One of the effects of events such as the hideous massacre of innocents in Orlando, Baghdad, Nice, and elsewhere, is the repeated assault on the mood and feelings of people who are only distantly connected to the actual event.
At times like this, it is all to easy for our imaginations, driven by empathy for those hurt, driven by our simple understanding of what they went through, driven by the awareness that that could have been us, to be completely overwhelmed by the horror.
The news is inescapable. Media coverage is wall-to-wall. It regularly beats in on all of us, even those who seek to shut it out by avoiding the endlessly repeated 24 hour newscasts. An intrusive internet headline here. A radio soundbite there. A comment from a co-worker. A cri de coeur from someone standing next to you in a queue for coffee.
The global psychic effect of the accumulated evil in the world makes us all more anxious. Makes us all more inclined to despair. Our feeling of helplessness grows unabated. Our inability to stop these events from happening induces real trauma. The world is suffering from a creeping case of mass PTSD.
In our desperation, we rail against those in power, unable to understand why the great and good cannot simply flick a switch and make it right. We call for strong leaders to make a difference. And those who would be those leaders shamelessly exploit the fear and distress to bolster their stocks.
And in bed late at night, when all around is quiet and we should be peaceful and calm, we lie awake, staring at the ceiling, the insistent thoughts pressing in on us, uninvited but impossible to ignore. What if it had been my daughter in that nightclub? What if my wife had turned that corner in Paris, or Istanbul? What if we had been in a bar in Bali? Or in a coffee shop in Sydney? Is anywhere safe? Are we ever safe? Please God, we just want to be safe.
This is very far from just a higher brain musing. Psychological studies show that a continual state of mild anxiety is extremely damaging for human beings. It affects our subconscious mind, and induces irrational decision-making. It can pre-dispose people to develop more serious mental disturbances. It may well give us cancer or heart disease. And it is, quite simply, just horrible to experience.
In response, most of us busy ourselves just getting on with life, bereft of any real alternatives to just forging on. Some – a vocal few – descend into activism against the perceived purveyors of the threat (in the world’s current state, Muslims) but most people recognise that the men of violence are a minority. A kind of ‘Dunkirk spirit’ takes hold. We “soldier on”, hoping against hope that we will one day see the end of such events, and fervently hoping we are never touched by one directly, as we weep for those who have been, and will be.
And yet despite our best efforts, there is that constant drumbeat of anxiety, whipped up by the ghastly marriage of the purveyors of terror and those who are duty bound to report it, not to mention the commentary of those politicians who seek to benefit from it. It is always there, just under the surface of our lives, threatening to bubble up and overwhelm our consciousness. Even the act of subordinating it makes us more tired and fearful.
There is only one answer. And it comes from everything we know about dealing effectively with clinical anxiety disorders.
It is to acknowledge, rationally, that we are all threatened, but in a minuscule manner. To cut the threat down to a realistic size in our minds. To deliberately and with determination confront the fears we inevitably feel, and assess them with calm and commonsense, and to assign them the relevance they truly have.
Despite the apparent ubiquity of terror in the world, the chances of being on a plane that is blown out of the sky are tens of thousands to one, no matter how the pictures of wreckage, flotsam and jetsam from those who have been attacked might impinge on our minds. It is perfectly, horrifyingly simple to imagine crashing to the ground, still awake, strapped to our chair, until colliding terminally with the dark black Ukrainian earth. Yet as we view these very mental pictures that distress us so much, we simply have to say to ourselves “but tens of thousands of planes take off and land safely every day, and airlines and governments employ highly sophisticated systems to keep us safer than ever”.
Despite the images that flood our television screens from Orlando, despite the 50 dead young people and the 50 others injured, despite the bloodied souls wandering crazed down the street looking for help, in the heart rending face of the victim’s relations and their incohate horror at their loss, the fact is that there are more than 300 million people in America, and the dead represent one hundred thousandth of the population. In a queue of the entire population, the chance of you being picked out by fate to be in that massacre was over 6 million to one.
The chances of being in that nightclub in Paris, or that restaurant, or on that island in Norway, was millions to one.
Are we completely safe? No, we are not. The dead and injured are real. But we have endured worse, time and again, and survived. My mother and father were of a generation that endured the Blitz, for example. Night after night, the Nazis raised hundred pound bombs onto defenceless civilian populations. Despite the horrific casualties, the majority of the population survived. They went about their business, day after day, determined not to be cowed. Death or injury was an ever-present possibility, but so was survival, laughter, family, friends, the daily round. Stoicism replaced expectation. This too shall pass.
We do not control our environment and no amount of wishing will ever make it so. A plane can land on your house. A tyre can blow out at the speed limit on the freeway. A drunken driver can plough into you as you wait for a bus. There will be storms, tempests, wars and rumours of wars. They are all simply part of life. Media vita in morte sumus.
We will all die, one day. In the meantime, the trick is to live our lives every day as unafraid as we possibly can. To seek joy in little things. A new flower. Birdsong. The smile of a friend. A joke shared. An unexpectedly delicious meal.
To see the best in those around us, and to be grateful for the support and love they give us so freely. We have to stare into the abyss of what could be, and then step away from the edge, content in the knowledge that it is far more likely that it won’t be. We will wake up tomorrow. The world will go on. And in the time that is granted to us, strive to be the best people we can be.
Yes, we must cry hot tears for those who were less lucky than ourselves. And we must work every day to remove the hate from our societies. Patiently, slowly, imaginatively, sincerely, day after wearysome day. There is no alternative. There is no magic cure. That is life.
But life is there to be lived, without constant fear. And the day that we allow the fear to overwhelm us, we hand victory to the murderers.