In the wake of the Tennessee wildfires, people are hurting.
We lost thousands of acres of our National Forest. Families lost their homes and businesses. Fourteen people lost their lives. It was tragic, and terrible, and unthinkable, and the worst wild fire ever in Smoky Mountain history.
Today, it was announced that two juveniles were taken into custody and charged with arson. Officials are releasing very little information, as the fire is still under investigation. They will only say at this point that the suspects are under age, they were identified by tips that were called in, and they are Tennessee residents.
I was watching the video of this announcement today, made by the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation on social media. Before the announcement was complete, people were posting comments.
The comments quickly fell into two categories. Some were positive and compassionate—sending well wishes, prayers, and love to everyone involved. The others were judgmental, and some were downright hateful.
Maybe it’s the mama bear in me, but these comments were shocking.
People are wishing death upon two underage kids without any evidence, and very little information. We don’t know how old the kids are. We haven’t heard where the parents were. We don’t know how the fire was started, if it was intentional or accidental, or even if these two kids were the ones who started it at all. We only know that they are being charged and the whole thing is under investigation.
As I am watching these hateful comments roll in today, all I could think about was my own 16-year-old son and how eternally destroyed he would be inside if he knew he burned down a National Forest and killed 14 people.
My heart breaks—not just for the victims of the fire, our beautiful National Forest, and all the animals who lost their homes and lives—but also for these teens who are now being charged with arson. Maybe I’m naïve, but my heart won’t let me believe that they intended for this unfathomable tragedy to happen. Even if they set a fire on purpose, I cannot for a moment believe that they meant to harm anyone.
As I studied the comments, I started to see a pattern. Almost every comment was judgmental: “Where were the parents? I hope they try them as adults. They deserve life in prison. I hope they get the death penalty…” and “Throw them in jail, I hope they get what they deserve, they deserve to die…” Occasionally, a comment would pop up that was curious: “Was this intentional? How old are they?” Occasionally, someone would send some love, or just say how sad they were.
Watching the comments was almost as sad as watching the coverage of the destruction that happened just a couple hours down the road from me. It made me pause and question why so many people resort immediately to judgement, instead of curiosity or compassion like a few others did.
Empathy and compassion seem not to be part of everyone’s default setting.
When I hear that two kids have been charged with a horrible tragedy, I think of my own children. They’re sensitive little souls. It would kill them to know they hurt another human being, or a forest full of animals. I think about how scared they would have been that night, watching the flames grow beyond what they could control. I think about how much guilt, sadness, and regret they would carry on their young shoulders. I think about how difficult it would be as a mother to watch my child process all of that, and how I would feel that I had failed them somehow. It’s heartbreaking.
To suspend our judgement and instead find compassion, empathy or even curiosity is a wonderful place to start. Instead of blaming, accusing, jumping to conclusions, and punishing without proof, we could start with some questions: “How did the fire start,” “How old are these kids,” and “What were they doing in the woods that night?” to name a few. Just a short pause to consider whether we had enough information to make a fair accusation against someone would help.
As a parent of teens, it’s easy for me to empathize with these kids and families. But, even someone who doesn’t have a teenage child could put themselves in the shoes of their own younger self. How terrible would they feel? How guilty? How afraid? Surely, we all have a memory of some bone-head thing we did when we were young, for which we didn’t see the consequences until it was too late.
If we can approach the situation with curiosity, and find that place of empathy, compassion is the next step. What happened to the families who lost their homes and loved ones in this wildfire was horrible. No one should have to experience anything so terrible in this life. But, would locking these kids away for the rest of their lives really solve anything? Would sentencing them to death bring any real comfort to the victims? Or would it just create more collective suffering?
Can we recognize how these kids and their families must be suffering already?
Can we find a way to pause, breathe, and ask a question before casting a judgement?
Can we as humans reach a level of compassion in which we would consider collective suffering above our own personal anger and outrage? It is my sincere hope that someday we will. I hope that we can let go of all of the ways we see “us” against “them” in the world, and begin to realize that we are all in this together.
If we sentence these kids to death, or lock them away forever, the world may never know what this horrible tragedy has taught them. They may never reach their potential in this lifetime, and that only adds to the existing tragedy of the fire and everything it destroyed.
I’m not saying that our actions shouldn’t have consequences. I’m saying that we are too quick to judge others—and we are much too harsh in our judgement. If we can find that place of curiosity, just agreeing not to jump to any conclusions until we have all the information, it will bring us just a little bit closer to real empathy and compassion. In empathy and compassion is love, and love is the only cure for the pain in the world. Love is the only thing that can fix what is broken.
Author: Renee Dubeau
Image: via Jimmy Charles Music/Instagram
Editor: Catherine Monkman