Remembering Sandy Hook

Witnessing suffering through perspective taking, empathy, and emotional agility

Posted Dec 14, 2013

A year ago, the entire world faced the shock of Sandy Hook. It was hard to wrap our heads around the words that came at us. Children. Mass shooting. First graders.

Then the images began to arrive. Parents weeping. Police cars gathering.

And then those faces. Those faces. The sweet faces of 6 year olds. Jack Pinto. Grace McDonnel. Noah Ponzer. And soon enough the strange, wild-eyed likeness of Adam Lanza.

We were all presented with an invitation by those images – not just to a national tragedy, but to a national trauma. From an Acceptance and Commitment Therapy model the formula for trauma is this: trama = pain + unwillingness to have pain. Sandy Hook was an invitation to take the path of numbness and objectification.

A few days later I caught myself doing just that. I caught myself changing the channel when the children’s faces were being shown, and their names were being read. The first time it happened it slipped by me. The second time I caught myself and realized what I was doing: It was obvious. I was avoiding their suffering. I did not want to see it. Who would? What person -- what parent -- would? But the suffering of children is not something to brush away so easily. I paused, reached for the clicker and I clicked the channel back. I looked at the faces. I listened to the names. And I wept.

In the year that followed many things have happened. Parents and supporters have lobbied. The chattering class has passed out opinions. Some things have been done – perhaps not many.

But whatever has been done or not done, the fact remains that Sandy Hook calls upon us all to remember those who died, and to witness their suffering.

Research in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy and related areas tells us that social caring requires three distinct but related processes. We have to do enough perspective-taking so that we understand what it might be like to be behind the eyes of another as an aware human being. We have to then have enough empathy to feel a bit of what that person might be feeling in the situation. And finally we have to have enough psychological flexibility that we can stay in touch with the experiences of others even when it is hard.

That is the trifecta of flexible connectedness: perspective-taking, empathy, and psychological flexibility. We need all three to create the social and emotional agility that allows us to live inside the modern media culture, with its constant diet of pain and suffering, without numbing ourselves or objectifying others. We need all three to continue to care amid the cacophony.

On this one-year anniversary of Sandy Hook, it is worth taking the time to crawl behind the eyes of those children once again and consider anew what the last moments of their lives must have been like. It is worth feeling their horror, without running away. Sharing in their pain is not an end in itself – rather it is an honest place from which we can do whatever else we may do to prevent such tragedies in the future. It is a place that says their suffering matters.

I’ve created a YouTube video that explores that space and as a painful but meaningful act of compassion I invite readers to connect themselves with the suffering of those who died on that day one year ago.