Making Sense of Tragedy

Mourners in Aurora, Colorado

By Ben Cohen: The horrific shootings in Aurora, Colorado have gripped the nation and again opened up debate about gun control, mental illness and the state of our society. There are many discussions to be had following the tragedy that saw 12 people lose their lives and another 58 wounded, but in the wake of such a shocking event, it is too early to fully comprehend exactly what happened.

What is clear is that 24 year old Jame Holmes was seriously unwell and had far too easy access to high powered weaponry. Those two factors are enough for America to take a serious look at gun control and care for mental illness. The country has suffered far too many massacres from severely psychologically troubled young men with access to guns. At some point, enough is enough.

It is true that from a statistical point of view, more people have died due to guns in America over the past couple of days than were killed in Colorado, and there will be many people citing figures about how many people die due to lack of gun control, how bad the mental illness services are and how screwed up our society has become.

And they are right.

But right now, the mass killing of innocent people out for a fun evening’s entertainment is really about tragedy and how we make sense of it.

Massacres in places like Aurora, Virginia Tech, and Columbine have a much greater impact on society than unrelated daily tragedies. The scale and nature of them amplify our psychological response and leave a terrible sense of fear and insecurity – they are so out of the ordinary that is often impossible to comprehend what happened.

Death is a natural and normal part of human life, but tragedies are different and coping with them are exceptionally difficult. I cannot imagine what the families of the victims are going through, or the people who survived the terrifying events. But I do know that trying to make sense of something that, for lack of a better phrase, doesn’t make any sense is probably not a worthwhile endeavor.

The older I get, the more I realize that often there is no rhyme or reason to life. While there are patterns that make day to day living routine, familiar and safe, every now and then something out of the ordinary happens that can have dramatic impact, either good or bad. As Daniel Kahneman, the Nobel prize-winning psychologist stated, “After a crisis we tell ourselves we understand why it happened and maintain the illusion that the world is understandable. In fact, we should accept the world is incomprehensible much of the time.”

The truth is that a lot of what happens to us is out of our control – we can only have so much impact on our environments, whereas our environment has a disproportionate impact on us. The only thing we can control is how we react to events – and this is much easier said than done, particularly when tragedies like those in Aurora, Colorado happen.

For what it’s worth, I think that sometimes it is better not to try to understand. It is better simply to feel – to seek comfort with others and grieve with them, to build and rebuild bonds with family and friends without thinking too much. As the Rabbi Dr. Earl Grollman said: “Grief is not a disorder, a disease or a sign of weakness. It is an emotional, physical and spiritual necessity, the price you pay for love. The only cure for grief is to grieve”

There is nothing I can directly compare in my life to such awful events, but there have been times when things have happened that I simply have not been able to comprehend. I have found comfort in the realization that perhaps that is how it should be – that sometimes our understanding of reality is wrong no matter how much we believe in it.

There are always positives to be taken from any situation, no matter how bad they might be. And I think it starts with the realization that it is OK not to know what they could be.

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