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Knowing Terrible Things

sandyhookOf the uncertainties circulating on Friday one crucial question recurred: should I tell my children? There are many important and valid reasons why one might not. But here is one reason why the answer might be yes.

This website has mostly been about learning how to know wonderful things. Knowledge and emotion should be partners, we have said. We believe that knowing more, thinking more, enriches the experience of love—love of people, of stories. But that same motivating logic presses us the other direction as well.

It has seemed to me, since becoming a parent, that the problem of evil boils down to a crucial task: as humans, we have to learn how to know terrible things.  By this, I mean that the world is full of mind-shatteringly awful realities, truths that seem to violate our whole system of knowing and being, and yet somehow do not bring the system to its end.  How is it possible, when children have been murdered, to go walk the dog? And yet, the dog must be walked. Being human is about regularly encountering the disparities between how we act, how we feel, and what we’re forced to know—to balance the need to get up and send our kids to school with the knowledge that, after doing so, they might be gunned down at close range, for no reason.

These incongruities are devastating. And often, warped systems of emotional knowledge mean that, in the wake of a terrible thing, we get a lot more people acting terribly—acting out with hate and fear, retreating.

What we are seeing right now, in the wake of the tragedy, is a series of people who have very poor ideas of how to know terrible things.  Here I am thinking particularly about the pro-gun lobbyists who claim that, “Gun control supporters have the blood of little children on their hands.” But there are other less egregious examples, on the left as well as the right. When awfulness happens and the response is to shift to fear and blame—blame the lack of guns, blame the moms—rather than to rational (even necessary) positive action, or to simply grief, we are seeing a failure of emotional knowledge.

I think all of us, particularly those of us who go throughout life without a particular religion as a compass, need to directly encounter the question: what do you do with the terrible things you know? We might criticize the way some religions answer this question, but without an articulated idea ourselves, we are unlikely to do better. We are quite likely to do worse. We need to have a habitus, a philosophy.  And we need to teach it to the children in our lives.

The desire to protect the innocence of our children is admirable.  But innocence is not the same thing as ignorance. Perhaps, instead, we might imagine that by showing children how to know terrible things—showing them that it is hard, but possible, to know terrible things and still act with goodness in the world—we offer them something that will preserve their moral clarity, which is like innocence, for the longer haul.  What we might offer is a life full, inevitably, of terrible things, but freer from the corrupting dangers of anger, and hate, and blame.

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