Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Civility, tragedy, and silence

Two days before the shooting of Representative Gabrielle Giffords, one of our MBA students, Julie Ann Jorgenson, was killed in an auto accident.

Representative Giffords' shooting has elicited endless comment and discussion, most of it asking whether immoderate rhetoric leads to immoderate action.  The debate itself has become an emblem of the question, with all sides claiming the right to be aggrieved and highlighting the flaws in their opponents positions. The President is compelled to speak.  All sides agree that the question is something we ought to talk about.

Julie's death was a tragedy--unexpected and unfair.  Her funeral was two days ago.  There were tributes to Julie, but little talk about the questions raised by her death--is life fair? who is to blame? what can be done to ensure it never happens again?  Instead, the funeral was a tribute to her faith, and a time to express sadness and loss in song, and in prayer, and in silence.

In the Book of Job, within a few verses Job, a "perfect man", had every earthly thing taken from him--his wealth, and his children, and his health.  His wife urged him to curse God and die. Then he scraped his boils with a potsherd and sat in the ashes.

Three friends heard of his suffering and traveled to be with him.  "And when they lifted up their eyes afar off, and knew him not, they lifted up their voice, and wept; and they rent every one his mantle, and sprinkled dust upon their heads toward heaven. So they sat down with him upon the ground seven days and seven nights, and none spake a word unto him: for they saw that his grief was very great."

Once the seven days passed Job's friends interrogated him and Job responded with courage before them and before God.  But  those friends sat with Job in the ashes for a week, saying nothing in the presence of his grief.

Silence is an under-rated civic virtue.  It is one that pays tribute to tragedy, that acknowledges the inexplicable, that reminds that words are insufficient for most of the most important things in life--love, joy, pain, awe, suffering, sadness, transcendence, and death.

I know that there is some sort of civic duty that compels journalists and politicians and pundits and public servants to speak about public tragedies, to offer an opinion on everything under the sun.  But there is an equal human duty to fall silent before the suffering of others and rather than explaining, sit in the ashes and bear witness to grief.

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