The Importance of Witnessing and Feeling in the Face of Tragedy

More than ever, many of us are looking for meaning in a culture where we are moving faster connecting with each other less less. The more things feel out of our control, the more we tend to tamp down emotions not allow ourselves to witness or feel the devastating effects of our environments the things going on around us.

After all, feeling the impact of the horrors of genocide, war, disaster, famine, or senseless acts of violence such as the mass shootings in Newtown, Connecticut Clackamas, Oregon this week would be virtually impossible for us to humanly bear if we really allowed the reality to sink in. (In fact, the shooting in Connecticut was the eighth mass shooting in the U.S. in 2012 alone as outlined on ThinkProgress, which posted a timeline of shootings that have occurred since the infamous incident at Columbine, stating: “The rate of people killed by guns in the US is 19.5 times higher than similar high-income countries in the world. In the last 30 years since 1982, America has mourned at least 61 mass murders.”)

In his book Constructing the Self, Constructing America: A Cultural History of Psychotherapyhistorian psychologist Philip Cushman (1995) perceives that the individual in modern culture is an “empty self” that is driven by its felt sense of hollowness to fill itself up through increasing consumption of goods, services, technology, peak experiences, entertainment, celebrity even psychotherapy. To alleviate the anxiety, depression, isolation, suffering, psychosomatic disorders, or addiction, as a general rule, we turn to consumerism. We distract ourselves, stuffing ourselves into individual silos no longer linked to a larger web of creation, we connect less less authentically with the world around us in order to mitigate the devastating consequences of truly seeing feeling the pain.

In western capitalist/consumer-based cultures, we have trained ourselves to disregard people, nature, events as a mechanism to protect ourselves. We may stop to exclaim in horror, to empathize with the victims, or even to shed a tear–but for most of us, in the end, all we can really do is go back to our own isolation with an added layer of defense against the anxiety despair that is so natural to feel in the face of such horror.

In their groundbreaking work, Toward Psychologies of Liberation, Mary Watkins Helene Shulman (2008) suggest it is impossible to be connected to a world we continually fail to see. This separation or loss of connection manifests in dissociation, the distancing or splitting off of affect, a sort of psychic numbing, in objectification, establishing ourselves at the top of a hierarchical structure where we become the “doers” all else around us, the objects of our manipulations our doing. Both dissociation  objectification serve to effectively turn us to stone, either by self-inflicted paralysis or by the immobilizing of others.

Dissociating enables us to feel safe by becoming numb. It cuts off emotion so we can tolerate certain behaviors, acts, or mates without being overly affected, it makes us capable of inflicting judgment or pain without suffering evident consequences. Watkins Shulman that this kind of psychological disenfranchisement extorts a heavy toll as passive bystingwatching without seeing,  observing without engagement, is a sort of self-mutilation, an amputation of our own sense of sight, a “severing of the self” (p. 66). This tendency has been called percepticideby trauma scholar Diana Taylor an act of self-blinding because to see  acknowledge the atrocities that exist would endanger ourselves.

The late archetypal psychologist James Hillman (Re-Visioning Pychology, 1975) might agree, suggesting, “The eye wound are the same” (p. 107): in other words, the thing we refuse to see the denial of that thing by the eye that does not see are both violent acts which result in trauma to the psyche–ours others. It is almost as if, through dissociation, we turn ourselves to stone (as Medusa of myth did to others) in order not to see. Watkins Shulman suggest that when the practice of percepticide pervades a culture, “watching-without-seeing becomes ‘the most dehumanizing of acts’” (p. 5).

Like many others, I’ve been more or less glued to media coverage of the shooting in Connecticut these past two days, unable to imagine how horrible it is for those living through it. I have to remind myself, though, not to get carried away by the sensationalism then turn it off when it’s time for my dinner, but to really allow myself to wonder at the tragedy to acknowledge witness the grief rising up in me so as not to further contribute to the violence on the level of the psyche.

In this time of tragedy– every day–perhaps the best way we can honor those who have suffered is to truly witness the horror allow ourselves to feel. It’s a good time to check in with what C.G. called the “Self” (with a capital ‘S’)–those forces that are bigger than our everyday selves– acknowledge that we are sad, angry, or in despair just really be in it. It’s critically important not to numb ourselves, but to really allow the grief to get the better of us, even for a short while. I can’t say how much I was touched to see President Obama allowing his own tears to be seen as he addressed the nation in the wake of the tragedy.

If you feel despair, sadness anger, you may want to seek out a friend, family member, or community of people who are willing to open to their feelings acknowledge their emotional shock–or engage with one of the many qualified depth psychology oriented therapists, counselors, or practitioners on to help put difficult events into context.

SPECIAL EVENT: Join me Thursday, December 20, 2012 for an in depth conversation with Jungian Analyst Dr. Michael Conforti: “Beyond Horror and Hope: The Archetypal Intersection of Innocence and Evil” An exploratory conversation about the archetypal underpinnings of the Sandy Hook Connecticut school shooting