“Exhaustion is the body working to find comfort in a discomforting world.”

Two days ago, when I heard of the mass shooting in Orlando that has since then been an unavoidable theme in every waking moment of my life, my first response was that shot to the heart, punch in the chest sensation that then slowly seeps down into my stomach. The horror, dread, rage and sadness the news sparked in me slid down and settled like an unwelcome houseguest, and as with such a houseguest, I quickly became inured, complacent. Numb.

So many deaths and terrible acts have happened in the past few years. I’ve written here about the difficulty of facing the reality of such atrocities more than once, and found myself, after Sunday morning, again thinking about how to address this kind of event. This one, in particular, hits close to home: I identify with queer community enough to think of this crime as a strike against my larger sense of family. Yet I still cannot summon the pain and anger that are required to take action. In the face of such things, numbness – exhaustion, resignation – is one of the only tolerable responses available.

An article from Medium this morning, called “Against Numbness,” says many of the things I cannot say myself today. “Exhaustion is sensible,” writes Emma Roller, “it makes perfect sense. Exhaustion is your mind shielding your body from succumbing to a deeper horror, adrenaline numbing your pain.” Enough work with trauma – my own and clients’ – has taught me this: our bodies are very good at helping us manage overwhelming feelings by suppressing them. When our bodies are in a state of injury or illness profound enough that the pain signals are no longer of use as an alarm system to let us know we need help, our bodies go into shock. When an event happens that is so unthinkable that the emotions around it threaten to destroy us, we also say that we are “in shock.” When the trauma is repeated so often that the body no longer believes there is a safe place it can go to, the shock becomes embedded, becomes numbness.

As a nation, at this point, I believe that we are in this state. The same way that we all stared at our TV screens, transfixed, watching the planes slam into the Twin Towers over and over in 2001, we now refresh our Facebook pages, looking for more reactions to the news, more stories, more details. It is a deeply human response: looking for knowledge, for connection, for something to make sense of the senseless. But in practice it becomes an act of numbing, of self-soothing. It makes us feel like we’re doing something, when in reality we feel helpless. This, too, is extremely natural. But as Roller reminds me this morning, “Your exhaustion — your questioning if the pain is worth the gain — is the most effective tool the status quo has in its toolbox.” She closes with an imprecation to remember, and suggests a way forward out of our feelings of helplessness:

Lean into your pain. Don’t neglect it. Remember the feeling of numbness, but don’t succumb to it. The victims and their friends and families deserve not to be forgotten. The news cycle will wash over their stories, but you can choose not to abandon them. Be vigilant with your own feelings — not just for the victims, but for yourself. Never accept that this is how we have to live in America today.

I don’t know if I’m strong enough, on this day, to do this. But I like having it here as a reminder. As my partner goes to work at his queer-community-related job, where they have posted a security guard and locked the doors; as I resist the urge to refresh my Facebook page; as I go through the daily motions of my own life and try not to succumb to the fear that someone I love may be next, I will return to this. I will try to let my body move the pain of this instead of holding it, to feel the loss instead of shrugging it off, to move through exhaustion into action.

My favorite response yet to the #yesallwomen thing.

In the wake of the horrific shootings this week, Twitter and other social media have been a-flurry with defensive remarks from men (hashtag: notallmen) and responses from women (hashtag: yesallwomen). The dialogue seems to be going past each other, in a way that neither increases understanding nor gets at the heart of why these awful things are happening.

In the midst of this, a therapist has written this marvelous article, about secondary trauma and how we might better understand all of this.

In short:

  • The women of this world express to men their experiences of what they go through on a day to day basis, living in rape culture.
  • The men of this world who are trying to understand, who want to help, who want things to change, feel helpless, depressed, and like part of the problem, and express these frustrations to women.
  • The women go, seriously, I just shared these horrible experiences with you and now you want me to soothe your hurt feelings? Screw off.
  • The women still feel unseen and unheard, and the men screw off, having nowhere to put their secondary trauma.

In the post, the author notes how men often don’t have a lot of emotionally intimate male friends, particularly if they are partnered, and that they get the majority of their emotional needs met by the women in their lives. When those women need to be listened to – witnessed, without judgment – about things that men by virtue of being men largely don’t experience, those same women cannot then be the witnesses for the pain men feel over what they’ve just been told. It’s like a therapist turning around to their client and saying, “What you just told me was deeply upsetting, and I think I need some support around how upset your experience makes me.” While the relationship is not analogous, sometimes witnessing needs to be one-sided. Which is why men need witnesses, too.

But Sarah O says this all better than I can summarize. Please, go read.

Today is World Listening Day

By chance on BBC this morning, I caught a story about the fact that today is World Listening Day, as established by the World Listening Project.  Given that the work I do has a strong basis in listening, and that in fact Ilana Rubenfeld’s book is called The Listening Hand…well, my ears perked up, so to speak.

The World Listening Project is interested in acoustic ecology: not so much the visual features of a place (the landscape), but the auditory ones – the soundscape.  This is fascinating to me, as I have always been very sensitive to noises, aware of sounds, and attuned to music.  In the BBC piece, they mentioned how the 6-year-old son of the founder of the group is doing a comparative project on electric hand dryers – that’s right, the things you find in public restrooms – and how loud they are.  I was thrilled and vindicated to hear them mention that small children are often terrified by the sound of these dryers: as a child, I was sent into hysterics regularly by hand dryers, hair dryers, vacuum cleaners.

So today is a day for focusing on the sounds around you, and exploring their effects.

What’s with me as I think about this is how sound and touch are related: the way sounds literally touch us, vibrate our cells and shift our emotional states.  (I’m not even being woo-woo here: click the link!)  Today is a day in which I will, amidst the hectic pace of my day, pay attention to how sounds enter my consciousness, how music shifts my emotions, how the constant white noise of the air conditioner soothes, how the little alert noises my computer and phone make raise my blood pressure.  It’s also a great way of cultivating attention.

Try it now.  Stop, close your eyes, and listen to what’s around you.  What do you notice?

 

Shelter in place

Today the weirdness around the Boston Marathon bombings continues, as Boston and surrounding areas are in lockdown, the police are on a supermilitarized manhunt, and residents are being ordered to stay inside with their doors locked.  I am just outside the lockdown area (by a town), and I for one will be going out of town as planned.  The idea of being locked inside my house for my own safety chills me deeply, especially as I look at the innocence on the face of young Dzhokhar Tsarnayev – just a kid, really, who nobody suspected of anything.

It’s all so surreal, and sad, and strange.

We’re being told to shelter in place.  Wherever you are now, I wish that for you: that you may find shelter there, in your home, in your town, in your families, in your bodies.

Be safe, everyone.

“We are not built for this.”

Once again, in the face of unthinkable tragedy – this time much closer to home than any of us here in Boston would like – Mark Morford says the thing I need to hear, and that I wanted to say myself.

I’ve asked here before how we humans are meant to deal with the tragedies that erupt around us every day, especially now that we hear about it instantly and relentlessly.  Increasingly, trauma happens to us not just when we are directly faced with a tragedy, but secondarily, when we are exposed to constant atrocities in our world.

Says Mark Morford:

We are not built for this. We are not designed, at our core, to be able to absorb, at a glance and a click, a tweet and a ruthless video feed, all the ills and horrors of the world, all at once, all manner of chaos and destruction in a nonstop bloody flood over which we are powerless to influence and impotent to stop.

So what do you do when something like this happens – as it seems to, increasingly, in recent times?

You gather in, hold tight, and take care of those close to you. As feeble as it sounds, as meek as you feel, this is the only way. This is also the best way. To help. To be a part. To avoid shutting down, hardening, adding more suspicion and mistrust to the world.

The outpouring of love and support not just locally but globally; the inspiring vision of marathoners completing the race, then continuing to run to hospitals to donate blood; the heroism of first responders, firefighters and others – it’s all made for one inspiring week in the face of tragedy.  And unlike the aftermath of 9/11, it feels like the first response here isn’t one of revenge, of hardening against whatever enemy emerges.  It feels like it may be, really this time, about banding together.

This is the most essential reminder of all, is it not? A handful of violent sociopaths will never match, much less defeat, the support and care of tens of millions. Those who wish harm and damage upon humanity will never outnumber those who enable, empower and heal. The odds are in our favor. They always are. This is why we are still alive. Maybe the only reason.

We are still here, supporting each other, enabling, empowering and healing.  My wish for all reading this is that you might find it in yourself to stay open during this time, to reach out to others, to bring caring and love to those who need it, and to not shut down, grow hard, let this event – the onslaught of events – close you off to humanity.

And anyway, as Stephen Colbert reminds us: we’re tougher than that.

"We are not built for this."

Once again, in the face of unthinkable tragedy – this time much closer to home than any of us here in Boston would like – Mark Morford says the thing I need to hear, and that I wanted to say myself.

I’ve asked here before how we humans are meant to deal with the tragedies that erupt around us every day, especially now that we hear about it instantly and relentlessly.  Increasingly, trauma happens to us not just when we are directly faced with a tragedy, but secondarily, when we are exposed to constant atrocities in our world.

Says Mark Morford:

We are not built for this. We are not designed, at our core, to be able to absorb, at a glance and a click, a tweet and a ruthless video feed, all the ills and horrors of the world, all at once, all manner of chaos and destruction in a nonstop bloody flood over which we are powerless to influence and impotent to stop.

So what do you do when something like this happens – as it seems to, increasingly, in recent times?

You gather in, hold tight, and take care of those close to you. As feeble as it sounds, as meek as you feel, this is the only way. This is also the best way. To help. To be a part. To avoid shutting down, hardening, adding more suspicion and mistrust to the world.

The outpouring of love and support not just locally but globally; the inspiring vision of marathoners completing the race, then continuing to run to hospitals to donate blood; the heroism of first responders, firefighters and others – it’s all made for one inspiring week in the face of tragedy.  And unlike the aftermath of 9/11, it feels like the first response here isn’t one of revenge, of hardening against whatever enemy emerges.  It feels like it may be, really this time, about banding together.

This is the most essential reminder of all, is it not? A handful of violent sociopaths will never match, much less defeat, the support and care of tens of millions. Those who wish harm and damage upon humanity will never outnumber those who enable, empower and heal. The odds are in our favor. They always are. This is why we are still alive. Maybe the only reason.

We are still here, supporting each other, enabling, empowering and healing.  My wish for all reading this is that you might find it in yourself to stay open during this time, to reach out to others, to bring caring and love to those who need it, and to not shut down, grow hard, let this event – the onslaught of events – close you off to humanity.

And anyway, as Stephen Colbert reminds us: we’re tougher than that.

Funerals for six-year-olds, or, moving some of that emotion through

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.

Sandy Hook, the gun control narrative, and sitting with pain

Today, I recognize that the horrible elementary school shooting in Sandy Hook, CT, is the one thing everyone is talking about, and with good reason.  27 people are dead, 18 of them children, at last count.  Even with the rash of random shootings in the past little while, this feels like a new low, a fresh horror, and we’re transfixed by it.

I don’t really know what to say about it right now.  It’s just happened, we don’t even have all the details yet.  The shooter is dead, we know that.  And of course, the arguments over gun control have already begun. About which, as usual, Jon Stewart has better things to say than I do.

The Daily Show with Jon Stewart Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c
Aurora Shootings – Gun Control
www.thedailyshow.com
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But right now, I just really don’t have a lot of insight. I have shock, and sorrow, and a bit of numbness as I try to process still another tragedy in this screwed up world of ours.

So I’m going to sit with that for a bit and see what it has to tell me.