For all my compassion and concern for humanity and its state, oftentimes I find myself feeling closed off from larger events, the kind that get national attention: hurricanes, earthquakes, bombings in Gaza, shootings in Colorado. The media bombard us with images, coverage, analysis, and repetition of all of the suffering, exploding, and ghastliness, and I don’t think it’s particularly healthy. (Mr. Rogers had some very useful things to say about this, that don’t just apply to children.) It’s an insanely difficult balance: how do you manage all of the collateral emotional damage from these events that are outside of your monkey sphere – those 150 or so people the human mind can manage to care about – and if you choose instead to close off from them, how do you keep from becoming hard?
Numbness, Miriam Greenspan wrote, never occurs selectively. When we try to protect ourselves from one emotion, say, fear or grief, by becoming numb to it, we find ourselves numbed to all emotion. During the later years of George W. Bush’s presidency, I shut myself off from a lot of news coverage, because after a while I felt like I couldn’t bear to participate in the national conversation anymore – it was too intense and depressing. I’m not sure how much Greenspan’s idea extends to issues of scale: if you numb yourself to people you don’t know dying in a school shooting, are you cutting yourself off from experiencing more personal grief – not to mention joy, anger, love – all the things that make for a full life?
I don’t know. What I do know is that I often feel guilty about not feeling more during national tragedies, or at least, for not doing more. I sent some supplies to people in New Jersey after Hurricane Sandy, but then again, I’m from there, and the people asking for help were folks I went to high school with. Sure, I’m pretty removed from them these days, and wasn’t even friends with them then, but I could connect for the moments it took to lend a bit of a hand, however minor. But the tsunami in Indonesia? The earthquake in Haiti? Even Hurricane Katrina – which I felt so moved by in 2005 because I was at Burning Man at the time and the Temple was covered in memorials – I ended up doing practically nothing about. I think I sent a few bucks to the Red Cross, when at first I was ready to drop everything and go volunteer.
Which brings me to the school shootings of Friday. This was horrible, the whole world is talking about it, and it’s totally screwed up. But on Friday, I couldn’t figure out how to feel. Regarding it as something that happened to people I don’t know and trying not to think about it too much seemed callous, but engaging it fully and letting it fill me with grief seemed impotent – and a little disingenuous. Why this tragedy, why this time? Because it’s kids? Because it’s close by, in New England? Because it was so senseless?
Nevertheless, this morning I was driving to my therapist’s office, and BBC News, with their strangely touching accents, was covering the first funerals of a couple of six-year-old kids, kids whose lives senselessly ended on Friday. And whether it was the grey day, the difficult issues I’m facing in therapy, the descriptions of the kids (one was “curious and wonderful”; another, “intelligent and mature for his age”), I broke into tears in traffic. Whether or not it did anyone any good, whether or not I was showing compassion for strangers, raw emotion flowed through me, and afterwards, I felt a little better.
We live in a strange and confusing world.