A World Made Numb

It takes a lot of courage to go on TV and cry through an eight minute monologue.

Especially when people are tuning in because they expect you to be funny.

But when Jimmy Kimmel stood in front of his audience and tearfully lamented the Las Vegas Massacre, he was doing something very significant in keeping the world a humane place.

I think a lot of us are numb to what just happened. Maybe it’s hard to take in such cruelty. Maybe the life-long exposure to seeing such things (real and imagined) on TV has dulled our sense of reality. Maybe these mass-casualty events have become too commonplace. Whatever the reasons it concerns me greatly that ordinarily sensitive folk like you and I aren’t quite as horrified or upset by these events anymore. I puzzle at the lack of feeling I have towards this horrible act. And while I feel a little ashamed to admit to this numbness, I don’t believe my limited emotional response is related to being a some kind of heartless jerk. (although, I may be one irregardless)

Now it’s easy to be critical and judgemental towards each other and ourselves for this numbness of heart and mind. But we have to remember that most often numbness is a response to an environment, not a character flaw or moral failing. People become numb because something they’re confronted with (often repeatedly) is too painful or overwhelming, not because they are inherently uncaring.

Numbness has it’s virtues.

Thank goodness for the numbness that happens from anesthetic when we’re having stitches or surgical procedures. The acute loss of feeling can be a good thing when the pain of repair is too much to handle and might keep us from doing what needs to be done. Even emotional numbing may have it’s place when the flood of feelings is too much for a person to cope with during a specific time limited period. People often talk about this experience in the immediate aftermath of a devastating loss. The feeling of detachment at a funeral. The sense of everything being surreal during a trauma. Even emergency workers and health care providers can experience a helpful sense of numbness when they need to prioritize taking care of other people. But most of these acute situations that produce numbness are time-limited and allow us to manage mental and physical pain until a certain time when we confront what’s happened in a more gradual and manageable way.

Numbness that goes on and on as a chronic condition of body, mind, or heart is understandable but problematic.

Given the depth and breadth of human suffering broadcast twenty-four hours a day in high-definition, it seems reasonable that many of us would become numb to the constant presentations of pain. How else do we cope? And while the hurricanes, earthquakes, and famines bother us, it’s the human on human cruelty of these shootings that perhaps begs us to shut down even more. I suppose you might point out that all the words I’m giving to this suggests that I’m not altogether uncaring or unmoved by what’s happened. Maybe it’s overstating the situation to call us numb, maybe we’re a little numb, or numb-ish – that experience you have after dental surgery where the freezing is starting to wear off and you can feel a little something, but not the full pain.

Chronic numbness, no matter how practical or sensible is, I believe causing us great difficulty both as individuals and in broader cultural contexts.  Pain is a useful messenger that needs to be listened to, engaged, and responded to. When we can’t sense our pain for prolonged periods of time, be it physical or emotional, we are divorced from an integral part of ourselves; a protective part that gives us crucial information. Leprosy – a disease largely confined to developing nations (but seared into the memories of Sunday School attendees) – is a case in point of what happens when physical numbness is chronic. The inability to feel pain in the extremities leads to repeated injuries, infections, and eventual destruction of tissues, typically in the feet and hands. When we don’t sense our hurts and attend to them, it seems inevitable that disability will be an outcome.

Which leads me to wonder: what consequences arise from chronically being cut-off from our emotional pain? What injuries or infections of our minds and hearts do we fail to recognize because of our numbness? What changes, or measures of protection do we fail to initiate because we aren’t feeling the problems and avoidable tragedies of our world? We tend to assume that gun-control, in spite of its popularity (check out the polls, most Americans actually want more of it) isn’t happening because the politics of it are so difficult. Maybe so. But maybe we don’t change much after massacres and other human tragedies because we don’t really feel the pain and sadness that would otherwise motivate us to action. We’re numb. Socially, we’re expected to engage in a certain show of care and concern, so many of us engage in a kind of theoretical empathy; tweeting out warm sentiments and prayers, but never really getting to the deep sorrow that should happen when we learn that someone has committed such a hideous and evil act. Emotions are a gift. Our feelings are meant to bring us to action, but when we can’t fully experience them, it becomes much harder for us get into motion.

I want to weep for the inhumanity of these mass shootings – but it’s just not there for me. I can see the numbers and hear the stories. I can sit and contemplate the parents who had just gone to an outdoor concert, but will never return home to their children. I can think about the friends who gave their lives to protect others, or even the thousands of survivors who will go through months and years without feeling safe after being traumatized by this. But still; numb (ish). Ironically, I find myself easily moved by the pain of people in my daily life and professional practice. It’s these large scale tragedies I suffer an emotional distance from.

I very much appreciate people who are visibly and publicly upset, like late night host Jimmy Kimmel, because their genuine outpouring of grief keeps the rest of us calibrated in the midst of our detachment. I can’t seem to find tears for this mass shooting, and the truth is I didn’t for the last few. But courageous people who will display their sorrow in front of the world are so crucial because they remind the rest of us how numb we’ve become. And, sometimes in the midst of our absence of strong feelings, these witnesses who re-orient us to the sorrow that should be, can compel us to take action in spite of our numbness. Lepers – people whose disease has caused them chronic physical numbness – have throughout history been isolated and ostracized because of fears of contagion. But what they needed most in their numbness was a community of witnesses who could remind them of their vulnerable and damaged extremities. We too, who are numb, or perhaps numb-ish to the tragedies of the world, need a community of witnesses pointing us back to our humanity and inviting us to care even if we don’t have the feelings that would naturally cause us to respond with action.

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