“Emotional numbing” is a psychological phenomenon that can develop when we witness ongoing trauma – near-daily mass shootings, for example, or years-long pandemics, or when the basic human right to bodily autonomy is stripped from half the country. We’re equipped to cope with life’s regular setbacks, but if the atrocities keep coming, our all-too-human mind can desensitize and grow numb, our neural centers of empathy and compassion can diminish, and we can end up fomenting a social environment in which new atrocities are far more likely to occur.
How do we witness the world’s horrors without shutting down? How do we show up in even the smallest way when it all feels too much to bear? For me, these are the fundamental questions of our time, because the world’s horrors aren’t going anywhere and we can’t afford to look away. Our anger is a holy fire; our sadness a healing balm. Even our hatred is worthy because it proves we still care. It is our apathy that poses the biggest threat – the “emotional numbing”, the non-action, the non-voting, the non-daring, non-loving death rattle of our time.
In our old (and new) cross-cultural myths and stories, when a character suffers persistent defeat, when it all becomes too much to bear, a crisis of faith will often emerge: What’s it all for? Why me? How much more must I endure? This is when the emotional numbing sets in and while some characters turn rigid and cold, others make a different move. With no hope nor recourse in sight, they go soft, vulnerable, surrendering to the enormity of their problems, falling to their knees, humbling themselves to the great mystery, the fickle finger of fate, the holy-shit-I-thought-I could-control-this-thing-but-have-no-clue-which-way-is-up-anymore principle of life on this earthly plane, and it is then (and only then) that a glimmer of light appears, help arrives, a solution suddenly becomes apparent, and our hero/heroine is rewarded with a whole new lease on life.
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