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A Grief Observed, Part 1

By April 18, 20074 Comments

In the past couple days we have all been reeling in the wake of the Virgina Tech shootings. To be honest, I still can’t believe it. How could this happen? How could that young man so callously target student after student after student, and shoot them in cold blood? It’s truly horrifying.

In memory of those who were killed, Duke held a prayer vigil yesterday at 2pm, the same time that Virgina Tech was holding a service for its students. In solidarity with the VT community, hundreds of Duke students came together in front of the chapel, and the Dean of the Chapel offered words of comfort. We then stood in silence for 2 minutes, after which the bell tolled 31 times, one toll for each victim. As I stood there on the grass for what seemed an interminable length of time (31 tolls takes a long time. I’d never realized what a large number it is…) I wept as each gong startled me and chilled me anew, each toll a fresh reminder of a young life cut short.

This week, our entire country is indeed wounded and mourning a tremendous loss.

Yet in reflecting on my feelings and on my reaction to the tragedy, I have realized something quite disturbing about myself. This realization occurred today when I hopped in my car and turned the radio on to the news. As I listened to the top stories, I learned that today has actually been one of the bloodiest days in Baghdad since the start of the war. Five different car bombs exploded, killing a total of 175 people. The station played audio from the disasters, and it sounded like mass chaos. Screaming, confusion, terror. But the startling thing is that this news, and these graphic audio clips, didn’t really affect me. I felt sad for a fleeting moment, but nothing like the grief I felt two days ago upon hearing the news of the killings, and nothing like the sadness I felt yesterday as each bell toll reverberated through my being. It just didn’t bother me that much. What’s more, this news wasn’t getting nearly the amount of press the VT shootings had. More than 3 times as many people had been killed, but the story got about 5 minutes of air time, and then they moved on.

This experience in my car has since led me to discover something about myself: I don’t really care about another person’s suffering unless they are like me. I don’t take seriously the reality of suffering until a tragedy like this one transpires, a tragedy in which the victims have faces and lives that are much like my own. When the pain and destruction is happening far away in some remote corner of the world, it’s easy to turn a blind eye, but when it happens close to home, I suddenly wake up, and I suddenly care. Only when it comes close to affecting me and my comfortable life, is my heart stirred.

Sadly, such a mentality is selfish at best. When the grief we feel for 30 fallen students contrasts so starkly with the apathy we feel towards the rest of the world, we are able to see how little our hearts reflect that of God. The Dean of Duke’s chapel described it this way:

“For those of us who are people of faith, we are given a glimpse through these events into a reality we don’t often
perceive. For a moment we see the world as God sees it – full of wonder, beauty, fragile glory and passionate
devotion, and yet at the same time cruelly mutilated by violence, horror and terror. We see it that way today.
God sees it that way every day.”

God’s compassion is not biased. He grieves whenever *anyone* suffers, anyone at all. This is an aspect of His heart we have yet to embody. Our compassion is limited and highly selective. We may be horrified at the white faces we saw in German concentrations camps, but the black faces in the Congo often slide under the radar. Unlike God, we tend to care more about “our kind.” God, on the other hand, isn’t quite so selective, because every kind is His kind.

But how do we imitate God in this kind of indiscriminate love? How do we love so universally that when we turn on the news and hear of more deaths in Iraq, or Sudan, or anywhere else in the world, our hearts are broken with the same degree of anguish that we have experienced these last two days? I think it begins by recognizing the image of God in our Iraqi, Sudanese, Korean, Venezuelan, etc. brothers and sisters. Have you ever stopped to think of these other members of the world as made in the image of God? Really, have you? Or are they too far away to think that hard about? Or when you do think of them, do they have a generic face and live a life so different from yours that you can’t possibly relate? Do they look more like uncivilized barbarians than someone you might be friends with? I frequently fall into the latter category. Yet those far away foreigners were all made in the precious image of our King, just like us. that means they love the way we love, and they suffer the way we suffer. They are not a faceless mass of strangers, but individuals, each crafted in their mothers’ wombs for a special purpose by God. God knows the number of hairs on their heads, He knows when they rise and when they fall. He knows their hopes and their dreams. And when they grieve, He grieves.

In this light, the challenge to “love your neighbor as yourself” takes on new meaning. Loving your neighbor as yourself does not merely mean wanting the same good things for them that you want for yourself, but also grieving for them in the same way you might grieve for yourself. This concept may at first seem challenging, because it’s difficult to grieve for strangers in the same way you might grieve your own loss. But interestingly enough, I think that’s what we’re all doing right now in the midst of the VT tragedy–we are grieving for strangers. It happens very naturally, in fact. If only we could work at being less selective in our compassion.

In this way, suffering with another may actually become a means for loving them. After all, if it is easiest to love individuals those who are most like us, and we realize that everyone suffers regardless of who they are or where they live, then this “likeness” in suffering should enable us to love strangers quite easily, because they have the same capacity to suffer as you do. Given that we are all made in God’s image, we all suffer in the same way, and perhaps that knowledge will serve as a bridge between our hearts. Perhaps it will enable us to love more easily, because we have finally found a point of connection. And in this way, the call to grieve alongside someone is not a call to masochism, or even politically correct sensitivity, but instead a call to love in the same radical way as Christ.

That is why we must pause for a moment’s reflection when we hear of more deaths in Iraq and other parts of the world. If we casually dismiss the suffering of the victims, then we belittle their suffering, a belittling that is only possible if we believe their suffering must be less than ours, that they do not suffer the way we suffer. If we truly believed that they suffered like we do, then we would not be able to brush them off so easily. So instead of forgetting about the fatalities the moment we hear about them on the news, we must instead think about the families left behind. Think about the bereaved mothers who have been robbed of their children. Think of the wives who have lost their husbands. The suffering that the VT parents are experiencing right now is no different than the suffering of Iraqi parents who have also lost their children, but we simply haven’t stopped to think of them that way. So please stop, please take a moment to grieve for those strangers. Only then, I think, do we stand a chance at loving as radically and universally as God did. God loved us by sending His Son to suffer with us. Our calling is the same.


  • Jenn Pappa says:

    hey sharon, i think this is a really good point but also we can’t ignore the fact that those dying in Iraq and Afghanistan are committed to a purpose even if it results in death. The VT shootings were a result of senseless violence that came out of nowhere. We are not only mourning the lives of these kids, but we are also mourning the feeling of security and sanity in the world. War makes more sense because people know they might die, crazy people with machine guns interrupting our “safe” lives is a lot harder to understand. The situation is more moving because of the shock value and the impending chaos that could result if this started happening regularly in schools all across the nation.

  • Sharon Hodde says:

    I actually very much disagree. The suicide bombers know they are going to die, but most of the victims killed each day in Iraq are innocent people just like you and me who are just trying to live their daily lives. They did not ask for war. They do not want violence in their land. They just want to live their lives, work their jobs, and raise their families. I think it is a tremendous mistake to separate ourselves from those innocents in Iraq by syaing that the suffering they endure is somehow different than ours. That is exactly why I wrote this. The suffering those innocent victims endure is just as senseless as the VT shootings, so we should be hesitant to say that their suffering is somehow ok or justifiable. That is indeed a dangerous statement to make, and allows us to somehow be ok with the fact that violence continues against others. How easy it is to say suffering makes sense and is alright when we are not the ones suffering. Making such a statement enables us to continue on in our comfortable content lives without the inconvenient burden of worrying about others who are in pain.

    And in response to your statement about the shock of what it would mean if this happend regularly in schools–EXACTLY! This DOES happen every day in other countries. it’s not just soldliers that are being killed in combat, but school children, mothers on their way to the market, young people at the mall. on the contrary to what you implied, it is VERY MUCH the same. but we only care when it happens to us. that is why this event should give us a window into understanding just what it must be like to live in Iraq, never knowing if some random act of violence will cut your life short. to live in constant fear–that it what they face. We have experienced but a taste of it, but hopefully that taste will give us some sort of sympathy for the casualities we hear about every day.

  • Sharon Hodde says:

    And by the way, this was not meant to become a discussion about whether the war in Iraq is or is not just. That’s not at all what I’m getting at here. Rather, I’m trying to offer a Christian perspective on the suffering that goes on in the world in general. Not thinking as Americans, but as Christians, we need to have a theology that enables to approach suffering the way Christ did–Christ loved us by sharing in our suffering. We are to do the same. But I fear we let ourselves off the hook, back down from Christ’s call, by saying that it is ok when some innocent people suffer. Even if that were true, we must be grateful that Christ did not take the same approach. We surely deserve suffering, but that did not stop him for joining with us, grieving with us, and suffering with us.

  • Jenn Pappa says:

    hey sharon! whoa! whoops, I sorta skimmed your post this morning and didn’t understand it before I posted.

    Yes I’m one of THOSE people who talks without listening… sorry!

    I thought you were talking about the soldiers, not the civilians. Which was dense… anyways, great post! Thanks for writing and for posting comments to help flesh that out.


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