To Sit With This Breaking Heart

We are all completely exhausted by national tragedies. Especially those of us in various marginalized groups, it feels like trauma upon trauma, loss upon loss, weighted differently depending on which communities we belong to. And after the videos go live, we usually ask ourselves: what should I do? We wonder what we should say, what we should post, who we should text, or where we should donate.

We’ve all likely realized there’s no one right answer to what we should do. And there’s really no response that will alleviate the suffering of the people who were targeted. If we post something, we might seem performative. If we don’t say anything, our silence could be heard as indifference. If we pass the mic, it might seem like we’re asking exhausted people to do emotional labor for us. If we speak up, we might seem like we’re centering ourselves. So let’s step back for a moment, stop thinking about what we should say or do, and imagine an appropriate human response to the devastating news about another act of racist, or misogynist, or anti-LGBTQ violence.

After a white gunman murdered eight people in Atlanta last week—six of whom were Asian women—R.O. Kwon wrote a deeply moving essay about the upsurge in anti-Asian attacks. In A Letter to My Fellow Asian Women Whose Hearts Are Still Breaking, she said:  

Lately, every time I’ve heard about, read about, or encountered a fresh incident of hatred, the quiet refrain belling in my head like a chant, or a dirge, is: our hearts are breaking. I’ve found this frustrating, for who does it help, what action is involved in having a breaking heart? I’m listening more, though, today, to this refrain. Minutes after I first read about the attacks, I started thinking about what I should do, how I could be useful. Maybe I need to take another minute, maybe several minutes, to sit with this breaking heart.

What if, instead of rushing to questions of what we should say or do, we paused. What if we took in the news, set down our phones, closed our eyes, and imagined how the victims and their loved ones might have experienced the incident. What if we let ourselves undergo the most natural response to violence, and let our hearts break.

On the day of the Pulse shooting, Amanda and I struggled to get through even the most mundane routines. We laid in bed all day, checked social media, stared out the window, fumbled through words here and there. I remember feeling incredibly disconnected from the straight people I knew. Even if they sent a text to check on me or shared a post in solidarity, within a few hours they were texting photos of silly adventures with their kids or posting dispatches from date night. Meanwhile, I was cycling between terror, rage, grief, and total detachment as the incident brought up all the other times in my life when I faced violence simply because of who I am. I didn’t know what exactly I needed from my straight friends (there was really nothing they could say or do to make it better), but I knew we queer folks were mourning alone.

Some responses are, of course, more helpful than others. But I don’t think we can have an appropriate response if we don’t first allow our hearts to break. You may be thinking, “Of course I grieve when I hear the news of another Black person murdered by police or an Asian elder who was brutally attacked.” We can only handle so much traumatic news, though, and we unconsciously develop techniques for coping that help us to get out of bed in the morning and go about our lives. Those automatic responses can look like taking immediate action to neutralize the pain or anxiety, cutting ourselves off from the feelings, or some combination of the two. It’s understandable. We all do it. But I wonder what it would look like if, before we move to one of those coping strategies, we chose to sit with our breaking heart.

The real work of making the world a safer place for one another happens in the everyday: where we choose to live, where we go to church, where we send our kids to school, how we relate to our neighbors, where we do business, how we vote, whose voices we prioritize, whose work we support, who we celebrate and lift up as role models. The right response to a tragedy comes out of the overflow of an overall orientation to our neighbors that’s characterized by deep care and concern for their wellbeing. So when we hear about another horrific act of violence, a loving orientation requires us to put a pause on our body’s automatic response to numb the pain and to choose to do what those targeted by the violence have no choice but to do: to sit with our breaking hearts.