The Cries of the Young
When I heard the news about the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting, I didn’t know what to think, beyond “oh no,” “that’s horrible,” “how many people died?” and “where was this, again?” It was tragic. I sent up a prayer mentally for the victims’ families, sighed about what this world has become, and kept scrolling on my Facebook news feed. The murder of 17 high schoolers is just another news report in 2018.
My callousness disgusts me.
After all, I have been a high school student. It wasn’t even that long ago! I still have friends in academy, still talk to former teachers and classmates. Beyond that, I still go to a school, still spend hours sitting at a desk, in a classroom, in the same situation those high schoolers were in.
I should be emotionally ruined by this. I should feel shellshocked, broken, go through the day in a haze of grief and confusion and anger. Instead, I keep scrolling.
At seven years old, I had the opposite problem. My dad tells stories about punishing my brother, because he would get stubborn and refuse to apologize, but he’d just look at me funny and I’d burst into tears. I cried over everything—the dandelions that got cut when my dad mowed the lawn, the fact that I was younger than my two best friends by four whole months, a misspelled word on my spelling test—those, and pretty much every movie ever made. “Stop being so sensitive,” my brother would tell me. “Grow up.”
So I did. And now my callousness disgusts me, but as much as it does, I know that I don’t want to turn back into that little girl who melted at the first whisper of conflict and was so destroyed by gentle criticism. Desensitization lends a certain fortitude, grants an extra layer of resilience. The thicker my skin, the easier it is to speak my mind. I want to be empathetic, yes, but I don’t want my sensitivity back at the cost of my strength.
Then how did I get to this point? I want to blame it on the world. This tiny blue planet seems to grow more violent and more horrific by the day. School shootings, after all, should be a sign of the apocalypse—not of everyday life.
I want to blame it on the world, but I know it’s more than that. Part of it is me. I’m not ten years old anymore, and the media I choose to interact with demonstrates that. The movies I watch, the books I read—they portray horrific, apocalyptically bad things all the time. Just in the past two years, the success of everything from 13 Reasons Why to Westworld to Game of Thrones shows our culture’s fascination with death. I’m not trying to rat on pop culture: I think that good media should engage with our cultural consciousness and reflect societal anxieties responsibly. And much of our current crop of socially-engaged media has done wonders in its depiction of marginalized groups—whether it’s Get Out literalizing modern-day oppressions and micro-aggressions towards black people, or the way The Handmaid’s Tale brutally critiques misogyny. These are powerful, brilliant pieces of filmmaking. They spark important conversations that we should be having. But I do wonder—how does the media I consume affect my empathy in the face of real-life tragedy?
I’m not naïve. I know that unplugging from movies or TV won’t suddenly make me sensitive to others’ pain. After all, we see just as many horrors on the news these days, and just because they happened in the real world doesn’t mean they aren’t also sensationalized. But it’s easier to become desensitized to real-world horrors when we readily consume those same horrors as entertainment.
I wept buckets over Hannah Baker’s death in 13 Reasons Why but couldn’t muster up a couple of tears for 17 real dead high schoolers.
Look, this isn’t something I want to talk about. It’s not something I want to think about, much less address. But I have to address it, even if I cannot find the words, even if I don’t know how to say—or even feel—everything that I should say and feel.
Because like it or not, I am horrifically, grossly desensitized to the tragedies that occur in this world, and I hate it. I want to be compassionate, to weep over the world as Christ did on the Mount of Olives, to be sad enough and angry enough to do something about evil. I don’t want to be just another consumer, unfazed by tragedy, unaffected by injustice. I want to be better, but I don’t know how.
Maybe I’ve grown up too much.
But as I try to navigate the spaces between strength and sensitivity, I find myself forgetting action. Empathy is not just an outlet for tears or a flash of guilt. Empathy requires activity.
Crying over cut flowers is all well and good, but it doesn’t actually do anything. Grief is immobilizing, and if these recent shootings have taught me anything, it’s that we must mobilize—we must make things happen.
I am under no delusions about the actions I can take. There are a lot of things that I cannot do. I am not a senator or a government official. I am not on the board of any school. I am limited.
But empathy doesn’t have to happen on a large scale. Empathy is much simpler than that. Empathy is talking a friend down from a scary presentation, giving a sibling a shoulder to cry on, offering notes to a student who missed class, writing an article or a blog post, giving a speech, telling someone that they are not alone.
Growing up comes with its perks, after all—no one gives a seven-year-old a page in the newspaper.
This I promise: I will go looking for the girl who cried over cut dandelions—that I will find her and drag her kicking and screaming into the light of 2018, and I will give her a pen and a platform and a tissue, so she can proclaim her anger and her grief to the mountaintops. I will give her a file to wear down the callouses that have come to define me, and I will ask her to teach me how to live in this world.
In return, I will hold her hand as she weeps through books and movies, as she sees the place this world has become, and I will give backbone to her sensitivity and strength to her sobs, and although I may not always be able to cry over someone else’s disaster, I can help them through it.
For now, for me, that will have to be enough.