An Antidote for Troubled Times?

In his recent New York Times piece, columnist David Brooks addresses what many of us are struggling with in this moment: how to react to world events that are almost too horrific to contemplate. Rather than isolating ourselves and turning inward, Brooks suggests the opposite- engaging with others more deeply and more profoundly. Particularly, with those who are not from our tribe. We change the world by changing our world. Brooks knits together wisdom from the ancient Greeks, modern social theory, and lessons from current-day politics to make his point. The author’s antidote for troubled times is a pretty good description of what Jesus taught over 2,000 years ago, when he said, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Here are a few excerpts from the Brooks piece, How to Stay Safe in Brutalizing Times (New York Times).

“We fight back by opening our hearts and casting a just and loving attention on others, by being curious about strangers, being a little vulnerable with them in the hopes that they might be vulnerable, too. This is the kind of social repair that can happen in our daily encounters, in the way we show up for others.”

“The core counterattack against this kind of dehumanization is to offer others the gift of being seen.” And finally, “Compassion is the noble flame that keeps humanity alive, even in times of war and barbarism. Compassion recognizes the infinite dignity of each human soul.”

If it sounds familiar, it’s because Brooks also draws from what he terms “The Jerusalem Tradition.” Jesus teaches, in his greatest commandment, that we ought to love God and each other- which really are the same thing. These are the words of Jesus as recorded in Mark 12: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength. The second is this: Love your neighbor as yourself. There is no commandment greater than these.”

Toward the end of his piece, Brooks asks whether casting this kind of attention really can change the people we encounter. I think we know that it can. That how we treat each other can and does change the world, sometimes significantly. In a recent Freakonomics podcast (How to Succeed at Failing, Part 1: The Chain of Events) David Riedman Ph.D., founder of the K-12 School Shooting Database, explains how most school shootings are not one tragic mistake, but a series of missed opportunities. A failure to store a gun properly, for instance, and then to recognize obvious warning signs from a troubled young person. A failure by school officials or parents or authorities to listen, when the threat is reported, and even if they do, a failure to act effectively. It’s never one single breakdown, but many. Riedman reports that perhaps the most consistent thread in these tragic events is something that is absent: compassion.

Most shooters give plenty of warning that they are hurting and need help. Arron Stark, tells us why in his Ted Talk, “I Was Almost a School Shooter.” Stark describes how as a teen he was a victim of abuse at home, by drug-addicted parents, and at school by bullies who held sway. He daydreamed of revenge. One day he was ready to act. He was at school with a loaded gun and a plan. His life was meaningless, he explains, so he had nothing to lose. Then a single act of compassion by a schoolmate, who invited him home for lunch, altered the trajectory of the day. Let that sink in. Stark says that what prevented him from acting was that someone finally recognized him as a human being. He felt that his life had value. This simple act of compassion prevented untold carnage. Today he is raising a happy family and so are many others from his graduating class. We can all make this kind of difference, Jesus tells us. The song pairing is a demo of a song in the works, “Kindness and Magic.” Until next time, stay safe, be brave and keep walking in the light. 

The world stood still for a little while
and it fell so easily in line
I was confused, I must admit
when you were just being kind

Between us, there was a spark
no denying, right from the start
love will give you strength
but love can break your heart

Kindness, magic
our chains fell away
we loved unafraid
at the end of the day
we had more, than we gave away
kindness, magic

I can thank my restless mind
for missing every sign
but I’ll keep it simple now
and just try to treat you kind

Kindness, magic
our chains fell away
we loved unafraid
at the end of the day
we had more, than we gave away

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