On Friday the 13th, the world was rocked by another terrorist attack—this time in Paris where assailants simultaneously attacked numerous locations throughout the city leaving scores dead. People who commit these types of crimes often feel marginalized by society and, as a result, unhappy with their lives. Their unhappiness can lead to cruelty as they vie for personal gratification, greater awareness of their grievances, and justice. Terrorism is one way to elevate a conflict and make grievances conscious to others. Many of us feel frightened and confused about these acts, the world, and our place in it. How we can respond to these traumatic events in a less destructive, healthy way?
Trauma occurs when events threaten our ability to survive. It exposes our vulnerability and overwhelms our ability to cope. Trauma has a deep and far-reaching psychological impact and it profoundly disrupts our ability to function normally. It forces changes which include, but are not limited to, social withdrawal, suspicion, fear, and anger. It directly assaults our sense of well-being. We no longer feel safe, insulated, or exceptional. Trauma strips us of denial and make us painfully aware of our physical and emotional frailty. Trauma forces us to live differently.
As psychologist Harry Harlow demonstrated, when psychologically healthy primates feel afraid and overwhelmed they turn to each other for comfort and protection. Unhealthy primates, on the other hand, turn on each other when faced with the same challenges. It is important to strengthen our connections to others. When you experience a traumatic event it will not be your one thousand Facebook friends or your Twitter followers who will come to your aid. It will be your flesh-and-blood connections who will be there to support you. One way to assure this is to have more substantive conversations with the real people in our lives.
As human beings we suffer. We get sick, we grow old, and we die. By becoming more aware of our own suffering and listening more deeply to ourselves we can become more aware of the suffering of others and listen more deeply to them as well. That creates compassion. In mindfulness practice, the word “compassion” means to sit with suffering, not to make it go away. To develop compassion for yourself teaches you how to have compassion for others. By not taking your own suffering personally you can come to understand that others are suffering as well and show them some empathy. This can lead to happiness because you can avoid making your situation worse by blaming yourself or others or by resorting to violence.
Trauma invites us to face reality. We are vulnerable. We can be hurt. We are not special. It is with this knowledge that we have to remain in the world. We have to connect. We have to increase our capacity to empathize with others. Empathy and justice reduce suffering and serve to create an atmosphere where we all feel more cared for and connected. There can be growth through misfortune. We can become more conscious. On a micro level we can begin to connect or reconnect with our circle of family and friends. On a macro level we can build community, share our grief, and explore our reactions to the shared trauma.
It is never in our best interest to be cruel to others. Trauma can make us conscious of the need to re-prioritize our lives. It can also bring about a more rigorous application of moral and ethical behavior.