Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Safety in Distance

Two weeks ago in the town where I live (Omaha) a boy shot and killed 8 people, then killed himself, at the mall where I take my kids to play. It was a Wednesday. Wednesday is the day I take my kids to play there, usually, but we decided not to go that day. The shooting happened later in the day than we are usually there, but still, it is haunting to think of something like that happening so close to home.

It was a tragedy that has set the emotional timbre of the city dissonant. Yet I find myself very unconnected from the whole thing, relatively unconcerned. I don't think about it much at all and haven't really mourned much for those people who lost their lives.

When I took the time to actually realize this I was horrified with myself. What kind of unfeeling monster am I? But then I had to stop at that question because if there is one thing I am not, it is unfeeling. I feel things much too strongly in general. My siblings have agreed that my greatest fault is that I'm overly sensitive.

So what gives? It doesn't seem to make much sense. Then, as I sat reflecting on the situation, I tried to relate it to my emotional response to other tragedies and a pattern began to form. I thought of Katrina, the tsunami, 9/11 and realized that my responses to those were very similar with one exception. When news would roll of those happenings I'd change the channel. I averted my eyes from the news articles. The exception was 9/11.

The thing about 9/11 that just overcome me was the images of people jumping from the buildings. Putting myself in their places was the most terrifying feeling I could imagine and I couldn't face it. I refused to imagine what I would do in their places. Cold, electric panic would fill my chest every time I thought of it. It was too much for me.

I have come to realize that when the unthinkable happens, I do just that. I don't think about it. It's a safety mechanism I have developed, because if I let it in it will take over and I won't be able to handle it. I am so overly-symphathetic that things like that just tear at my insides and overcome me with fear.

So I'm not heartless. I've just developed self-preservation. I've come to realize the truth of this because when I really force myself to start thinking about these events, letting the people become real to me, I feel that terror reach in and I have to shut it off before it overpowers me.

In writing, if something becomes too horrific the reader starts to find it funny. Emotionally it becomes too much to handle. That's why people laugh at slasher movies. (I learned this concept from the great Mr. Card.) The key, in my opinion, is taking it to the threshold without taking it too far to elicit the maximum emotional response. When truly horrific things really do happen and it's not fiction, many people don't know how to process it.

How do you respond to horrific events and how does it affect your writing?


The Quoibler said...


Amazing, beautiful post. I commend you for this incredibly insightful commentary.

To answer your question, I remember that during 9/11 I wanted to BE there to help. I didn't know what I could contribute, but I desperately wanted to be part of the solution.

Usually, when terrible things happen, I have a strong desire to make a difference. But at the same time, I'm paralyzed because I don't know what to do.

In the weeks after 9/11, I became an insomniac, processing everything at 110% and re-living the moments time after time after time with the help of FOX News. I guess I still do that.

As for my writing, I cannot write about something too close to me for a long, long time. So like you, I need to distance myself emotionally from tragedy so I don't feel anything and can write somewhat objectively.


P.S. My heart goes out to the families of everyone involved. How absolutely tragic. - Q

SzélsőFa said...

One simply can not weep for all the loss in the world - for one had to weep all.the.time. Every minute someone's got killed/raped/shot/violated/abused.

I do what I think I can to prevent such things from happening.
And I try to think about the world like this: Every minute someone's got conceived by love/caressed/kissed/treated well.

It is not easy for I am wired for pessimism. But I keep tell myself to keep my chin up.

Whenever I meet misery, it affects me. All the time. It's just the level of influence that is different.

I do think I incorporate my feelings into my writing.

Church Lady said...

I am going around and wishing everyone a Merry Christmas!
I hope you and your family find the quality time to truly enjoy one another.
See you next year!!

Beth said...

Hey, you. I go on autopilot during traumatic situations, no matter how big or how small. I take action. Sometimes it takes me weeks to "feel" it and cry. Sometimes it never happens. I think there are people who ball up, lay down, and blat ... then there's the others who push forward. That's me. That may be you as well.

I just re-read Lord of the Flies. The part where a pig has a sharpened stick rammed up inside its anus is pretty horrific. It did not make me laugh. It made me sick.

I don't think I've ever laughed at horror and I don't write horror. I started a vampire story recently and it still won't be horror. I like scary movies, but I don't really love the genre. Too dark.

Beth said...

DAng it! I really wanted to also leave you with holiday wishes, season's greetings, and lots of positive vibes for the new year!

wordtryst said...

This post jolted me a bit. I too go into self-protective mode when some horrors occur, especially if there has been a rash of them. It's a survival mechanism that I need so that I can continue to function.

Reading about someone that close to 'ground zero', as it were, reminds me of how vulnerable we all are. Everywhere.

Like Szelsofa, I make a concerted effort to focus on the positive. Thanks goodness you and your children are safe.

Wishing you all the best for 2008, with lots of good memories to elbow out the tragedy so close to home.

Beth said...

I think I nominated you for a blog award you may have already received.

Minx said...

We can only ever sympathise/empathise at a certain level when our loved ones are not involved in the tragedy itself. If we did we would all be walking emotional heaps.

I gave up reading newspapers years ago and I rarely watch the news. Sensationalised beyond the point that my stomach can take, I prefer to read online.
You cannot change, or even help, the tragedies that I have experienced, nor I yours. We can only learn as we go along and make choices. Selfcare is not selfish.

SzélsőFa said...

Hello there?
Have a Happy New Year!

Scott said...

Funny, I was the same way with 9/11, in that I let it in. Normally I tune it out too. I've also felt that I'm heartless, especially when compared to my wife who feels every murder and sob story reported on the news. It's a harsh world, and crying about it is a waste of time.

Vesper said...

You can't get too emotional - I agree with what people said above. However, I tend to do it, and often feel as if I could cry for every unfortunate being in the world, human or animal. My defense is to avoid the news - maybe its selfish but also self-preserving...

I hope the New Year is the happiest yet, for you and your loved ones!

sexy said...
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