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  • Andres Spokoiny

After Newtown

What can we do as philanthropists amid the horror of this recent tragedy? Can any parent be relieved? Can any mourner be comforted? Watching the news this week, I’ve wondered why pain isn't a zero sum game. Why can’t we spread sadness thin by sharing it until we make it disappear? Why is it that even though we all share the grief, it doesn’t diminish?

While looking at the pictures of those beautiful kids in Newtown, Connecticut, I wished that the sorrow I felt could ease the unspeakable burden of grief faced by the families and loved ones directly touched. But their pain doesn’t diminish and mine grows. The heartache expands, spreading like an ignominious shadow, covering us all. It seems to be inextinguishable. Maybe that’s why the prophet proclaimed, “Oh, that my head were a spring of water and my eyes a fountain of tears!”

Is there something we can do as funders? Sadly, probably there isn’t. There are not big financial needs in this tragedy. No need for emergency grantmaking. Yes, in the future we’ll need to talk about issues like preparedness, security, advocacy and counseling. The community in Newtown and the families directly affected will need help. There’s room for political advocacy, and there may be new funding needs in the long term. But right now there’s just not much we can do as funders.

But there is a lot we can do as philanthropists.

The word philanthropy comes from two Greek words: philos and thropos: “Love” and “Humanity.” Philanthropy is literally the love of humanity. Indeed, love of our fellow human beings animates what we do. We believe that we live in the love we give to others. Philanthropy is not about loving somebody specific, but rather the full breadth of humanity. It’s about discovering the otherness in our fellow humans, connecting with their needs, improving the lives of people we will never know. Philanthropy is about making the world a better place, using our love as fuel and our hearts as compasses. Our philanthropy is about a sentence sanctified by a band of dessert nomads 3,500 years ago: “Love thy neighbor as thyself”.

Now, when the funerals of 6-year-olds and their devoted educators are taking place, we need to wave our love of humanity as a banner and a standard, and to feel that we are all inextricably linked, so that what happens to one, happens to all. We need to feel their pain as ours, we need to grieve with them and mourn with them.

Because, if pain is not a zero sum, neither is love.

The more we love, the more love there is. The more we care, the more caring there is. Our task now is to fight inexhaustible sorrow with inexhaustible love. Our task is to make sure that when these first tears dry, there’s no emptiness, but love. When these cries fade, there’s no coldness, but a caring embrace. Our task is to make real the words of the Song of Songs that said, “Love is stronger than death.”

Last week, I wrote about miracles of light. But no miracle saved Noah Pozner as he was ready to celebrate the last night of Hanukkah, surely excited about the presents he’d get. No miracle saved Emily, Jack, Jessica or so many others, as they were getting ready to share the beauty and joy of the Christmas time. But the love of humanity in the face of this unspeakable tragedy can be our man-made miracle. Now, more than ever, we need to light beacons of hope and torches of love. Now more than ever, we need to engage in defense of what we believe. Now more than ever we need to exercise our love of humanity and make the world a better place, one gift at a time.

Empathy is the most defining human characteristic: the one that allows us to share the feelings of others. It is not a mere trait, it’s the essence of being human. Our response to inhumanity must be more humanity; more love, more empathy.

After a historic tragedy, the Bible uses two ways to urge us never to forget: zachor and al tishkach, literally: “remember” and “don’t forget”. Rabbis interpret one to be passive: a process of remembering aiming to keep the memory alive. The other is active: the transformation of memories in meaningful action. This is our challenge now. Don’t let the indignation and horror be buried with those unbearable little coffins; transform it into more love of humans and humanity, more philanthropy, and more healing. May the blanket of love we help knit cover all mourners and bring them comfort, in ways that our words can’t.

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