How a Man Responds to Tragedy

If a man is in the midst of a life changing event, what are some things that might help him make it through?

Vintage man Reading Newspaper on Bench in woods.

People tend to respond with an outpouring of passion and sorrow whenever a catastrophe occurs elsewhere in the globe. This is a good thing, yet the sympathetic impulse often rises and falls inside the limits of a person’s chest, with no exterior consequence. Too often, we consume news in the same way we read books or movies: as detached observers who revel in the drama — and the feelings it provokes — for its own reason. (While most people do not consider terror and pity to be enjoyable, all extreme emotions provide some satisfaction when experienced in a secure environment.) It’s normal that we feel helpless to do anything other than express our support on social media. However, we think too narrowly in this regard. While we may not be able to directly aid victims of catastrophes by channeling our sympathies into acts, we should not allow this noble drive — an assertion of our greatest humanity — go untapped.

This is the meaning of two statements I came across today, one from psychologist William James and the other from theologian William Barclay. They claim that pity must always be translated into action, and that even if you can’t directly aid people who are suffering and injured far away, you can still deliver the milk of human kindness to others in your immediate vicinity. If you can’t accomplish it in tiny things, you’ll never be able to do it in major things. Because acting on one’s sympathy in tiny ways saves and improves one’s capacity for compassion for a later time — a time when it may be required to power a really heroic endeavor on favor of good and against evil.

“There is nothing more harmful than having a wonderful emotion repeatedly without attempting to put it into action.” It’s a proven reality that every time we have a generous inclination but don’t act on it, we’re less likely to act again. In some ways, it’s accurate to argue that we don’t have the right to feel pity until we try to put it into action. An feeling is not something to be luxuriated in; it is something that must be transformed into the material of life by work, toil, discipline, and sacrifice.” –The Letters of James and Peter, William Barclay

“The nerveless sentimentalist and dreamer, who spends his life in a weltering sea of sensitivity and feeling but never accomplishes a masculine concrete action, is the most despicable kind of human character.” Rousseau is the quintessential example of what I mean, inflaming all of France’s women with his eloquence to follow Nature and milk their kids herself, while he sends his own children to the foundling hospital. But everyone of us, in our own measure, steps directly on Rousseau’s road anytime, after shining for an abstractly stated Good, he almost overlooks some real situation, amid the wretched ‘other particulars’ of which that same Good hides camouflaged. In our workaday world, all goods are hidden by the ugliness of their concomitants; but woe to the man who can only identify them when he thinks of them in their pure and abstract form! Excessive book reading and theater attendance will breed genuine monsters in this category. The crying of a Russian woman over the play’s imaginary characters, while her coachman freezes to death on his seat outside, is something that occurs on a smaller scale worldwide.


Even the tendency of overindulging in music, even individuals who are neither performers nor musically competent enough to enjoy it just intellectually, has a likely soothing influence on the personality. One gets flooded with feelings that pass without inciting any action, and therefore the inertly sentimental state is maintained. The cure would be to never allow oneself to experience an emotion during a performance without actively expressing it afterwards. Let the expression be the most little thing in the world—speaking genially to one’s aunt, or giving up one’s seat in a horse-car if nothing more heroic offers—but it must occur.” — William James, “Habit” in The Principles of Psychology