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A Reactionary Rant Against Knee-Jerk Rants

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I was thinking upon this word this morning so I opened The American Heritage Dictionary that sits in my office and found:

adj. 1. Automatic 2. Marked by or reacting with unthinking predictability.

Not quite what I was searching for so maybe I need to check one more source. I decided to try the Internet and landed on The FreeDictionary:

1. an immediate unthinking emotional reaction produced by an event or statement to which the reacting person is highly sensitive; - in persons with strong feelings on a topic, it may be very predictable.

Bingo. Contemporary definitions often leave nothing to interpretation and this case is no exception. This was the definition I was looking for all along.

A few incidents in the National media as well as locally have made me wonder lately: Are we becoming such a reactionary people that we're losing touch with basic concern and kindness? No, I'm not specifically zeroing in on any one person, incident, or comment. If your defenses just rose and you're now thinking, "But I didn't mean...", "We weren't intending...", or "You don't understand", that's all fine and good, but please slow down and realize this is a generalized topic and again, not an attack on anything or anyone. My point is simply, what was your first reaction to a recent newsworthy tragedy? Your very first? Compassion? Kindness? Sorrow? Or was it one of cynicism, aggravation, or perhaps it was sadness yet tinged with irritation at some detail in the story? All I know is that all too often, we're knee-jerking our way into a very different world than the one I grew up in.

Our reactions to newsworthy events make a difference because we often feel removed from them, personally and by location. We begin to feel we can react any way we please or say anything we want because the event has nothing to do with us, but this is my point exactly. With seven-billion people on this planet, shouldn't we be caring more instead of less about each other?

Maybe I should illustrate my point with a non-newsworthy event.

I once lived in a rental home near Port Townsend on four acres. Only one acre sat behind us, which means we had three lovely acres of land directly in front of the house between us and a beautiful view of the bay. In between us and our view was a two-lane stretch of road where cars often whipped by at a pretty quick pace, despite a 40 mph zone.

One day as I was looking out the picture window, I noticed a car pull over rather quickly and I realized something was amiss right in front of the house. I threw on a pair of shoes and rushed to the road to see if I could be of some assistance. What I found was an elderly woman standing by the front of her car, sobbing. A young black lab - he couldn't have been a year old - was laying on the pavement.

Several young men, including the dog's owner, were running from their home across the street and a middle-aged woman who had been walking her dog on the other side of the road was also making a determined approach to the scene. The woman with the dog was talking even before she arrived; evidently she'd seen the entire thing and she felt it important to tell everyone exactly how it had happened. No one else felt it mattered, it was an accident, but she wandered from person to person, rattling off details as if she were being interviewed by Scotland Yard.

The young men told us the dog's name was "Johnny Rotten" and the young man who knelt by his side couldn't have been much more than a teenager. The elderly woman controlled her sobs, but her hands were still shaking as she apologized to the young man. "He just came out of nowhere, I'm so, so sorry..." The young man began to cry, but as men of all ages often do, he stopped himself and took a deep breath before reaching down and stroking the dog's fur. His sadness was breaking the hearts of everyone who stood near. Well, almost everyone.

The woman who had been walking her dog now felt it necessary to stop giving details of the incident in order to pursue her new intention, which was to lecture the young man on why he should never have let his dog run free without a leash. She then told the young man that people who are irresponsible with dogs do not deserve to have them and, "this is what happens..."

Appalled, we tried to tell the woman this was not the time nor the place to berate the young man, but of course, by that time, it was too late. The woman's rant had hit its mark and the damage was done. The young man picked Johnny Rotten up from the pavement and carried him across the street to mourn in peace. I escorted the elderly woman to my home until she could stop shaking and drive again - she'd just lost her own pet the day before... The brainless woman, as I've come to remember her, no longer with an audience, wandered back to the other side of the road and left the way she came.

Knee-jerk. Reactionary. Unthinking.

When I thought more about the incident, I was enraged and felt terribly sorry for the young man. What did that woman know about what happened? She saw a moment in time, then made hurtful assumptions. She then made those assumptions known at a time and place that were not only inappropriate, but they were insensitive and cruel. She didn't know all of the facts and even if the young man had been in the wrong, wasn't a harsh lesson already underway?

Every tragedy has multiple sides and yes, there very well may be a time to question the events surrounding most deaths or disasters, but in today's world we tend to rush to judgment and forget that perhaps our first reaction should be about having compassion for our fellow human beings. I keep wondering, just who are we becoming?

So, how about just one more definition?

Empathy: Identification with and understanding of another's situation, feelings, and motives.

We've all rushed to judgment, I'm no more immune than anyone else reading this, but I do try to be mindful of others and yes, I consciously practice empathy. Next time disaster strikes (and you know there will be a next time) try actually identifying with someone else and understanding what they or their family must be feeling. My guess is, if the shoe were on the other foot, you might want them to do the same for you.

P.S. If you clicked on this entry expecting an article on knee-jerk reactions in politics, sorry... but seriously, don't even get me started on that one.