Failing Forward – Moving Forward on the Heels of Tragedy

By Andre Davison

On Tuesday May 24th, 19 students and two adults were killed at an elementary school shooting in Uvalde, Texas. It happened in the birthplace of Academy Award-winning actor Matthew McConaughey. He responded to the tragic shooting on Twitter and said “As you all are aware there was another mass shooting today, this time in my hometown of Uvalde, Texas. Once again, we have tragically proven that we are failing to be responsible for the rights our freedoms grant us.” McConaughey provided a powerful poignant point with the statement ‘We have tragically proven that we are failing to be responsible for the rights our freedoms grant us’. His words caused me to consider how we can move from failure to success in relation to mass shootings. In the legal industry when it comes to change management, thought leaders use the term ‘failing forward’. The Succeed on Purpose website provides an excellent definition of ‘failing forward’. It means to purposely and deliberately use failure to find success. New York Times best-selling author, John C. Maxwell, coined the phrase in his book, Failing Forward: Turning Your Mistakes into Stepping Stones for Success. Maxwell stated, “The difference between average people and achieving people is their perception of and response to failure”. The second chapter of the book is titled, Get a New Definition of Failure and Success. In this chapter he has written a section that discusses moving forward on the heels of tragedy. In the last month, we have had two mass shootings in the United States. In addition to the tragedy in Uvalde, Texas, a white supremacist gunman killed ten African Americans at Buffalo supermarket. The United States has the most mass shootings of any country in the world. I believe our country can be purposeful and deliberate in using our past failures to find success in preventing mass shootings. How can we do this? We must take deliberate steps in a purposeful process to move forward on the heels of tragedy. 

Move from Antipathy to Sympathy

Source: Unsplash

Merriam-Webster defines antipathy as a strong feeling of dislike. The opposite of apathy is sympathy which is defined by Merriam-Webster as the act or capacity of entering into or sharing the feelings or interests of another. On May 14, 2022, a mass shooting tragedy occurred at a supermarket in Buffalo, NY. In this racially motivated attack ten black people were killed. In his Manifesto, the Buffalo shooter described himself as a white supremacist and ethno-nationalist motivated to commit political violence. Antipathy of African Americans was the motive behind the shooting. Activist, Sophie Bryant, observed the occurrence of “pseudo-antipathy which consists in the careless and arbitrary interpretation of another person’s acts and expressions in accordance with the worst side of one’s self”. Simply stated, people tend to project their own faults onto others and dislike or hate them. How do you move from a state of antipathy to sympathy? It requires compassion, communication, and concern.  Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Pity may represent little more than the impersonal concern which prompts the mailing of a check, but true sympathy is the personal concern which demands the giving of one’s soul.”  The shooter had been investigated for the previous threats. What if someone had the compassion to communicate their concerns about the shooter. Could this tragedy have been prevented? 

Move from Sympathy to Empathy

Merriam-Webster defines empathy as the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner. Moving from antipathy to sympathy is a huge step. Moving from sympathy to empathy is the next progression in failing forward. Often, when there are mass shootings, people are sympathetic to the families of the victims. I wonder what kind of change would occur if people replaced sympathy with empathy in these circumstances. There are key differences between sympathy and empathy. Psychiatric Medicare Care states that “Sympathy, or feeling sorry for a person, automatically generates feelings of pity, which is not helpful in situations where people are in pain. Empathy becomes the bridge that connects two people together and creates a space for more genuine healing, understanding and compassion. By working on our empathy, it allows us to hear others point of view and spring us forward into automatically becoming more helpful. Former U.S. President Barack Obama affirmed this when he said, “Learning to stand in somebody else’s shoes, to see through their eyes, that’s how peace begins.  And it’s up to you to make that happen. Empathy is a quality of character that can change the world. Empathy provides a path to change.” 

Remove Apathy

Merriam-Webster defines apathy as a lack of interest or concern. I often see apathy after the shock and grief of mass shootings subside. Kim Gorgens, a professor of psychology at the University of Denver, explains “The piece of apathy that we need to be so careful about is to surrender our activism or to give up entirely on making those kinds of changes in our families, in our communities, in our government structures. We need to continue to care, and we need to find ways to move forward together and shoulder the burden together.” We can combat apathy with empathy. Belinda Bauman, author of Brave Souls: Experiencing the Audacious Power of Empathy states “Empathy seeks to help people see the world through innovative lenses that expand their horizons beyond the often ethnos, class, or gender-centric viewpoints that limit, lessen and impede us from knowing and caring.” She states we can improve our empathy by perspective taking, empathic listening, and peace-making. Perspective-taking is the ability to understand how a situation appears to another person and how that person is reacting cognitively and emotionally to the situation. Empathic listening is a structured listening and questioning technique that allows you to develop and enhance relationships with a stronger understanding of what is being conveyed, both intellectually and emotionally. Peacemaking is simply defined as the process of bringing about peace. Author Roy T. Bennet exemplifies this in a poem titled ‘Don’t Just”.

Don’t Just

Don’t just learn, experience.

Don’t just read, absorb.

Don’t just change, transform.

Don’t just relate, advocate.

Don’t just promise, prove.

Don’t just criticize, encourage.

Don’t just think, ponder.

Don’t just take, give.

Don’t just see, feel.

Don’t just dream, do.

Don’t just hear, listen.

Don’t just talk, act.

Don’t just tell, show.

Don’t just exist, live.

This is not a referendum on gun laws. I will leave that for others to debate. This is a referendum on people. Thomson Edison stated, “Many of life’s failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up.” Change is difficult and tough, but we can’t give up hope. I challenge everyone to fail forward to help prevent tragedies like this. One of my favorite quotes from Dr. Martin Luther King encapsulates the process. He says, “If you can’t fly then run, if you can’t run then walk, if you can’t walk then crawl, but whatever you do you have to keep moving forward.


Notes Between Us (NBU) is a blog about conversations and topics of interest to the writers. The writers are expressing their personal opinions solely. The essays represent their personal beliefs and not that of their workplaces or any organization they are associated with.