Unitarian Universalism

On Kindness After Tragedy: This Can Still Happen Anywhere

I know there is talk about how, after 9/11, there was a change in this country.  Or at least in NYC.  That people were nice to each other, looked after each other, cared for strangers, in ways that had not been so evident before.  I think of Suheir Hammad’s amazing poem, “First Writing Since (Poem on Crisis of Terror”), in which she shares her experience in the days following that tragedy:

thank you to the woman who saw me brinking my cool and blinking back tears. she opened her arms before she asked “do you want a hug?” a big white woman, and her embrace was the kind only people with the warmth of flesh can offer. i wasn’t about to say no to any comfort.”my brother’s in the navy,” i said. “and we’re arabs”. “wow, you got double trouble.” word.


I was not in NYC, or near NYC, and though on the East Coast, my experience of the violence on that day is one of distance.  From my perspective (one I know many share), I saw our nation engaging in both inspiring interactions, like the care of one another, and despairing actions (flag-waving, increases in Islamophobic violence, hawkish hype that led us into two wars, etc.).

I do not belong with those voices who feel the world changed that day – I found such pronouncements to be ethnocentric and short-sighted. Hammad’s piece, even with its foundation of gratitude, details upsetting responses she encountered as a Palestinian-American.  She was not alone in this xenophobic experience.

Still, I know that such ruptures, tragic as they are, have the potential to bring out not only the worst in us, but the best.  We have choices in such matters – perhaps not in the fact of violence or trauma happening, but in how to respond, heal, and transform in its aftermath.  For those folks whose choices and capacities are limited, those of us with more capacity hold more responsibility to move the world in more inclusive, more just, more kind directions.


In class last night, someone spoke of having been flying out of LAX on Friday – the day of yet another brutal shooting, this time with one death, multiple people injured, and countless others, physically present and elsewhere but somehow connected, impacted and pained.  Their flight was late at night, after the airport had been re-opened and was still full of shocked passengers stuck, trying to get where they were going.  They knew to arrive much earlier than usual, that it would take longer than typical to get the tickets, to go through security, to do all that has become involved in air travel.  My friend described what she found when she arrived at the airport:

“palpable kindness”

She described immense patience.  People sharing space, getting up from their seats and offering them to strangers.  Smiles and kindheartedness.  Benevolence where might have been impatience and abruptness.  A collective gentleness among a group of individuals ostensibly unconnected, but clearly connected now.  She came through that long evening at the Los Angeles airport not despairing of humanity, but encouraged by it.

The universe is full of rupture and chaos.  It is part of its essence, despite our sometimes laudable and very human impulse to resist and even attempt to prevent.  In quantum spirituality, instead of resisting chaos or discontinuity, we are called to find the possibility in it.

Discontinuity is disruption.  However, it is also normative, only not to us, because we have not made room for it in our pantheon of possibilities.  So what do we do about that?  If discontinuity is a vital part of our natural world, and it is, and if it is endemic, then we need to begin to look for it and see it for what it is meant to be: a ripple of divine energy creating and re-creating every aspect of the universe, redesigning our journey, recreating us.  (Paradoxology: Spirituality in a Quantum Universe, M.T. Winters)

Let me be clear.  This does not mean that we acquiesce to preventable violence.

We do not throw our hands up in the air, as the NRA would have us do, and capitulate to the exponential gun violence plaguing our nation.  We seek the goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all.

We say something when we see someone imposing their will or body in a way that fosters voicelessness or violence, rather than saying, “boys will be boys,” or “that’s cultural.”   We seek justice, equity, and compassion in human relations.

We don’t justify suffering as if it is a cross that builds character.  We seek to honor the inherent worth and dignity of every person.  There is no “justification” for suffering; there is acknowledgement of its existence, and then as much intention as we can muster in choosing our response.

In closing, I can’t help but be reminded of Naomi Shihab Nye’s delightful short story, from the collection, Honeybee.   I have written about it before on this blog.  The story is called “Gate A-4,” and it also takes place at an airport, this time in Albuquerque.  You can read it here.  I don’t want to give it away – it is really worth the click and read – but I guarantee, it, too, will leave you encouraged by, not despairing of, humanity.


0 thoughts on “On Kindness After Tragedy: This Can Still Happen Anywhere

  1. I worked with the NYC schools post-911. Some schools reported an increase in fighting among the students, whereas others reported a decrease. Those that reported a decrease had in common that there was some type of community effort — for example, collecting $ to donate to families of lost firefighters, or making a monument to the dead — that allowed the students to channel their pain and helplessness in a constructive way, that supported/built community.

    In the face of tragedy there seems to be that same old choice: love or fear; kindness or scapegoating. The emotional reaction to tragedy has to have some place to go. And numerous studies have found that much behavior is situationally determined. While some people will spontaneously show the kindness, I think we can also intentionally structure situations — as was done in some of the NYC schools — that channel the emotional reaction in the positive direction.

    1. Ricky, you raise really important points. There IS much we can do, if we put our intentions and OUR MONEY/resources to develop a compassionate response wider. Thank you for bringing your perspective here and grounding us in research.

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