When trying to understand something confounding, one often says, “I’m trying to get my head around it.” It’s a statement that would cause Mr. Spock to raise a curious eyebrow given its physical impossibility. But the American mind gets the idiomatic expression as it’s part of our language.
It works if one is trying to grasp something rationally. But what about emotionally, something so jarring it causes one’s “head to spin” so much it causes “his heart to ache”?
We often hear the phrase “senseless violence,” which causes one to wonder when violence makes sense. Such as with the latest mass murder of students at Marjory Steadman Douglas High School, an event that challenges one to make sense of, to get her head around as well as her heart.
We talk about grief, anxiety and other related emotions. Many are still feeling intense grief about the massacre, even reeling from it. Those in the arena—students, parents, and teachers—might feel it the rest of their lives. Compounding it is the anxiety they’re feeling up close and personal.
Strangely, or perhaps not so strangely, the MSDHS killings have evoked for me Sophocles’ tragedy Antigone. In the play, Antigone is outraged (psyche) and grief-stricken (emotion) about her brother Polynices lying unburied, decreed by King Creon as punishment for treason, on the field where he was killed.
Antigone faces a moral conflict: Obey the law or her conscience? Antigone decides to bury Polynices because in good conscience she cannot allow her brother to be desecrated. She understands she could be executed for her action, but, nevertheless, she knows she couldn’t live with herself, literally or figuratively, if she complied with Creon’s edict.
Hearing of Antigone’s defiance, Creon questions her. Antigone argues forcefully about the morality of his judgment and of her response to it. Frustrated, Creon orders Antigone walled up in a cave for her to die slowly and painfully.
The blind prophet Tiresias warns Creon the gods are displeased with him. Creon initially dismisses Tiresias’s warning, but eventually, relents. He orders Antigone released and Polynices buried. Unfortunately, his countermand comes too late. Antigone has killed herself.
That leads to a chain of events. Haemon, Creon’s son who is betrothed to Antigone, likewise commits suicide, which leads to his mother Eurydice, Creon’s wife, to take her life, damning Creon with her last breath.
After nearly 2500 years, Antigone the play and Antigone the woman still speak to us, offering invaluable insight into the human psyche and condition. In this case, power and hubris versus mercy and compassion. When it comes to those, reason gives way to emotion.
We can debate which is the higher good, the merits of the choices made by Antigone and Creon rationally and philosophically. But emotionally?
What triggers a high emotional response in a person? Perhaps danger or sudden success, but it can also be set off by an offense that astounds one’s moral sensibilities. Seeing innocent young people participating in a noble endeavor—education—only to be slain in the process, for example.
At Marjory Steadman Douglas High School, something inviolable was violated. How does one “get his head around” something so horrific it upends one of the individual’s operating premises in life: Blood-letting of this magnitude having no place in schools where children are learning, in churches where people are worshiping, or in other places where people should be assured sanctuary?
The school killings, unlike Sophocles’ Antigone, are more than food for thought…They are real. As we try to analyze their causes and offer solutions, they, nevertheless, cannot be made sensible.
We are emotional beings. To be otherwise would make us mere robots, machines, unfeeling computers. After pondering Antigone, one is left wondering…How to make sense of the insensible?