Tuesday, April 16, 2013

How we experience tragedy

I heard about the Boston Marathon tragedy yesterday afternoon while driving home. At that time, there was little news, except that there had been two explosions and many people were injured. Much more was unknown than was known.

I wanted more information. So I did what anyone living with a 24-hour news cycle would do: I went online and looked for news about the event. The first result that I found was a link to a video of the explosions. The event was not even 2 hours past, and already there were videos on YouTube of the explosions. Ah, life in this modern world.

I clicked on the link, and then I thought better of it, and stopped. Instead, I surfed over to NPR and HuffPo. I am glad that I made that choice.

What we know about trauma is this: Trauma responses are created by events that cause loss of life or significant injury, when compounded with powerless on the part of the individual watching the event. Further, the more you repeat a disturbing event, the more likely you are to experience a trauma response.

I was in graduate school when 9/11 happened. I remember how the video of the towers falling was shown again and again, over and over, 24 hours a day. And I remember how many of us watched those images, transfixed by them, often with an inability to process what was happening, and what it meant.

One of my professors at the time said that she believed that we were creating a nation-wide trauma response, by watching and identifying with the tragedy repeatedly. Now, 12 years after that event, we know that she was right. Our nation did experience trauma, and it did not require any direct contact or proximity to the actual events. Our ability to disseminate information effectively disseminated the trauma across the country.

The lesson learned is this: It is not necessary to watch a tragedy unfold. It may go against the natural curiosity of our primate brains, but we do not need to see what happened. We do not need to look at pictures of tragedy. We do not need to see the video. We do not need to hear the sounds. It does not honor the victims or their families to watch the tragedy. It does not help anyone, and it will not reassure us.

Instead, we can read the news--reading does not trigger the same trauma response that video does. We can send our prayers and thoughts to those who are in pain. We can donate blood. We can donate money. We can offer a listening ear to our friends and families, if they need one. We can take action in any number of ways. And by taking action we remind ourselves of our power, and we can help hold a space for the healing that needs to happen.

We can choose to remember without choosing to re-experience. And we can choose the empowerment of action, and reject the powerlessness that comes with trauma.

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