What helps, what doesn’t

November 14, 2015

How do we process and respond to the stream of tragedies we bear witness to, day in and day out? This week, it is the terrorist attacks in Paris and Beirut that have captured our collective attention and broken our hearts.  But every week, there’s something.  How do we stay awake and aware, without succumbing to compassion fatigue?  For those of us who are religious leaders, how do we support people whose lived experience is that things are bad and getting worse?

When the trauma is acute, it helps to turn off the tv, the radio, the computer.  It helps to connect with the real people who are nearby, to remind ourselves of the love and beauty in our lives.  Later, it helps to look at the root causes and educate ourselves on the events leading up to the tragedy.  It helps to find concrete ways to contribute, whether sending money or attending a vigil or just saying a silent prayer.  It helps to take a long view, to step back and realize that people who are good and caring and responsible outnumber those who are hate-full and violent by several orders of magnitude.  It helps to pay attention to the outpouring of love and support that inevitably follows each tragedy.  Yes, Mr. Rogers, it helps to “Remember the Helpers.”

It doesn’t help to jump to assigning blame.  It doesn’t help to watch bloody footage over and over again, imprinting traumatic images on our brain.  It doesn’t help to chastise people for their way of responding to the tragedy; each person is entitled to their own reactions and responses.

It helps me to practice tonglen meditation.  I visualize breathing in the world’s suffering, transforming it, and breathing out love and peace.  But there are other individual practices that can help…walking meditation, lighting candles, expressing solidarity through images or art or music.  These days, we all need our ‘go to’ post-traumatic spiritual practices.

It helps us all, collectively to come together and lament as a community.  In the wake of every tragedy, attendance at churches, synagogues, mosques and other houses of worship tends to increase.  When we are hurting, we need one another more than ever.

As religious leaders, our job is to set the pace and the tone of communal mourning.  We need to be sensitive to the level of trauma in our congregations. Sometimes, our folks need us to be prophetic, to open their eyes and hearts to something they might rather ignore.  Sometimes they need us to be pastoral, to soothe and uplift.  Sometimes they need us to just acknowledge the feelings of pain, helplessness, and loss; to sit with them in the midst of the turmoil and to acknowledge how hard it is to be human just now.

These are challenging times, but they are also rich with potential.  As hard as it is to bear witness to the stream of tragedies sometimes, our broken hearts connect us in a way that has never occurred before, a way that is desperately needed.  I have unlimited faith in the resilience of the human spirit.  Together, we will figure out how to weave a web of compassion that embraces the whole human family.