We’re continuously confronted with acts of violence that are at once shocking and simply unimaginable. Often, we flounder for what it is we should be feeling. Sometimes we’re surprised by our delayed reaction when our emotions—anger, outrage, disbelief, contempt— finally bubble to the surface. Yet at the far reach of our bewilderment, we find our emotional identity with what’s happened. This is collateral grief, our most fundamental response to the pain and suffering of others, expressed as heartfelt compassion.
When sequential dire events vie for our emotional attention, our compassion easily ricochets from one tragedy to the next, fueled by exuberant media coverage and the extremes of geography, place, and time. We may feel oddly splintered, fragmented in our ability to focus and respond with the concentration of spiritual and emotional energy that each occurrence merits. Our human limitation is that we cannot truly live into the grief of an entire community unless we are in some way personally affected.
Sometimes within what seems like a very compressed period, we learn of almost simultaneous natural disasters—earthquakes in Mexico quickly followed by earthquakes in the Middle East that kill hundreds of men, women, and children, each a beloved child of God. A succession of relentless hurricanes devastates both the infrastructure of a major city and the livelihood of an entire island within a matter of hours. Wildfires that cannot be contained aggressively pursue an arbitrary path of destruction that leave thousands of people homeless and the most helpless dead.
Random acts of violence seem to occur with almost clockwork regularity—a mass shooting in a small church on a Sunday morning when, in a matter of seconds, twenty-six living, breathing innocent people were killed. The fact that the target victim was not even there is a tragic irony that defies our comprehension of such a senseless attack. When a terrorist truck driver targets anyone in the intentional path of mayhem, we witness in silent horror the crime of willfully inflicting bodily injury on innocent victims in the name of righteousness, hatred, or sociopathic disregard for the sacredness of life. And though on some level we may grasp and at once reject the avowed motivation, what we witness up close and personal is the force of evil at work in the world.
Not long after the shootings in Sutherland Springs, Texas in November 2017, an acquaintance tossed this perplexed question into the universe, “How am I supposed to understand the incomprehensible death of so many innocent victims?” Her expression of spiritual confusion describes how many of us react to the vast range of complex emotions that confuse our collateral grief.
The answer is, that we are not. The God who created us to empathize with other human beings and react with an outpouring of love and compassion generally does not provide us with logical understanding or insight into the “why?” of natural disasters, random violence, and terrorism. Beyond some possible motivation of the perpetrator, we are not usually offered an explanation, a rationale, or access to the mysteries that God alone fully comprehends.
Our limitation of understanding urges us to the edge of our capacity for compassion—the unconditional, boundless gift of love that is ours to lavish on those whose lives are devastated by events beyond our mortal understanding. Compassion is the best expression of our collateral grief because it knows no end to its kindness, care, hope, and comfort.
Beyond God’s mysteries, our understanding and assurance lie in the certainty of God’s steady presence and constant care for each child of creation, both in life and in death, “Nevertheless, I am continually with you; you hold my right hand” Psalm 73:23 (NRSV).
Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire other than you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.
Psalm 73:25-26 (NRSV)