The questions keep running around in my head: How do we keep being horrified? How many times can we be outraged before our feelings are numbed by routine and regularity?
Can you list all the mass shootings that have occurred in our country – and elsewhere – in the past few years? I can’t. There are too many of them – the latest, in the wee hours of Sunday morning at a nightclub in Orlando, Florida. A lone gunman pledged his allegiance to ISIS, officials say, and went about his wicked business with an assault rifle, killing 49 people. More than that injured.
Those who bring us the news of these catastrophes – in print, online and television – use words like “unfathomable,” “shocking” and “stunning.”
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But I have to ask, how many times can we be shocked? How many times can we be stunned before – well, what? – before we become immune? Desensitized? Anesthetized?
Frankly, I believe a lot of us are well on the path to becoming numb.
My daughter, a thoughtful 30-something, texted me early this morning. It was a sad message. It carried a yearning for something she couldn’t put her finger on.
“It’s weird,” she wrote. “I became unhinged with Sandy Hook. I had to leave work early because I couldn’t stop crying. Neither the Charleston or Orlando shootings made me lose composure. I think I am used to it now.”
I hardly knew how to respond.
So I asked Robin Rosenthal, an associate professor of psychology at Columbia College, about the business of becoming used to bad things.
“The body and the mind work that way because it is too overwhelming to respond with the same physiological and emotional response every time. There’s a term called ‘habituation.’ It’s a lessening of a response to something that happens over and over again.”
A simple example of habituation, the professor said, is giving a child a new toy. At the outset, he will be excited by it, but eventually he will become less excited by it. He will become used to it.
So how do we fight against the feeling of habituation, the pathos of here we go again, when it comes to something far more serious? When it comes to suicide bombers, mass shootings, repeated murderous mayhem?
I suspect you know as well as I do.
We need to make a move.
My father used to say that when we were playing an interminable game of Scrabble on the back porch of a rented beach house. When someone was standing idly, taking up space in the middle of the small kitchen in the house where I grew up. When, no matter what it was, forward action needed to replace idle worry.
“You need to make a move,” he would say.
I smile when I think of that.
And Rosenthal and I talked about it. Making a move. Making a stand against desensitivity in the tumultuous wake of ghastly debacles that keep coming at us.
“It’s the taking of action that makes a difference,” she said. “Reaching out and caring for people in some way creates healing. Not being a bystander, but taking action. Being active in some kind of solution, reaching out to other people. Getting involved in groups that are targets of this kind of behavior. Having discussions in your workplace, your home, your neighborhood. Rebuilding a sense of community – we care about each other – that is part of what keeps you from becoming numb.
“In a way, I think that’s what happened during the floods last October. People going out and helping each other. It’s taking action to provide care and caring for others. It’s working toward positive change. Does that make sense?”
Yes, Rosenthal, it does. I’ll make sure to tell my dear daughter what you said.
Salley McAden McInerney is a local writer whose novel, Journey Proud, is based upon growing up in Columbia in the 1960s. She may be reached by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.