Empathy, practicality dictate problem-solving


Junior George Frey holds a sign with the names of the Parkland, Fla. shooting victims. On Feb. 14, 14 teenagers and 3 adults were killed by a man armed with an AR-15. Photo by Maya Bell.

Ann Fitzmaurice

When the news of the Parkland shooting broke, a swarm of support came rushing through social media. Some took to Twitter, expressing how such a tragedy should not have happened once again in the United States. Others brought their sympathy to Instagram, sending their thoughts to the victims and their families.
In 2018 alone, CNN reported 12 school shootings. Since the Columbine massacre in 1999, 141 people have died in school shootings according to a study by ABC News. For junior Madison Hopper, the news of yet another mass shooting 1,000 miles away left her heartbroken.
“To be in the shoes of the survivors of the shooting would emotionally destroy me,” Hopper said. “After such a traumatic experience, I don’t know how I would react, which is why I am so inspired by the Marjory Stoneman Douglas students that have channeled their pain and fear into action.”
Shortly after the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Feb. 14 survivors began pushing for change. Students started the #NeverAgain movement, tweeting out the grievances and sponsoring a march to incentivise leaders and legislators to take action against gun violence. The movement sprang from the 17 lives taken in Parkland, as well as the lack of action taken after constant mass shootings. The reason #NeverAgain gained ground, however, comes down to a basic human emotion: empathy.
“Empathy is putting yourself in another’s shoes while not necessarily understanding the whole situation,” Hopper said. “Empathizing with the Florida students helps me understand their actions and see the meaning behind them.”

Empathizing with the Florida students helps me understand their actions and see the meaning behind them.”

While many victims and supporters are taking a stance in order to make a change, many people are still just sending thoughts and prayers to the victims and their families.These actions triggered controversy over their effectiveness, however. On Twitter especially, politicians are voicing their opinions on the tactic. Gov. Jay Inslee of Washington tweeted, “There’s nothing we can do to bring back those lost from gun violence. But as we’ve seen in Parkland, Las Vegas, Orlando, Sandy Hook and too many other locations whose names have become synonymous with tragedy, we cannot sit by and merely offer thoughts and prayers.” On the opposite end of the spectrum, Florida state senator Kelli Starge believes sending positive thoughts are the only thing that will “stop the evil.” Despite the opposing viewpoints, the call for emotional support often come from empathetic hearts. With school shootings appearing to have become a common occurrence in the United States, sophomore Will Cover learned to rely on practicality instead of emotions in order to try and solve the problem.
“It’s horrible that anything like [the Parkland shooting] could happen, and I’m sad that anyone would have to go through something like this, but more needs to be done than just sending thoughts and prayers,” Cover said. “Instead of just feeling bad for the victims, something needs to be done practically so nobody has to be put through such an awful experience.”
In order to try and secure safety Cover planned out several different ideals in regards to gun control including a ban on all assault rifles. Furthermore, Cover disregarded prolonged emotional reactions.In regards to practicality, Columbia College psychology professor Dr. Blake Nielsen said empathy is completely subjective based on the person and situation in which it is triggered. The brain facilitates empathy through mirror neurons, or cells that recognize facial expressions and what someone else is going through. As for how mirror neurons affect different people in terms of how empathetic they are, there are many possibilities. One could be the sheer amount of cells in the person’s brain, and another could be the nature of a person and their innate reactions to stimuli.
“[Empathy] could also be from nature. Have you been taught at an early age or even at a later age to be empathetic? Have you been taught, or at least [sat] down and [helped to] understand what it means to feel another emotion?” Nielsen said. “I don’t think it’s just one thing or another [that triggers empathy.] I don’t think it’s just nature or nurture. I absolutely believe that it’s probably a combination of both.”

Seniors Amanda Andrews and Ashleigh McKinley hold a sign with the name of a victim of the Marjory Stonemason Douglas High School shooting, Alex Schachter. Photo by Maya Bell.
In the wake of tragedy, empathy can drive helpfulness and passion. For example, National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster (VOAD) is an organization that serves as a primary contact for anyone who wishes to volunteer for emergency support. VOAD works with over 50 national agencies and 55 state and territorial VOADs, according to an article by fema.gov. Additionally, The National Council for Voluntary Organizations notes that oftentimes people volunteer to help others or give back to their community, and not just to look good to others. As a member of the volunteer charity club Giving Girls Opportunities at RBHS, Hopper considers herself an emotional person, which often affects her decision-making.
“While my feelings inspire my actions, I am also guided by pragmatic thinking,” Hopper said. “Even though feelings and problem-solving often go hand-in-hand, the two can compete. It is in those times of competition that I know I must find a balance between the two in order to keep moving forward in a positive and proactive manner.”
In the wake of the Parkland shooting, however, emotional responses and direct action depends on the person. In one case, political commentator Tomi Lahren urged people to let families grieve for 24 hours before they “push their anti-gun and anti-gun owner agenda.” In response, a Parkland survivor tweeted back her experience hiding in a closet during the shooting and how the massacre was, in her opinion, about guns. In this instance, action took hold over grieving time. As an example of grieving time, Dr. Nielsen used the hurricanes in Puerto Rico last fall. After the news cycle shifted away from the hurricane damaged areas of Puerto Rico, he said, it’s out of the foreground of what people are really thinking about on a daily basis. The hurricane victims, however, still need as much help now as they did in the weeks following the hurricane.
“I think being mindful of some of these situations [like Puerto Rico and] understanding that just because [a tragedy is] no longer in your line of sight that the issue doesn’t continue to exist,” Dr. Nielsen said. “Just being mindful of what [it is] that some of these tragic moments are like and where they’re taking place.”
As for the debate about gun control, people from all different types of backgrounds and stances are voicing opinions on what should happen regarding firearms. On Feb. 21, Parkland survivors took their position on the matter to town hall, asking their questions to Senators Marco Rubio and Bill Nelsen as well as representative Ted Deutch. For these students, the time for grief was over, and the time for action had begun. Cover’s version of a practical approach comes in the form of universal background checks on all gun sales and transfers of ownership, a ban of assault rifles and bump stocks and an elimination of any laws advocating for more guns for protection. Along with this approach comes a change directed toward the media: the termination of showing a gunman’s picture and name.
“It doesn’t do anyone good to show the picture and name of a school shooter,” Cover said. “It just gets views for the news outlet and can almost glorify the shooter to inspire some people to commit a school shooting.”
In contrast to this practical approach to calamity, Hopper’s more empathetic method of problem-solving doesn’t only come from her heart, but also a long procedure of research and understanding.
“I don’t think the issue of school shootings can be solved in one piece of legislation. It will take compromise on both sides of the political spectrum in order to ensure effective results,” Hopper said. “It saddens me that the shooting has divided the country on issues of gun control rather than united it. Safety in schools should not be a political issue. I don’t know the best answer for gun control, but I do know that Congress must be diligent in passing legislation that appeals to both parties.”
Regardless of stance, the effects of empathy can be widespread in the onset of tragedy. People from across the country sent condolences, organized marches and walkouts. From neurons influencing actions to parents raising their children to think a certain way, empathy can be the driving force behind decision-making.
“Everyone lives a different narrative,” Hopper said. “Being able to experience another’s reality is a catalyst for positive change. For some, empathy may just be an emotion. For others, it is inspiration.”