In the Wake of Tragedy

Any time we tell a story about ourselves, it is a story of how we are a hero (in order that we might build ourselves up) or a victim (so that we might garner sympathy and create deeper bonds in our relationships). We do not tell stories in which we are the villain because villains are hated and it is from a sense of self-preservation that we seek not to be hated, but to be understood. In that search we instinctively tell ourselves that we are heroes educating those around us or victims of an insensitive/uncaring world.

Sometimes we are educating others, sometimes we are surrounded by indifference. Regardless of who is right and who is wrong, we only ever see ourselves as heroes or victims. This is also true of the world’s villains, no villain ever called themselves a villain unless they were a cartoon or Shakespearean antagonist or trying for irony as they shrugged off some outsider’s opinion of themselves.

Villains do not know they are villains. Villains view themselves as heroes and victims. Villains fight the notion of their villainy when it is presented to them because villains are hated and they are trying to save themselves from being hated.

When there is no argument that can be made to prove a villain’s non-villainy, many villains persist in defending themselves as the misunderstood victim of circumstance because it goes against our self-preservation to admit someone’s hatred of us is justified. Our parents — cherishing us as the baby they will never stop seeing no matter how many years pass — will blame some outside force that has corrupted their child, or blame themselves, or prove their own guilty part by trying to make the wrong seem small and misunderstood. The actual victims and their families and the caring community surrounding them will all find their pain multiplied by this insult to injury.

It is when we seem completely incapable of wrapping our own mind around our responsibility in what has happened — when we try to twist the wrong into something less offending to lessen the hatred directed toward us, when we run away and hide psychologically and physically from what we have done — that victims and families seek most fervently for justice. It is when we admit our wrong, when we finally break open our viewfinder to understand the full weight of our actions, when we express a deep and sincere sadness for what we have done that victims and families are aided in their healing and we are all of us (victims and villains alike) willing to accept whatever judgement is passed.

Our justice system, deeply broken as it is, promises punishments to fit the crimes. Victims and their families, we have seen, fight for those punishments in direct proportion to how little-to-no responsibility the villain claims. Forgiveness is considered the greatest act of love for good reason: in our grief it feels impossible to feel mercy toward the one who was wronged us and continues to deny their responsibility.

We tell stories of ourselves being victims to garner sympathy and deepen relationships. When we are not the victim we have a civic responsibility to aid in the healing process by being sympathetic to the victim. When we are the villains, that responsibility is multiplied into being empathetic by our initial failure to do right by our fellow man.

When as children we strike one another and insult one another, we are made to apologize for our wrongdoing usually without our wholly understanding our offense and — by extension — not feeling wholly responsible for our infraction. We feel bad we got caught, not for what we have done. Regret for our actions comes later as we learn that there is more to the world than our own thoughts and desires, while the ability to put that regret to use that we might learn and grow is a skill we as a society have a difficult time helping one another to learn.

Years ago, when it was decided that prayer and proselytizing did not belong in the public classroom, schools stopped teaching civic responsibility and other matters of ethical living to students because no one yet had the vocabulary to discuss what it means to be a good person without making any sort of biblical reference. Today, we most certainly do have the vocabulary, but the discussion is put off until college in a one-semester gen-ed requirement where the students who really participate clearly had the good fortune to cross paths with a family member or teacher or other mentor who recognized the need to instill young people with a hunger for goodness.

If we who are neither victim nor villain wish to fulfill our role of sympathy, I believe we need to seek goodness for ourselves and our prosperity. I believe that learning to socialize goes beyond please and thank you and waiting our turn in line. I believe we need to learn to have regrets that fit our crimes that we may all learn and grow and seek to do no harm if only to spare ourselves from breaking our own hearts.