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Responding constructively to disaster, tragedy or injustice


Tips for responding constructively to disaster, tragedy or injustice

Simonette Vaja

When bad things happen, like a violent tragedy or great injustice we are personally and collectively impacted in complex ways. Here are top tips from the Australian Psychological Society and the Law Society of NSW Wellbeing Manager, and some thoughts on understanding the impact of global tragedies.


1.      Challenge stereotyping, narrow analyses of the problem, disaster, or crisis, and blaming of whole groups for the actions of few.

2.      Be careful to separate angry thoughts and feelings about specific people who behave in cruel ways from the larger cultural or religious group to which those people may belong.

3.      Talk about how to treat others, and share values about what sort of a society you want to have.

4.      Promote understanding of people from different groups.

5.      Support ways that strengthen people’s cultural identities.

6.      Learn conflict resolution skills.

7.      Have open discussion about realities in society, and the ways in which some people who live in this country are treated.  Hate and prejudice are not innate, but learned. No one deserves any acts of violence as a result of their race, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, culture, or other beliefs.

8.      Look for the helpers and the people doing kind or heroic things in response to the tragedy.  Be a helper and doer: join the hive. 

Tragic optimism vs tragic positivity

‘Tragic optimism’ is a useful concept to assist understanding of the impact tragedy can have on our everyday thoughts and feelings.  In his book Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl described tragic optimism as “the ability to maintain hope and find meaning in life despite its inescapable pain, loss, and suffering”.

This is optimism in the face of “pain, guilt, and death,” Frankl said; it is “saying yes to life in spite of everything.” The “tragic optimist” believes that we can make suffering meaningful, use guilt as motivation to improve ourselves, and interpret the “transitoriness” of life as a reason to find meaning in life. Tragic optimism encapsulates the profound belief that amidst the depths of tragedy we can still cultivate a life filled with happiness, contentment, and hope.

Toxic positivity, in contrast, is the belief that we should advocate for the denial of heartache and suffering. This approach compels us to pretend that heartache and suffering don't exist. Instead, it proposes extreme avoidance or dismissal of any uncomfortable emotions that arise from life’s tragedies and challenges.

Tragic optimism, however, used heartache and suffering as tools for growth. It allows us to acknowledge the power of hope, and recognise its potency, even amid deep sorrow and despair. Rather than avoiding negative emotions and adverse encounters, advocates of tragic optimism welcome them as opportunities for forging a more profound sense of significance and purpose.


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