Like many of us, I’ve been reading on many of the horrible events this week and all the media circus which it entails. In a sea of crowded voices, both reasonable and ugly, that has said nearly all there is to say, I want to risk one more voice to the busy ocean of opinion.
I work as a hospital chaplain and I’ve sat with many, many patients and their families as the patients lay dying. I have watched quite a few slip away. It’s always a terrible situation; death is our common enemy. Everyone grieves differently, but everyone does grieve. My job as a “professional griever” is to approach each person with grace, sensitivity, and comfort, the best of me for the best of them, as much as I know how.
It’s not my place or my role to evaluate this person in their pain. And I’m not sure if that’s anyone’s place or role, ever.
I’m trying to imagine saying some of the comments I’ve read online to these patients and their family. And I can’t. I would not. Even if this patient may have been a criminal or had brought this situation upon themselves (which has been true some of the time), it’s still a terrible tragedy that they’re in this room. My patients and their families have the same hopes, fears, dreams, passions, uncertainties, and regrets as you and I have. They deserve the same dignity as you and I would want. Some of them were never accorded such dignity in their lifetime, and for some, it was this exact reason that they ended up here.
Somehow, we have socially distanced ourselves from loss by multiple levels of removal from the actual horror of loss itself. We undignify the dead by a jester’s court of judgment, by a carnival of commentary, by a platform of preprogrammed snark. We wait to see what our “side” of the discussion wants us to think, so that we neither think nor feel for ourselves.
You only have to read or hear a few callous comments to know what I mean: each proceeding comment moves further and further away from the actual people, until verbal semantics has smothered the very real loss of life into a wordplay competition. You might win: but what do you win? It seems we’d rather deconstruct or reduce these events into “legal” and “moral” terms, or punchlines and memes, or cautionary tales — and the result is abstract heartlessness. Many of us have forgotten what it means to sit with loss and to feel the depth of its irreversibility. To simply weep.
Maybe some of that is because we’re inundated with a media that has subsidized tragedy into profit, which desensitizes us from individual empathy. Or it’s “it-didn’t-happen-to-me” syndrome. But my guess is that compassion is much more difficult than contempt, and we’re quick to self-righteously moralize the loss of a certain person’s life by rationalizing that it was “necessary” or “justified” or “they had it coming.” It’s easier.
Again: None of that removes the shock and pain of what is happening. It only makes it worse.
I cannot imagine saying to a patient’s family, “I studied the surveillance video and it was definitely your son’s fault.” I cannot imagine saying, “He probably looked suspicious” or “He really should’ve complied.”
I dare not ask, “Shouldn’t we wait for all the facts?” — because even though this is eventually an appropriate question for the right people, it’s not the right time when I’m sitting with someone’s pain.
I dare not say, “Well all lives matter” at this very moment, because this person is here on the bed, right now — and in many cases, it’s because someone did not believe that this person’s life mattered, for a number of detestable reasons that we’re so often unwilling to confront.
I teach martial arts at the dojo and I have trained police officers. I work with several wonderful officers at the hospital. Both of my best friends are African-American. This doesn’t make me qualified to speak on their specific experiences. But I can tell you: if any of them lost their lives for any reason, I would be inconsolably devastated. My instant reaction is not a think-piece or an analysis on their character. And if anyone minimized their losses or did not recognize the possible injustices that led there, then I’d be rightfully mortified and infuriated.
I ask you and I ask myself: Where is our empathy? Where is our grief? Why is it so hard to sit with the plight and pain of a particular group of people? How can we return to dignifying loss?
And if it’s remotely possible that many of these dead or dying have ended up here by a lack of empathy and humanizing: Why are we so quick to invalidate this possible thread of prejudice? Why shouldn’t justice for an unnecessary loss of life be explored and elevated? Because I’m almost certain that if we began with this sort of empathy, I wouldn’t be sitting in many of these rooms with families who are scared, exhausted, and appalled by their subhumanization. And I can guarantee if it was anyone close to me, I would go after the smallest inkling of suspicion.
Maybe that’s the point. We are not close enough. We are too far. We have superseded issues over people when we can talk about both. But it has to start with people, with you and with me.
My wife sometimes tells me that I feel too much, that I care too much, which is probably why I love being a chaplain: because my job requires me to be fully present and fully engaged. I don’t have to fake a thing. I get to be all there for people in their most vulnerable moments. I don’t think that makes me better than you — I just think we could be better than this. I’ve seen it there in the hospital, how much empathy we could really have for one another, when we sit and listen and weep. I have wept with you. And I’ve seen voices raised, not at one another, but to plead for justice when it is not there. And I raise my voice, too.