When the news came in on CNN about the Navy Yard shooting that killed twelve last week, I was quick to turn the channel. I didn’t want to hear the details of the shoot-out and I definitely didn’t want to hear about the lives of each victim lost to this senseless violence. I don’t even want to hear any more pundits spout off about the gun control vs. mental health debate.
After the Newtown murders last December, I, like millions of other people, was heartbroken as I studied the pictures of each little child, the same age as my own, and tried to imagine the grief of those families. Infuriated by those who seemed to believe that gun ownership was more important than these children’s lives, I was part of the upsurge of people in this country contacting our legislators. I was convinced that now would be the time our country would finally come to its senses and enact strict gun control laws. If not now, when?
On Sunday as President Obama eulogized the twelve victims of the Navy Yard shooting, he referenced the “‘creepy resignation'” in America about the inevitability of gun violence. Unfortunately, it’s true. There is way less outrage, way less conversation in the aftermath of these shootings compared to those of Newtown. So why does the demand to change gun control laws seem weak and unenergized? As a therapist, I sit with people’s trauma each day, but as an American citizen, I, like many others, have hit my limit. As a culture, we are suffering from both compassion fatigue and learned helplessness.
We are a nation that has been traumatized repeatedly. Compassion fatigue, or vicarious trauma, is a term used in the field of psychotherapy to describe what happens to practitioners or anyone in a caregiving profession (clinicians, nurses, first responders, ER doctors) when they are exposed to too much trauma. It’s symptoms can include those similar to experiencing trauma first hand: exhaustion, loss of a sense of agency, dissociation, and a sense of numbing or being checked out. For me, I know I have been exposed to too much trauma, when I feel unable to stay awake. When we are bombarded with one violent, senseless trauma after another, our nervous systems become overloaded, and we shut down.
The shut down response of our adrenal systems are our bodies’ way of protecting us. A person whose nervous system is in constant activation cannot function very well. If we walked around actually in touch with the terror that each one of these victims felt moments before their deaths or let ourselves really feel the fear that this could happen to any one of us, we would exist in an on-going state of fear and grief, a hard place to live in for very long. The shut down of our nervous systems allows us to going through the motions of our days while not being very connected to our experiences. So while an adrenal shut down can help us be able to perform some daily functions (get up, go to work, pay attention), it can also paralyze us and make us feel unable to act in meaningful ways.
A sense of learned helplessness has set in in America. Learned helplessness is the belief that taking action is useless and so we stop trying. After disappointment and disillusionment in our government’s failure to enact meaningful change after Newtown, we have stopped believing that our activism, our fight against the gun lobby, our agitation of legislators more concerned about re-election than anything else will make a difference. So this time, in the wake of the Navy Yard shootings, there is little rise-up, little momentum and little action.
So as a country that is exhausted by having bore witness to multiple mass shootings in the past few years, how do we rise up and continue to fight? We need to talk to one another about what we are witnessing. We need to tune in to how compassion fatigue and learned helplessness may be affecting us an individuals and take care of ourselves (sleeping, eating, exercising, meditating, etc). Most importantly, we need to feel our own fear, our own mortality, our own terror, and our own outrage. It is only by feeling the horror of these events that we can find it within ourselves to continue to fight. Otherwise we walk around like zombies, disconnected from our reality and cut off from our humanity and ourselves.