It was a warm Saturday Nebraska afternoon in October, and at the ripe old age of 20, I was on a weekend retreat with about 25 of my fellow students. The purpose of the retreat was to reflect on the adjustments and changes we would all be facing as we moved from college classrooms and dorm rooms into the real world of work.
However, at this particular moment, a number of us were involved in a rather competitive game of volleyball. The trash talk was flying back and forth as serves were traded, and points were scored. At one point, a member of my team delivered a crushing spike over the net directly into the face of a young woman, who immediately crumpled to the ground. Without missing a beat, several of us began heatedly arguing whether the point counted. Meanwhile, the young woman remained on the ground, and only when she didn’t get up after a minute or so did anyone pay attention to her. Finally, one of the more sensitive, caring players knelt down to check on her, only to discover she was dazed and bleeding profusely from her nose. As several others joined in caring for her, those who had been arguing the score continued their discussion with increasing intensity.
I don’t remember how we resolved the score, but every time I remember that event, I feel embarrassment and shame. You see, I was one of those arguing the score, and when I look back, I cannot believe I was so callous to not notice or be concerned for the injured woman. While the injury didn’t cause her any lifelong physical scars or problems, she did suffer a concussion and a broken nose that caused her to miss the remainder of the retreat and lots of embarrassing moments back on campus when people asked what happened.
Recently, a high school student was killed as she confronted a fellow student who entered the school with a gun and the intention of killing a teacher. This is just one more tragedy in the shadow of the Newtown Massacre, the Aurora Theater shootings, the Boston Bombings, and the Gabby Gifford shootings…and the list could go on and on. Each time one of these tragedies occur, individuals and groups looking to capitalize on the event throw out their arguments concerning gun control, reducing violence, or just general critiques of the “declining moral values” of our nation. All the while, families are mourning the death of a loved one, while still other victims and their families struggle to adapt to life-changing injuries, and untold dozens of bystanders, first responders, and medical personnel wrestle with the trauma of these tragedies.
But this is not just limited to gun violence; there are other tragedies that bring about the same cycle of responses. These include the 50 million Americans currently living under the poverty level, the growing problem of suicide in the military, and the increasing number of the long-term unemployed. This list also could go on.
Why is it that, as a culture, we are more interested in arguing policy, philosophy, or morals in the after math of these events, rather than focusing on offering healing, care, and concern for the victims? Why is it that the only time our society seems to want to discuss the issues of violence, or guns, or our societal mores is when a tragedy happens? Are we such a jaded society that we refuse focusing our energy on compassion, care, and support in response to such devastating events?
As a society, we resist compassion. As a society, we demand answers—who is right and who is wrong. As a society, we demand clarity—who is to blame and not to blame. As a society, we demand solutions—who gets what when and for how long. As a society, we are not interested in wading through the murky waters of compassion and caring. We want to know if the individual or group deserves such before we give them anything. As a society, we don’t want to get dirty with the messiness of offering healing and support. We want people to “man up” or “pick themselves up by their bootstraps” and get on with life.
Growing up, I never learned how to be a baseball player because I was always afraid of getting hit by the ball. Because I was afraid I was going to get hit by the ball, I would close my eyes before swinging at a pitch or before fielding a grounder. I was never willing to suffer through the bumps, bruises, and mistakes that come with learning how to be a baseball player. No matter how often a coach, or my dad, or one of the kids I was playing with told me to “keep my eye on the ball,” I just didn’t do it. And, so, I never learned how to be a baseball player.
As a society, as communities, as individuals our world needs us to keep our eye on the ball—to not be distracted from the real needs that emerge from tragedy. We need to keep our eye on making sure those who have suffered loss, who are struggling with the trauma of war, joblessness, homelessness, hunger, disease, addiction, or a myriad of other issues receive the appropriate and necessary care. Keeping our eye on the ball means we are focused on the reality that when one of us is captive to poverty or sickness or hopelessness all of us are captive. Keeping our eye on the ball means seeking out the opportunities and actions that demonstrate our compassion, our care, and to offer hope and healing—not arguing about who or what is to blame for the pain and disappointment in another’s life.
— Steve Fehl
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