A few days ago, we think that a young man within a small group of his teenage friends tossed a firework into one of the most beloved sections of wilderness in the world, Oregon’s Columbia River Gorge. And it burned. And it is still burning. As are the hearts and minds of many people.
“I hope these monsters are locked away for life!”
“They should jail the parents for raising such selfish and careless kids!”
“To all those affected, I hope you see justice. I am so sorry for your loss.”
On and on. I read as much fire and destruction in the reactions to this tragedy as I see in the glowing red mountains. I see ugliness and contempt and anger as acrid and choking as the ash that coats my car and fills my lungs. And I see in all of this a tremendous sign of the times: disheartening thoughtlessness. The time for our entire society to unplug, step back, breathe deeply and embrace thinking that goes beyond the simplistic has been far exceeded.
If we want to save ourselves and this world in which we exist, we absolutely must stop thinking in absolutes. Let that sit with you for a moment.
There is no simple way to reduce this massive tragedy of lost forest to something as intellectually insulting as a “reckless teenager” or to a few “bad parents” or to extend your heart by empathizing with “all those affected.”
Who is not affected?
And not just by the fire raging near our favorite waterfalls. We are all affected by contributing to a society that has falsely created “us” and “them.” We are all affected when we believe the answer to a young man’s impulsive lack of judgment should merit destructive hatred leveled at both him and his family. They live here. We live here. The forest lives here. We are all connected.
Somewhere in this community are hundreds of displaced families and business owners whose lives have been devastated. Somewhere in this community are firefighters and forestry workers exhausted and overwhelmed by an unprecedented season of risk and destruction. Somewhere in this community are a small handful of parents who went to work one morning with a normal life and came home to learn their children were involved in a crime so large their lives will never be the same. Somewhere in this community, a mother and father have been crying for days because there could soon come a time where they might not be able to hug their child for decades, losing an entire future that “could have been.” Somewhere in this community, a 15-year-old boy and his childhood friends are learning the meaning of human suffering. We do not know the nature or scope of their suffering, only that it exists, and is common to us all.
And yes, there is merit and necessity for compassion in this situation because OUR hearts need it; because our society needs it. If we do not rehabilitate our insatiable appetites for simplistic thinking and the “othering” of those around us, we will have learned nothing from this tragedy. And the forests will continue to burn. And the schools will continue to be sites for mass murders. And our prisons will continue to be filled with those addicted to drugs because “we” see “them” as someone else and not ourselves.
We need to stop thinking the only response possible to a given situation is a happy face or a sad face emoji and start thinking about the fact that compassion for a criminal and sadness and horror at a crime can all exist in the same space without diminishing any of their individual truths. We need to stop thinking people are good or people are bad and start thinking about the truth that at any given moment, ANY of us could make a mistake that causes harm. If we hope we’d be extended a measure of grace, then perhaps we had better extend grace forward until it’s our turn.
Eagle Creek forest will be green again. It will take time. It will be different. It will be healed. It will be love and peace and joy.
Will we do the same? Or are we simply going to reduce the joyfully agonizing spectrum of life itself into one of Facebook’s six standard response icons? Stop being intellectually and spiritually lazy. Interrupt your addiction to easy answers. It’s burning our entire world to the ground. And the ash is choking us all.
Aaron Tabacco is the undergraduate program director at the Linfield Good Samaritan School of Nursing in Portland. He is a researcher and clinician specializing in the care of families with children with neurodevelopmental and behavioral disorders.