There's a pain I've seen, so harsh that neither trite answers nor pointed questions give it the dignity it deserves.
I saw it again Tuesday morning. A live report from two Virginia journalists, so ordinary you don't acknowledge it until it's interrupted. I don't know if you've seen the video, and I'm not sure if you ever would. They were shot and killed, captured by two cameras.
There are layers to this that run deep in America's consciousness. The shooter was a black man, stoked by racial slurs from former coworkers and set aflame by the Charleston shootings. Then there's the gun control talk. Then the very possibility that I can now stumble on Twitter any given morning-- bedhead and coffee in hand--and watch tragedy unfold.
My mind was immediately flooded with questions and answers.
Answer: We can't perpetuate lies through this. If he was white, that doesn't automatically mean it's righteous anger. If he's black, that doesn't mean it's wicked anger.
Question: How do you actually solve the gun control problem? Can't almost anybody motivated enough put on appearances to get a gun?
Answer: New York Daily News simply can't run a cover page that dumb.
And then I remembered: there's a pit in our life where questions and answers simply can't go. You'll stare right at it the next time you're confronted with death. You feel this momentary numbness. Your mouth shuts up. Everything slows. Most times, it's only five seconds before our minds begin running around again.
We say all kinds of stupid things after that. Some of it's valid, don't get me wrong: we can't give up on practical hope. Some of it really is stupid: we all know the person-- family, friend, acquainance-- who we fear wouldn't waste ten seconds before depositing religious nonsense from bankrupt worldviews.
But all of it's just words. Words that distract us from the embarrassment. Deep down, we aren't afraid of death: we're ashamed of it. It's not just inconvenient. It's beneath our dignity. It throws all of us in a pit at different points and to varying degrees.
Death is distaste, gathering in your tongue when you see the man with nubs for feet, sitting on a skateboard off Hennepin & Lyndale with flimsy cardboard asking for any help at all.
Death is the murderous shouts off West 15th in the heat of day, the anguish we feel when we know we're powerless to stop the powers at hand.
Death is the first time you realize you can't get home with Google maps. It's when you have all the maps and means but grip for the first time that you'll always lay your head somewhere east of Eden.
Death involves dying, but dying isn't death. That's because death is everywhere, restlessly at work in the living and the dead, the angry and the anguished, the terminally ill and the terminally selfish. Death is the pit we sometime stare into, and it's the pit we wish others would climb into with us.
My friend Tim recently told me that sympathy is like looking down at the pit and telling people it must really suck being in that pit. Empathy is climbing in the pit with them. He added that you don't have to share the identical experience to empathize. You just have to reach down, find a similar experience, and meet them with a compassion that'll often calmly tell both questions and answers to f**k off.
(OK, so that last part was my addition.)
The more I grow up, the more I'm convinced that empathy isn't just some nice thing that certain people do. Empathy is human preservative. It's free medicine for a society that likes theirs twice a day and in orange bottles. It keeps me from being a really lame center of the universe. It also keeps me from saying really dumb things to suffering people to ease my discomfort.
But more importantly, it keeps us truly human. That's because it involves us climbing into the pit with those different from us, and subsequently asking others to climb in the pits where only empathy can go.
So I don't know what it's like to be the slain reporter's fiancee, who watched from the TV station as she was shot point blank. But I can summon up the times in my life where I've been powerless to help someone I love waste away. I can see my mom diagnosed with lupus, and with it, a slew of other conditions. I can feel the ache of having only the power to witness something ugly. And for it, I sit in the pit with Chris Hurst, and I weep.
I don't know what it was like to be Vester Flanagan, who felt marginalized by racial slurs and unjust prejudices. And as a white Christian man, I can hardly drum up a similar experience. But I try to feel the loneliness I felt as an introvert at my college's orientation a few years ago, how it seemed like they didn't give introverts like me a passing glance when they drew up the script. How they expected me to enjoy things I never will if I was going to be on the inside of things.
And then I try to multiply it as much as I can. His actions are still frightening, but the feelings aren't. They are common experiences in my otherwise different life. Suddenly, I'm in the pit with a dead man. My fears, my questions, my solutions: they're all secondary.
Any good hope won't come to us with words, but with the presence of others. If at first I can find the courage to climb into the pit and stare you and your suffering in the eye, maybe we'll wake each other up to our deepest intution: that life was the first word spoken and death won't be the last.