Things We Cannot Unsee

I’ll admit it. I’m a news junkie when disaster strikes. I don’t watch a lot of TV at other times, and not when younger children are around. But when the coast is clear, I cannot turn it off. On the evening of 9/11, my then-15-year-old insisted on it. “Why are you watching this? They just show the same things over and over.”

There’s something compels me. I suspect I’m looking for a crumb of reason in the unreasonable, a word of sense in the insensible, a thread of comprehension in the incomprehensible.

I had been watching for just a few minutes when I said aloud, “Oh, whoever did this timed it for the ordinary runners to be coming by.” When FBI profiler Clint van Zandt said exactly the same thing on MSNBC an hour later, did I feel better? No. I felt sadder. But I kept listening.

I’m trying to understand. It’s a coping technique for a crisis. It makes the time go by until the shock passes. It might be better to turn off the TV and cry, I realize that. But that feels dangerous and helpless, and I want to be informed and useful. I’m actually not watching most of the time. I’m listening to the talking, not looking at the images.

Last night, I got in bed, alone because kathrynzj is on a mission trip being actually useful, and instead of closing my eyes, I kept reading the Twitter feed and the Facebook newsfeed, and the live blogs for the Boston Globe and the New York Times (Boston Marathon stories free from both, now! for a limited time!). Real journalists are pretty good about warning readers away from  graphic images, but self-described social media stars don’t have rules, and tweets only have 140 characters, and who knows why people do what they do, but I clicked on a link, and I cannot unsee what I saw when the next window opened.

I expected a story, because I was looking for a story. I think words will solve something.

I knew better than to click on anything that labeled itself twitpic or anything  similar.

But there it was, on a screen held close to my face, an image I cannot unsee.

a puzzlement
a puzzlement

Now, seeing it is nothing compared to living it. In parts of the world where these things happen more often, average folks are looking at the gruesome pictures and not holding back, because they’ve seen horror in the street, maybe in the front yard, and they are hardened to it. I don’t want to see these things. I actually can’t take them in very well. I’m a word person. I was looking for words, but I realize that all my efforts to gain some intellectual understanding of the events of yesterday, all the theories and the family stories and the eventual solution to the puzzle we will someday hear will do nothing to change them.

Tonight’s news featured a mother talking about how wonderful her daughter was, her daughter who is now dead.  I find this excruciating, the testimony of grieving mothers and fathers and uncles and aunts and brothers and sisters. Maybe it makes things real for them in a way that nothing else can? Maybe the attention of the world makes them feel they are not alone. I don’t know. I do know I cannot unsee them, unfeel them. They make me look at the giant jigsaw puzzle of currently indistinguishable pieces. They make me feel what happened instead of trying to listen to it gingerly.

I wonder what drives the people who do these things, what words are in their heads, what images are in their minds. What is it they cannot unfeel, what is it they cannot unsee that drives them to destruction?

This is the place where I should preach, isn’t it, where the essay turns to God, where I refer you to Revelation and the wiping away of every tear, or to John and the notion that sheep who actually hear Jesus’ voice would never do such things, but I’m not there yet. It’s trustworthy that I will be, at some point, in that Revelation place, or walking through the valley of shadow fearing no evil in Psalm 23, and yes, these are the texts this week.

But I always have to try and solve it myself first.

I don’t recommend this strategy.

Good Shepherd
Adé Béthune’s Good Shepherd

Better to turn to the other words, to murmur the version you remember from your grandmother’s funeral, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I shalt fear no evil, for thou art with me. Thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me.”

Actually, just typing them comforted me, so much that I’m not going to check and be sure I got the King James Version exactly right. There is some comfort in knowing them, in an illogical sense of connection to uncounted women and men and children who have done their crying out to the same incomprehensible God who we try to size down to a shepherd, knowing that somewhere, someone else felt comforted, too.

I want to think it helps more than telling a story on TV. But maybe television testimonials are the Psalms of Lament for the 21st century, the rite of mourning that makes us part of the community.

The one I loved was kind and lovely and thoughtful and fun. 

Why, Lord, why?

The end of her life came too soon.

Why, Lord, why?

He never did a thing to hurt anyone.

Why, Lord, why?

I cannot understand what’s happened here.

Lord, where are You? 

Why is Your world so terrible and so beautiful, 

all at the same time? 

Where are You?

Have we done too many things You cannot unsee?

8 thoughts on “Things We Cannot Unsee

  1. on a Sunday very soon after 9/11, my cantors objected to chanting the prescribed text from Lamentations because it referred to towers being knocked down in the dust, and it was “just too painful” — there is an impulse to keep that intractable Book confined to bookshelf…lest it turn out to be RELEVANT… they could not see “lamentation” as a human function, as a thing that one might need to know how to do…when there was actually something to lament.

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  2. We were living on the Navajo Reservation when 9/11 happened and we had no TV and limited internet. I heard the story on the radio. The images that cannot be unseen came to me a few days later.
    I’m thankful for my relative distance from media at that time in coping with that tragedy.It has helped in all of the other ones that have come down the road since. Even though I now am on the internet all the time (all!), I don’t feel compelled to be sucked in to the media maelstrom as you describe.
    Prayers, friend. Thanks for this reflection. And for turning us to a voice that will satisfy.

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  3. Words are much more powerful. I’ve chosen not to watch at all. Hate when outlets play and replay the blast and turn away. When we get stuck focusing on the horror of it all and fear slithers in, they win.

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  4. I was just talking about this with my students. I think what’s especially stressful now is that we hear horrifying stories while they unfold, so we’re not even sure just how bad things are going to get. (Will there be more bombs? How many dead? How many injured?) I think it was easier for people to deal with things better back in the day when we didn’t get the news until after the fact.

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  5. Lisa

    Once again you’ve so eloquently put into words thoughts and reactions that are so similar to ones I’ve experienced. I feel such despair for our world and at the same time, hope that those who are so lost that they have to resort to such hatred and violence would find the Prince of Peace to cure their darkness.

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