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Overcoming helplessness in the face of horror

So far this January, a day hasn’t gone by without a mass shooting. They’re all horrors—terrible in themselves, terrible to imagine, terrible to hear about—but all the more terrible in being so unnecessary. Other countries have angry, resentful, alienated people, often with access to firearms. But they don’t have mass shootings, not the way we do in the States.

When the Twin Towers fell on 9/11, we were also horrified, and terrified because we didn’t know when or if the next shoe would fall. How many more towers were next? But 9/11 was not a prelude to any significant further attacks in the US. People did not report feeling helpless.

Now we do. The relentlessness of these random attacks, their frequency and unpredictability—as if we were being attacked by a horde of anonymous headless monsters that feed on these attacks, which is why we correctly see them as an epidemic—make us feel utterly helpless. The attacks keep coming and we have to keep going...about our business.

It's the very image of helplessness.

I talked with a woman the day after the Monterey Park attack in which now 13 people have been confirmed killed. She was consumed by helplessness. She’d been driving around not knowing where to go, just wanting to go somewhere. Not knowing what to do, just wanting to do something. Someone had given her the idea of going to Washington and roaming the halls of Congress and grabbing random Representatives and Senators and shaking them and shouting at them to let them know we’re not going to stand for this shit anymore.

As if that were a good idea! But you can’t deny: it is something to do.

And that’s the terrible tyranny of helplessness. It so easily drives us past the point of reason into meaningless or even counterproductive action. Leaving us feeling more helpless than ever.

So how do we deal with this? How do we manage ourselves the next time some horror plunges us into a nightmare of helplessness?

The first thing is to realize that it is precisely helplessness that is the problem. Yes, your mind and heart are filled with thoughts of the horror that just happened—the mass shooting, the drunk driver who just killed an entire family, or whatever it is that happened—but the actual turbulence you’re feeling is not due to that but due to your not knowing what to do.

I know that this may go against our assumptions. “No! I’m upset because of what happened!!” Yes, of course you’re upset by what happened. It’s just that your upsetment was sent into overdrive by not knowing what to do about what happened.

Take the death of a loved one. This is terrible too. We can’t minimize how awful this is. But with a death in the family there are the anchoring rituals of funerals, people coming by with casseroles, and other things that channel our panic and despair and tell us what to do. It doesn’t make the sense of loss go away, but it makes us all feel a lot less crazy.

So then the next thing is to figure out what to do to feel less helpless. You can do anything, but it should have two key attributes:

It should be do-able. By you! Something you can pull off and point to with a sense of accomplishment. If you drive all the way to Washington to roam the halls of Congress hoping to buttonhole a Representative or Senator, you might not actually find one. If you think you’ll be able to storm into the President’s office, well, that’s definitely not going to happen.

And what you do should leave you with a feeling that you’ve actually accomplished something. The sad thing about so many people who commit mass shootings is that they did what they did because they too were feeling helpless.

They too felt some sort of despair and rage. They too wanted to do...something. And nowadays, committing a mass shooting—as has been proven all too often—is certainly do-able. Tragically do-able. What it doesn’t do is accomplish anything. Which is why the perpetrators are typically left feeling hollow afterwards.

And that’s what you have to take really seriously. Will what I do give me a sense of accomplishment? As opposed to a sense of...just having done something.

The woman I talked about earlier who was almost hysterical after the Monterey Park killings decided that because she was experienced at working with children, she’d find ways to help children cope better with the anxiety of living in the shadow of mass shootings. It would make a real difference, as opposed to an empty gesture that would make no difference to anyone anywhere.

So that’s it. You do not have to be in such a state of terrible turmoil when confronted by some horror. Just accept that you have to deal with your sense of helplessness and find something to do that will make you feel less helpless, something do-able that will make a real difference no matter how small.


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