Numbing Down America
November 8 has come and gone, and now we find ourselves just days away from an epic transfer of power in perhaps the greatest office in the world. Regardless of which side you're on, the days and weeks and months that have led up to our current reality have evoked passion and emotion deep and wide like never before. From Russia to Washington, from email hacks to wikileaks, from night clubs to churches, from social movements and civic responsibility to protests and riots, we’ve seen the best and the worst of humanity. These events have fueled the political fires, destroyed friendships, divided families, and created deep chasms that I've never before seen in my lifetime.
What once seemed like an ideological buffet of crusades, convictions, and causes now seems more like a shit sandwich served with a side of futility. Consumed in totality, our current challenges seem overwhelming – even impossible. And for many, the energy and the passion fueling the I can make a difference mantra has dissipated into little more than a dim hope that others will do the right thing.
There is a scientific term for this phenomenon; social psychologists call it psychic numbing. The official definition in the Oxford English Dictionary is “a psychological response to traumatic events, characterized by decreased responsiveness to, a feeling of detachment, and a reduction in the ability to acknowledge and express emotion.”
The key with psychic numbing is habituation. The emotional magnitude of something bad – social injustices, genocide, natural disasters, lying politicians, whatever the aversive stimuli is – decreases over time with constant exposure to the point where it becomes unnoticeable. Social psychologists have studied this in cases of PTSD, domestic violence, rape and gang activity. Put simply, it’s a normal cognitive process to become desensitized to remote and/or continual tragedies or injustices.
Psychic numbing also applies to the scale of the event. Perhaps the best example of this is the iconic photo of three-year-old Syrian boy who washed up dead on a Turkish beach.
This photo had a greater impact on the Syrian refugee crisis than the hundreds of thousands of deaths that came before it. Even though over 5,000 refugees were killed in 2016, the body of little Alyan Kurdi prompted a number of governmental policy changes and raised more money and social awareness than all of the other lost lives combined.
When it comes the construct of “good prevailing over evil,” big numbers of faces are mere statistics, while one face is a real story. And one real story has the power to move us more deeply than millions of unknown faces.
“If I look at the mass, I will never act. If I look at the one, I will.” –Mother Teresa
It’s easy to get lost in the enormity of the challenges that face us and experience the side effects of psychic numbing such as despair, hopelessness, and pessimism. In order to overcome it, you first have to understand it. The next step is to narrow your focus and think small.
Okay, now think smaller.
We could throw our hands in the air over the 13 million children who go hungry in this country, or we could donate one hour of time in a local soup kitchen.
We could shake our heads at the staggering statistic that more than half a million people will sleep outside or in an emergency shelter tonight, or we could donate a winter coat to keep one person warm.
We can sigh in disbelief at the daily demonstrations of crime, injustice, intolerance, racism, bigotry, and inhumanity on the nightly news. Or, we can put our beliefs and our values and our convictions to work for us…. one day at a time, one person at a time, one impactful action at a time.
Think of one person that you can impact in a positive way today. It could be as simple as a phone call to a struggling friend to say, “Hey, you’ve been on my mind today… how are you?” Or maybe it’s an expression of gratitude to someone who went out of their way to help you.
See one real face in what you believe it means to be a good, decent person. See one real face in the kindness and compassion that guides your own moral compass. See one real face in the value of humanity.
Watch what happens.
Pretty soon, the numbness goes away and the feeling comes back.
One impactful action at a time.