Now that another season of giving draws to a conclusion and we flirt with the fiscal cliff, it is also a time of annual review and renewed resolutions. On one hand, the tragedy of Jeffrey Hillman, a bootless homeless man in New York, and the unimaginable massacre of 28 children and adults at Newtown serve as painful reminders of the seeming inexplicability of so much of human suffering. On the other hand, the spontaneous generosity of the policeman who purchased boots for Mr. Hillman and the countless acts of kindness elicited by the Newtown massacre also remind us of the possibilities of human compassion.
These responses cannot and should not be diminished. It is too easy to do so, as the cynic in us also reminds us that almost as quickly as Mr. Hillman got his new boots, they mysteriously disappeared, and soon the Newtown massacre and all the resultant acts of kindness will fade from public consciousness, as well. Whether Mr. Hillman sold his boots or hid them as he said to prevent their theft is not as important as the likelihood that the conditions of his life remain essentially unchanged. Until we see evidence to the contrary, we also have to assume that the situations that created the Newtown massacre will continue — and as we have already again seen, Newtown has been quickly followed by the ambush of firefighters in upstate New York.
The continued cycles of tragedy and sacrifice, punctuated by periodic acts of heroism and eventually followed by their banishment from public consciousness, suggest that something fundamental is missing from the picture of emergency response. For one thing, there is a failure of imagination and understanding, particularly of the multiple and complex systems of failures that not only lead to but more importantly incite and perpetuate such tragedies. There is additionally a failure to appreciate the diversity of conditions that lead individuals to homelessness or acts of violence. It’s easy to chalk such outcomes up to some unknown combination of bad genes, a traumatic upbringing, mental illness, poverty, scapegoating and perhaps a touch of evil.
What is missing, on the one hand, are those who are willing and able to do the in-depth, comprehensive and interdisciplinary assessments and post-mortems of these failures. On the other hand, we need those who are willing and able to educate the public and key decision-makers about the possibilities of long-term systemic and evidence-based services that have been designed to prevent, intervene early and even rehabilitate those who now can be shown to be at risk for any of the many types of personal and societal disintegration; disintegrations from unemployment, social ostracism, bullying, severe mental illness, homelessness, child abuse and neglect, and other forms of violence and victimization.
While personal acts of kindness over the holiday season, and at all times, are always needed and appreciated, they cannot stand by themselves. They must be supplemented by the compassionate and ongoing services of professionals from a variety of disciplines — social workers, psychologists, doctors and educators — who are willing to use their imaginations to integrate the best available evidence from a wide range of academic disciplines to achieve a pragmatic and in-depth understanding of each individual, group and environment at risk. If not, all the kind acts of the holiday season may serve only to soothe our consciences — and likely suffer the same fate as our New Year’s resolutions.
Christopher G. Hudson, Ph.D., is a professor in the School of Social Work at Salem State University and president-elect of the Massachusetts Chapter of the National Association of Social Workers.