On Aurora, Sabbath, and Technology

The terrible events in Aurora, Colorado have felt a little remote. The news broke while I was in the bubble of the PW Gathering, and it didn't seem real. It still doesn't.

I'm not sure what I might contribute to the discussion about the murders. (I agree with Adam Gopnik: calling it a "tragedy" dignifies the act.) Here are two links that spoke to me: An Open Letter to All Who Suffer, and The Grief We Carry in Our Bodies. (The photo is from Dark Elegy, which is featured in the latter post.)

But I have been thinking about how we receive and process news about tragedies like this. I keep remembering a passage from my book. The shooting at Gabby Giffords' town hall event in Tucson happened on a sabbath day during our year-long sabbath experiment; I remember it vividly. Here's what I wrote then. Here's what I have to say today:

It’s early evening on a Sabbath when I learn about Tucson. A congresswoman and several people have been shot, some fatally. I get the news through Facebook, which I’ve logged into at an idle moment. Through the tributes, links, laments, and predictable anti- and progun sentiments that get voiced during events like this, I piece together what has happened. As I click from article to article, I feel strange that while I was in my own little world, terrible events were transpiring.

I think back to the 9/11 attacks, which happened while I was in seminary in Atlanta. We were told about the planes hitting the Twin Towers in the middle of Hebrew class. Afterward, someone had wheeled a television into the hallway, and many of us saw the towers fall. These days, during the course of my life, I’m rarely very far from e-mail, the radio, or an Internet newsfeed. So to have a tragedy like Tucson unfold over several hours while I was blithely knitting a Harry Potter scarf for Caroline is bizarre.

It’s bizarre but also liberating. I’m heartbroken for the victims and their families, but after a while, I decide to turn off the computer. All year, Sabbath has been reminding me that I am not indispensable. I can do nothing to change what has happened. I cannot alter the trajectory of this story as it moves forward either, and sitting at my computer, combing news sites for additional bits of information about the shooter, does nobody any good.

The world has gotten a lot smaller, thanks in part to the 24-7 news cycle. I am grateful for many aspects of our hyperconnected world. But I’m feeling a little frayed around the edges from all this togetherness. Within hours, we know all kinds of details about the gunman, Jared Lee Loughner, and the theories spread like wildfire as to his motives and alleged political leanings. Many of these theories will turn out to be false, but by then it will be too late. These snatches of information, fed to a hungry public, will only confirm what people are already inclined to believe. We hear what we want to hear. We become more entrenched, stony, and immobile in our views. We become more polarized.

Time will tell us what we need to know. I believe this. Sabbath is so much deeper than a weekly rest and renewal. Sabbath fosters perspective and clarity. Through Sabbath, perhaps, we can learn the difference between urgent and important. We can learn that reading or commenting on news articles is not the same thing as working for the healing of the world—it only gives us the illusion of doing something useful.

As I watch my laptop screen flash into darkness, I feel a sense of relief. Yes, the world falls apart, even on the Sabbath. Tomorrow I will do my small part to put it back together again, whatever that might be. But today, taking this time to cherish family, self, and God is the most faithful way I can think of to begin.


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