Human Tragedy Doubles as Call to Action

Despair is violence we do to ourselves. The feeling of helplessness hardens into an assertion of fact. “I don’t know what to do” ossifies into “Nothing can be done.”

The call to action is there but we do not answer. We cannot bear our connection to the tragedy and the person to whom it fell. But the connection mustn’t be denied.

We failed to take the first step. So the tragedy did it for us. Circumstances overtook our inaction. Alcoholics Anonymous calls it “rock bottom” — a depth that defies our imagination, leaving us no choice but to look up.

Journalists argue about the correct number of killings in a mass murder report when the gunman is felled, by police or by suicide. Is it correct to include that death in the number? Does the final death qualify to be included in the body count of such a tragedy? Or is it “instant justice,” a coda of comfort for those who grieve?

That seems like so much dancing on the head of a pin, but for the lack of angels. The final victim was also the first.

We want to blame mental illness. Even better, we blame the mental health system, hoping to distance our hope from ourselves. If “the system” is at fault, we can all be considered victims.

We should be careful what we ask for. The difference between the peculiar and the dangerous among us looks obvious only in hindsight. They are indistinguishable in the present tense.

We resolve to better identify those who are “at risk.” But the term admits that most won’t become dangerous, so what about them? Should they all be warehoused, returning us to an age of sanitariums? Will that be enough, or will we reach further into our heritage and revive witch hunts? Draining our society of its eccentrics is a mistake we’ve already made.

You start with those who hear voices, but then you include anyone who struggles with anger management or impulse control. Before you know it, you’re concerned about anyone with access to a gun. Or a bottle.

Four years ago Tuesday, Major Thomas Egan froze to death at the north end of Blair Boulevard in Eugene. People gather at the spot every December 18th to remember the man and the movement he began. Each year, Egan becomes more of a hero, but without becoming less of who he was.

Kate Saunders was Egan’s best friend in his last days. She may have been his only friend by then. She read this week to the 75 assembled an excerpt from Egan’s diary, dated January 1, 1976:

Now at year’s end, as I look back at the comments I’ve made throughout the year, I can see opinions that have changed, errors I made, incorrect statements and other things I could now change. As a student of history — be it even so minor as my own — I won’t allow myself the misguided luxury of “correcting” an opinion I held in, say, March 1975, to one I now hold in January 1976. While this not only distorts the original intent, it further runs the risk of being no more valid than the original statement seems now.

Eugene and Springfield have not “corrected” the legacy of Tom Egan to make him as noble as the efforts that now carry his name. He died with a bottle beside him, just a couple of blocks from the Eugene Mission. His bottle wouldn’t have been welcomed there, but he also wouldn’t have frozen to death.

This community answered the call that was this human tragedy. What organizers call the Ripple of Hope widens every year, with Egan Warming Centers now spread across the area, connecting hundreds in need on frigid nights with hundreds who are willing to serve. We didn’t rewrite history. But we did alter its direction.

It was fitting that this celebration of Egan’s life and living memorial occurred during the first snowfall of the year. Here’s hoping that Newtown, Conn. and the nation answers the call that first arrived last week as human tragedy.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs. To volunteer for an Egan Warming Center near you, go to www.eganwarmingcenter.com/volunteers.html. To join Eugene Mayor Kitty Piercy’s “Home for the Holidays” challenge to get as many families as possible into homes before the holidays, go to www.svdp.us/get-involved/donate. The initial goal of 40 families already has been exceeded.