Like so many Americans, I am horrified and saddened by the loss of innocent lives in Newton, Connecticut. I humbly offer my condolences—mere words, and still, deeply felt sentiment—to the families of the victims.
This act of violence was senseless, yet the urge to make sense of such tragedy arises nonetheless. How we explain it to ourselves touches the very core of who we are and what we believe. How we cope emotionally, and how we react politically, shape our futures.
In pondering this sense-making, I’ve also reflected on the NYC man who killed another man by pushing him onto subway tracks in front of an oncoming train last week. I do not intend to equalize these events—they are uniquely heinous, and the loss of especially young lives is especially pathological.
Both of these events, however, made me ask Why did this happen? and What could have been done? In the case of the subway pushing, where strangers apparently stood frozen while the victim struggled to lift himself to the safety of the platform, I wondered, What would I have done?
I know that this reaction may seem like self-absorbed, inward fantasizing, instead of the shared sympathy and solidarity so needed at times like these. But these are two forms of coping, and need not supplant one another. In my grasping for meaning I recalled Philip Zimbardo’s research on evil, contexts, and bystanders. Discussing his book The Lucifer Effect, Zimbardo argues
it is vital for every society to have its institutions teach heroism, building into such teachings the importance of mentally rehearsing taking heroic action—thus to be ready to act when called to service for a moral cause or just to help a victim in distress.
Zimbardo’s Heroic Imagination Project aims to redefine
the notion of heroism not as something reserved for those rare individuals who do or achieve something extraordinary, but as a mindset or behavior possible for anyone who is capable of doing an extraordinary deed. We seek to redefine heroism and make it more relevant for a 21st century world in which heroism is no longer the exclusive province of the physically brave, but it is also embodied by any individual with firmly held ethics and the courage to act on them.
The heroic imagination is the antithesis to the ‘hostile imagination’ that fuels a psychology of enmity.
Moving forward, I hope we as a country can minimize enmity across political differences, so that we can take courageous steps and take hard looks at current gun laws and mental health care.