Grieve First, Tell Stories Later: Notes on Tragedy and Ideological Opportunism

On Monday, bombs went off at the finish line of the Boston Marathon, and today we’re tempted to tell stories when we ought to be grieving.

The pundits have already started. (Apparently the first rule of punditry is that it would be irresponsible not to speculate irresponsibly.) Chris Matthews wondered whether far-right, anti-tax groups were behind the attack, and right-wing radio host Laura Ingraham is trying to use the bombings to fuel anti-immigrant sentiment. We can safely assume that some of the guardians of the religious right will try to invoke the attacks as evidence of the ill-defined moral or cultural decline at the heart of all our troubles. And I’d be genuinely surprised if we don’t hear dovish Americans speaking of state terrorism, drone strikes, and “chickens come home to roost.”

All of this is understandable, even if it is inexcusable. We all tell stories; we need them. Humans are storytellers and without stories we couldn’t be human. So we can expect that tragic current events will make their way into our stories, because our experiences are either brought into our stories somehow or they are forgotten. And something like the Boston Marathon bombing will not be forgotten. The Boston bombings will make their way into our stories somehow, we  simply do not have any other option.

But the trouble is that shocking, tragic events like the bombings in Boston fall outside the realm of the logic we normally use to tell our stories. What’s tragic is also anomalous. We are not prepared to tell coherent stories about civilians losing their limbs or an 8 year old kid being snatched away from his family by a remotely-detonated explosion. These events are appalling, they are grievous, they do not find themselves at home in our dominant themes or story-lines. We are not equipped to write tragedies because we like to imagine that tragedy is the stuff of fiction or the property of others.

And it’s during our moments of deep loss, emotional barrenness, and psychological torment that the world’s most opportunistic, predatory ideologues make themselves known. My own pastoral advice, if I can be so presumptuous as to offer it, is that you should run like hell anytime you hear someone trying to use a fresh tragedy as fodder for a bigger ideological story. Some folks care more for ideology than people, and they are typically willing to exploit your shock and anger in the service of their pet cause. They don’t care whether you grieve properly and they are perfectly comfortable helping you attach your anger to ideologies and stories completely unrelated to the source of your pain. Let’s call the Laura Ingrahams of the world precisely what they are: fear-mongering practitioners of a predatory psychology.

Of course, it’s not enough to denounce what is wrong, and we can’t avoid stories. We’ll still have to tell stories, but we should do so with the knowledge that not all stories are created equal. The question is: how do we tell stories that are helpful in the aftermath of senseless events? I have a few ideas:

1)    We ought to acknowledge grief on it’s own terms. The actual substance of our grief could never do as much harm as the distortion and co-option of grief into unrelated ideologies. So while grief is difficult to acknowledge head-on, I really believe that direct, honest grief work is the only way we can keep our grief from turning into a destructive fear. Stated very simply, we should grieve first and tell stories later. As we wait for full, accurate information, we can go about the work of preparing ourselves to interpret it without hate clouding our vision.

2)    There’s no need to call a bad thing good. We can name a story as tragic without feeling the need to rope it into “a bigger plan” or a story about suffering and redemption. Undoubtedly someone will ask the theodicy question. “How could God let this happen?” It’s strange that we speak of mass-violence or terrorist attacks as if they were natural disasters rather than human actions, but in the moment we ought to respect those questions since they come from a place of deep anguish. I suppose the correct answer is “I don’t know, but I’m feeling heart-broken, too.” The ambiguous truth is that sometimes people find a “why?” in their tragedy and sometimes they don’t. No one should be pressured to affix a positive meaning to their personal tragedies. Some pains never leave us although they grow duller over time, and sometimes the best people can manage is a “new normal.”

3)    Hate, in any form, is unlikely to help anyone. The problem with stories fueled by such an infectious, powerful emotion as hate is that they have a tendency of taking on a life of their own. A story that individuals started to craft quickly comes to be written by the whims of mass psychology, and before we know it we’re all extras waiting to make our appearance in a theater of war. This means, I think, that we have to confront those who would use grief to fuel hateful ideologies. It also means that we have to resist the urge to hate people who hate people. And for many people of good will that may be the most difficult task of all.

4)    Finally, if you’re a praying person, then you can pray. In the aftermath of this tragedy I’m praying for honest, deep, and bitter grief. And I’m praying that when we’re done grieving, empathy will triumph and hate will wilt and wither away.

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2 thoughts on “Grieve First, Tell Stories Later: Notes on Tragedy and Ideological Opportunism

  1. This is great material. I would second you in the belief that we are, biologically speaking, impulsive creatures first, emotional beings second, and rational animals last (if at all). Whilst I can understand the emotional knee-jerk to an impulsive response, it needs to be addressed before it is allowed to be masqueraded as logical cogency.

    Your four ideas are spot on: let the grief be grief. Then, and only then, try to move back on to the realm of thought.

    Thank you for this piece.

    1. Thanks, Joseph, for the kind words. I think you’re spot on about impulse, emotion, and rationality.

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