Five years ago, I stumbled across a news article. A teenage boy in some distant rural town had been bullied relentlessly for years and couldn’t take it anymore. One day, he took his dad’s rifle off to a far corner of their property and took his own life. I didn’t know that young man and I don’t recall his name, but his picture haunted me for months there after. I would find myself crying every few days, wondering why people must be so cruel.
Our world is filled with tragedy, violence, oppression, and suffering. Many of us don’t have the means to send money in response to every mass shooting, to help fund the next medical breakthrough, or to bring clean water to African countries. I would guess that the majority of people have enough stressors in their everyday life–finding money to pay the bills, worrying about your teenage daughter’s new boyfriend, and keeping up at work. It can be hard to find the mental bandwidth to process and respond to bad news from across the country or across the world.
The bad news isn’t going anywhere. Unfortunately, the world is filled with what I like to believe is a vocal minority of bad actors. Pair that with a media system that sensationalizes everything, and there is no escaping the tsunami of debilitating emotions. So, the best thing we can do is learn to mediate our response.
In the past two weeks, there have been at least two grave tragedies involving guns and the loss of innocent lives. This time, rather than cry, I was reminded of something my boyfriend told me when I was sobbing over that young stranger that could have been my little brother.
“There are bad people in the world, and there are good people who make poor decisions. That will never change. What you can control is how you choose to respond. You need to zoom in. What’s wrong in our neighborhood, our city, and our county? What changes would you like to see in the community? What can you do, on an individual level, to help realize those changes?”
In the years since, I’ve joined and volunteer with my city’s community emergency response team (CERT), supported friends who have run for local offices (some of whom have risen to congressional and senate positions), volunteered at the local food bank, and practiced random acts of kindness at every turn. I feel on a deep level that I am personally making my community a better place. If good people act in the interest of their community and gradually rise to positions of leadership, it could change the course of history for that community.
In the grand scheme of things, the impact of my efforts is infinitesimally small. Yet, I like to believe that there are at least a handful of people who are better off thanks to those efforts. Perhaps a smile, kind word, or helping hand has made someone feel seen and supported, and perhaps it’s a moment they have never forgotten.
To anyone struggling with after effects of the latest tragedy, try to momentarily set aside the sadness, anger, pain, and confusion. In that moment, zoom in and consider where your own neighborhood could benefit from what you have to offer. This could take the form of advocating for stricter gun regulations, volunteering at a local medical clinic, running for local office, inviting neighborhood kids to help with your garden, buying a cup of coffee for the person behind you, or cheerfully smiling at strangers as they pass.
Five years ago, I felt overwhelmed with sadness and devastation each time I came across yet another tragedy. Today, I focus intently on the actions within my control. Rather than cry, I now respond to distant tragedies by calling up members of my community and asking how I can be of service.
The world is filled with darkness, yet equal parts light. In my experience, the bad news feel less horrific when you can see the positive changes that you are personally fostering in your own community. While showing up in support of my local community may not ease the pain of those affected by violence or a disaster, it certainly does help salve my own suffering and it continually restores my hope in humanity.