pain, the fortitude to accept it without giving up, the ability to process and let go of the excess, and gift of always being able to feel it.

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