Choosing anger or apathy: How to respond to tragic events

To emotionally survive in times of turmoil, there's one reaction we must avoid
By Suzan Colón  Published on 10/30/2018 at 1:27 PM EDT
A man adds his comments to a spontaneous memorial of flowers and sidewalk writing that has appeared a block from the Tree of Life Synagogue. Gene J. Puskar/AP Photo

We seem to have many enemies these days. No matter what political affiliation you’ve chosen, your faith, or your preferences from partners to food, there’s an opposing side shouting loudly on Facebook.

We also have many reasons to turn away from Facebook, and all social media, and the news. The world seems to be coming apart at the seams, or at least changing from the world we knew, at an alarming rate. If I listed here all the events and situations going on that would strip the rights of some and take the lives of others, we would be here for a very long, and very sad, time.

Our first reactions to these events are usually shock, dismay and sadness. When we learn of something that threatens our sense of what’s right and just, and what makes the world we live in seem manageable, we’re taken aback. We shake our heads. We wonder what’s happening. We try to make sense of the event or situation. Many times, we can’t; as with what happened at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, there is no sense to be found.

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Then comes the crucial turning point.

After our shock, after our sadness, after our mourning for the loss, we come to a choice: anger or apathy. One of these is an ally. The other is an enemy. The enemy.

If you think you have enemies, I have good news for you: You have only one. It’s not the politicians who make decisions so opposed to your own. It’s not the people who run the companies that are changing our landscape and our environment. It’s not the people who pick up a gun and cause unfathomable ruin. The only true enemy is turning away from it all.

You may have thought that anger was the enemy, because anger can be a path to hatred. But anger and hatred are different emotions, with different actions, and vastly different results. In spiritual terms, there are emotions, and then there are the actions the emotions can ignite. Anger, channeled properly, can be the spark that lights the spirit and leads to positive change.

Gandhi was angry about the injustices against the people of India. He started a series of nonviolent protests that eventually brought down his nation’s oppressors and freed millions. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had some pretty strong feelings about discrimination against people of color; inspired by Gandhi, he too channeled his anger into nonviolent change, and was victorious.

Anger, channeled properly, can be the spark that lights the spirit and leads to positive change.

Anger is not the enemy, as long as we don’t let it lead us to hatred. And if anger, politicians, greedy conglomerates, and lone gunmen are not the enemy, then what is?  

“Indifference,” said Elie Wiesel, author of Night and survivor of the Holocaust, “to me, is the epitome of evil.”

It is understandable to see what happened in Pittsburgh, and all the other heartbreaking events happening in our world, and want to turn away. A feeling of helplessness descends. After all, what can one person do?

Gandhi was one person. Dr. King was one person. Elie Wiesel was one person. For each tragedy we can name, we can name an equal number of people who stood up and took action. Each was one person—just like you.

I heard about the Tree of Life synagogue, as I’ve heard about all the other shootings and events that make me wonder what is happening to us, and I cried. And I went quiet for a while, because that’s what we do when we mourn—for people, for our innocence.

But I took a vow: I will not be brought low by hatred. The author Anne Lamott says that if we succumb to hatred, we become just like what we hate. And I vowed that I would not fall victim to apathy, because apathy is my only true enemy. It’s your only true enemy as well.

Be sad. Be angry. Find pockets of joy when you can. Cry when you must. Find ways to take action that lead you away from hatred and far, far away from apathy and indifference. We may not always win every battle we fight, but as long as we stay away from apathy, we are victorious.

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