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 and connecting with each other less and less. The more things feel out of our control, the more we tend to tamp down emotions and not allow ourselves to witness or feel the devastating effects of our environments and 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 and 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 incide... 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 ...historian and 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 and even psychotherapy. To alleviate the anxiety, depression, isolation, and 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, and we connect less and less authentically with the world around us in order to mitigate the devastating consequences of truly seeing and feeling the pain.

In western capitalist/consumer-based cultures, we have trained ourselves to disregard people, nature, and 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 and despair that is so natural to feel in the face of such horror.

In their groundbreaking work, Toward Psychologies of Liberation, Mary Watkins and 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, and in objectification, establishing ourselves at the top of a hierarchical structure where we become the “doers” and all else around us, the objects of our manipulations and our doing. Both dissociation and 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 mandates without being overly affected, and it makes us capable of inflicting judgment or pain without suffering evident consequences. Watkins and Shulman that this kind of psychological disenfranchisement extorts a heavy toll as passive bystandingwatching without seeing, and 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 and acknowledge the atrocities that exist would endanger ourselves.

The late archetypal psychologist James Hillman (Re-Visioning Pychology, 1975) might agree, suggesting, “The eye and wound are the same” (p. 107): in other words, the thing we refuse to see and the denial of that thing by the eye that does not see are both violent acts which result in trauma to the psyche--ours and 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 and 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 days, unable to imagine how horrible it is for those living through it. I have to remind myself...(Continue reading here)

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