I know trauma has been normalized because I don’t remember the moment—excuse me—moments, when I heard about Sandy Hook, Aurora, and Virginia Tech. In a few years, I probably won’t remember that I heard about Orlando upon returning from a camping trip. However, I can remember the morning of September 11, 2001 like it was yesterday. Mass trauma was harder to come by back then. Even though it had only been about two years since Columbine, I remember experiencing shock when I heard what happened to the Twin Towers. I was in college and I remember going to class and everyone on campus was moving through space in a dreamlike state. My professor recapped what had happened in New York City and dismissed us early. I wandered around, not knowing exactly how to process what was happening in our country.
15 years later and I still struggle with processing the news of such violent acts. Unfortunately, I no longer experience shock when I hear about mass killings. This is a big deal. We are living in a state of ongoing trauma. And when there is trauma, there tends to be fear. And fear has the exquisite ability to disguise itself as anger and hate, begetting more violent acts. We are stuck in a cycle. It’s like we’re on the playground wheel that spins around; we want to get off because we’re starting to feel sick, but the thought of releasing our grasp from the bar summons a scary sensation.
On the wheel, we think in “us vs. them” terms; we are paralyzed by fear and stop going out; we don’t feel safe at our workplace or schools; we are filled with righteous indignation; the blame game is prevalent. So,why do we insist on staying on the wheel? Is it because the wheel is what we know? As nauseating as it may be, it’s familiar to us.
Getting everyone to jump off the wheel at once is probably impossible, so here’s what I propose: one by one, we muster up the courage to take the leap. For me, this means continuing to go out to public events, even though the possibility of a mass shooting exists. It means embracing the compassion that rises up in me after an event like Orlando and carrying it forward with me. Sogyal Rinpoche talks about what we can do when we are exposed to the suffering of the world through news outlets. I feel his advice is very much relevant to us now:
Any one of these sights could open the eyes of your heart to the fact of vast suffering in the world. Let it. Don’t waste the love and grief it arouses; in the moment you feel compassion welling up in you, don’t brush it aside, don’t shrug it off and try quickly to return to “normal,” don’t be afraid of your feeling or embarrassed by it, don’t allow yourself to be distracted from it or let it run aground in apathy. Be vulnerable: use that quick, bright uprush of compassion; focus on it, go deep into your heart and meditate on it, develop it, enhance, and deepen it. By doing this you will realize how blind you have been to suffering, how the pain that you are experiencing or seeing now is only a tiny fraction of the pain of the world. All beings, everywhere, suffer; let your heart go out to them all in spontaneous and immeasurable compassion, and direct that compassion, along with the blessing of all the Buddhas, to the alleviation of suffering everywhere. Compassion is a far greater and nobler thing than pity.
Compassion is not easy, but it’s necessary. And I think that paired with courage, it’s our ticket off this nightmare of a spinning wheel we’re on.