The tragic event of early January in Tucson, Arizona, was one of those occurrences that have been happening all to often. As a society, we’ve gained quite a bit of experience in reacting to crises, and we’ve developed a set of predictable responses. Of course, our thoughts and prayers go out to the innocent victims in a sincere manner. At the same time, other agendas get activated. Whenever a gun is involved, there is a predictable outcry for more rational gun laws – with a predictable response from the gun advocates that, “guns don’t kill people, people do.” Whenever a tragedy is precipitated by the actions of an emotionally disturbed individual, there is a predictable outcry about how the mental health system needs reforming so that it fails fewer people and reduces the number of potential tragedies. Unfortunately, as a society, we have a short attention span, and we generally return to a predictable business as usual mode. If change occurs, it is generally through the efforts of a few heroic individuals who honor the victims by refusing to forget the societal issues that created the conditions under which tragedies have occurred, and they make a point of making certain that lawmakers don’t forget either.
There is another predictable response that I’d like to focus upon today. When tragedies occur and innocent people are victimized, we get nicer. Over the years we’ve seen outpourings of support for victims of 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, and the earthquake in Haiti, as well as victims of a long list of deranged individuals who have killed or injured or otherwise changed the lives of individuals who posed no threat of harm to them. Support for victims has come in various ways – supportive messages, financial contributions, and various ways of letting others know that “we are there for you.” As President Obama provided support and inspiration to the families of victims in Arizona, most Americans across the political spectrum got behind him in much the same way as most Americans got behind President Bush in the days following the Trade Towers tragedy in 2001. New Yorkers reported a moderation of the city’s aggressive culture following 9/11, and all Americans shared a kinship with New York at that time. On a micro level, you can notice the marshaling of support that occurs when an acquaintance becomes ill or experiences a loss or becomes down in his/her luck in some way.
While kindness and civility following the time of a tragedy or crisis is admirable, why does it have to wait for a crisis? Think about those everyday moments when you could perform those acts of kindness and civility even if you don’t have to do so. I’m talking about remembering to express appreciation to those who provide services to us, or spending time talking with a family member who needs our ear even though a favorite TV show is on air, or hanging out with a friend who is having a tough time, or helping out an overloaded co-worker when you’ve got some time to spare, or not creating a mess that someone else has to clean up in a public place. I’m also talking about not calling someone a moron or a socialist or a fascist if that person has an opinion or belief that differs from ours.
In her wonderful book, The How of Happiness, Sonja Lyubomirsky describes how performing kind acts not only contributes to building a self-perception as a confident, compassionate, and optimistic person, but it also jump-starts a cascade of positive social consequences as others perceive you as likeable. It becomes a no-brainer to recognize that likeable people are more likely to make quality friendships and their kind acts are likely to be reciprocated in times of personal need. The bottom line is that kindness and civility are elements of mental health that are both personally rewarding and appreciated by others. While victims of tragedies undoubtedly appreciate the kindness of others during their times of need, it doesn’t require a tragedy to get into the habit of looking for opportunities to perform kind acts on a daily basis. It’s another of the things that can be done to build a personally healthy psychological infrastructure, and it makes us feel good.
What do you think? As usual, I’d really enjoy hearing your thoughts and experiences. All opinions are welcome.