On Feb. 14th , 2018, Valentine’s Day, there was another mass shooting. 16 students and one teacher were killed as a result. I learned of the tragedy in between my
sessions that day. I don’t recall whether it was from reading my Google news in between sessions as I sometimes do, or if a client informed me. I do remember that
my clinical day ended with me indulging in a delicious chocolate covered strawberry that a client brought for me. I can even remember how much I enjoyed that tasty
treat. I have no memory of having any reaction to the shooting, though I’m sure that I did, even if only for a moment. To ease my mind, I am trying to tell myself that
maybe it’s because I remained “present” with each of my clients as they came through one by one after I learned of the shooting. Or, maybe — and more likely, — it
was “just another shooting” and I was getting numb to these incidents. I don’t know, but having no memory of an emotional reaction is very disturbing. After all, I can
still remember exactly how I learned about the first plane crash into The World Trade Center on 9/11, how I felt, and what I did immediately after getting that
As I write this, my memory takes me back to the day of the Sandy Hook shooting. It was the morning of our office Christmas party. When I arrived, I heard refrains of, “did you hear about the shooting??? Isn’t that so sad??” But then, I turned my attention to enjoying the lightheartedness and revelry of the event. In retrospect, I think I must have been getting numb even then.
Since I watch the news nightly, I most assuredly saw the coverage of the tragedy when I got home from work. Sadly again, though I would like to say that I MUST have felt something, I cannot recall what I felt – not outrage, not sadness, not shock. I think I may have been more caught up in the facts of what happened. Just another day in the life. The shooting in Las Vegas, at the Pulse night club, at the Charleston Church, and the First Baptist church had occurred. Tomorrow, we would be on to some other news story – like the grade school student who shot himself in the school bathroom and the Maryland school shooting that killed 2 and injured another. Just one violent event after another.
But no. Against all odds, tomorrow came and more tomorrows came and the story, at least as of today, is still going. The students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School spoke out. They made me feel! I felt incredible sadness listening to them share their experiences and reading about what they lived through in those 6 minutes and 20 seconds, as well as the immediate aftermath. Yet, in the midst of their tragedy, — and as they buried their friends and family members,– they had the
strength and fortitude to begin to advocate for their lives. I was and am so inspired by them as millions across this country and the world participated in the March for
Our Lives event on March 25th. It feels like a defining moment. In the world of addiction, we often hear, “they have to hit their rock bottom before they will decide
to change.” Maybe we have hit our rock bottom with senseless violence. I hope so.
As I continued to witness their advocacy, my head began spinning. Why does inflicting harm on innocent people in masses appear to be trending upwards? Why
do we seem to struggle with basic respect towards others just because they think differently, look differently, believe differently? Why have we arrived at an “us vs.
them” mentality? What can be done? And why have I witnessed this and done little about it? (Actually, nothing outside of actual counseling sessions). This last
question brought about a tremendous amount of guilt. My soul searching began.
I will to try to answer all of those questions as best as I can. To be honest, I intended this article to be about my journey from inaction to empowerment. However, I realized the importance of sharing some action step, big or small, on what each of us can do in case anyone else is also looking for a better America.
In the days that followed, I talked, I listened, I read. I talked some more, listened some more, read some more, trying to grapple and understand all of the above. One day, someone said to me, “Maybe you have become complacent.” The next day, I listened to a podcast by Brené Brown. She is a researcher who has studied human behavior and human connection. She mentioned that sometimes, because these events don’t personally affect us, we don’t feel any need to do something about it. I think that’s the moment it hit me. I have been complicit in living in and perpetuating the belief that “that’s just how it is.” Shamefully, I have to admit that I’ve also allowed myself to stay on the sidelines because of fear. I have feared being judged, disrespected, and attacked for speaking up for what I believe in. I see it
happens to others every day and it can be vicious, so why wouldn’t it happen to me, too?
Despite my fear, I know that change cannot happen without taking that first step, big or small. I took what was to me, a big step. I decided to attend the March For Our Lives rally in Chicago with a colleague. It was my first visible act of activism; hers, too. What would people think? What would people say? Should I even tell anyone? Should I dress inconspicuously to blend in with the crowd? (Silly thought given the masses of people that showed up, I know, but fears aren’t always rational).
Brandishing a sign created by my colleague’s two young boys, I ended up at the march with a hat on my head that boldly said “Our Lives Matter.” Though no one
could see it, I also wore a tee shirt that said “Students Against Gun Violence” on the front and “Never Again” on the back. These were given to me by a teacher of a local high school whose students had designed them. I graciously accepted and told her that I would be proud to wear them. Wow! Did I ever underestimate the power of a hat and a shirt. I was doing something! I was actually standing up for the students of a school in my community! I felt incredibly empowered. Ironically, I also ended up getting a complement on my new hat. So much for being unnoticed.
Before the rally began, Michael Jackson’s song “Man in the Mirror” played. I knew the song quite well, but had never really paid attention to the words:
I’m starting with the man in the mirror,
I’m asking him to change his ways,
And no message could have been any clearer,
If you want to make the world a better place,
(If you want to make the world a better place),
Take a look at yourself, and then make a change.
Those lyrics hit me like a ton of bricks. I thought I was impacted before, but those lines were so powerful that the tears welled up – tears of guilt and shame. I tell my
clients all the time to focus on what they can control if they want to make a situation different. They have to push through their fears if they want to make a change. Why hadn’t I? I looked over at my colleague and we caught each other’s eyes. I looked away. I don’t know what she was feeling, but I didn’t want to give away how
vulnerable I was feeling. Fear comes back really fast sometimes! At the rally, one of the young speakers said “I wear PTSD like a backpack.” Those words haunt me even now. I witnessed children carrying signs. I witnessed children participating in chants all simply asking for the right to be safe from gun violence. I lost track of how many times my colleague and I were driven to tears. Many emotions arose – sadness, shame, guilt, anger, pride, hope. This experience, I believe, has been life-changing for me. I must get out and stay out of my comfort zone. Michael Jackson was so right: If you want to make a world a better place, take a look at yourself and make a change. Had I not attended this event, I think it’s highly likely that I would have fallen right back into complacency. I’m glad I pushed past my comfort zone for this very reason.
I picked up the book “Braving the Wilderness” by Brené Brown. I’d been recommended to read this way back in 2016 when I was disturbed by the kind of divisions that seemed to be happening in our country. But, daily life went on, and apparently, that turned out to be more or less a fleeting concern. Until now.
I read this book voraciously. I wanted answers to why we’ve arrived here, and what can be done. Brené Brown confirmed some of what I already knew to be true. I’d
like to thank her for unknowingly giving me permission to share my thoughts now that I know she has done the research that supports much of my personal and
I believe that a huge reason as to why we are in our current state of divisiveness is because we are disconnecting from each other more and more, and the internet and technology are playing a prominent role. While they definitely have their benefits — like being able to have “so many friends,” unfortunately, they aren’t always authentic connections. Instead, they are based on how we are perceived and how we perceive others. With more texting, snapchatting, facebooking etc. and less face-to- face interactions, we miss out on about 90% of communication, which allows for a much greater understanding of someone’s “real” message. We all know that “body language” can speak quite loudly. With only words to go on, we naturally start to insert our own assumptions about people and then react and behave as if our assumptions are truths. Since we are all doing this, it’s easy to understand how our internet relationships may be founded on stories we have made up instead of truths. We feel connected, but the connection may not be based on authenticity.
Why do we so easily insert assumptions? Because each one of us wants/needs to be able to understand our environment in order to best control our circumstances. It’s human nature. As part of that need, we make assumptions when we don’t have all the information in order to make “good” decisions. That includes assumptions about people, even those with whom we have face-to- face interactions. We make assumptions about who someone “really” is and what he or she “must” believe or feel based on little pieces of information. Partners, friends, parents and children, teachers and students, bosses and employees all do that with each other – in all human interactions.
Many times, those assumptions happen to be correct, but sometimes, not so much. Depending on the issue at hand, these creations of “reality” can lead to dramatic
consequences: The kid that attempts suicide because he feels his parents are not proud of him and he will never be enough for them – much to the shock and dismay of the parents; the person that has an affair because their partner’s isolation must mean he/she doesn’t love them. Less dramatic, but many can relate; “they must be upset with me because they haven’t responded to my text from two hours ago.” I hope I’ve made the point clearly just how easy it can be to fall into the trap of believing you “get” someone when, in fact, what you believe you know may be based on assumptions.
Getting back to the internet and technology problem, when one understands how easy and natural it can be to create stories about people when we actually have face–to-face interactions, imagine what happens when we’ve never met them in our lives. Oh boy!! We have to fill in a whole lot of information. A universe full of possible assumptions we can make so we can know how to interact with these strangers we’re connecting with.
In the context of the violence that urged me to write this article, consider these unfortunate assumptions: If you believe in guns, you MUST be an NRA supporter
which MUST mean you absolutely don’t care about human lives; if you are a Trump supporter, you believe it’s okay to bully others; if you support the March For Our
Lives movement, then you don’t support people being able to defend themselves. On the other hand, if you aren’t engaged in the movement, then you obviously don’t care about these mass shootings that are happening. If you only got on board about caring about gun violence after white kids were victims, then you’re a racist and obviously don’t care about the many lost lives of black and brown people. Honestly, I’m not making this up. These are statements people have made.
So that gets us to bigger problems. We have arrived at an either/or position and “us” (the ones we assume think like us) against “them” (anyone we assume doesn’t
think like us), and when we care so passionately about our beliefs, we are seeing that the solution for many seems to be to attack those that we have decided are
against us. We demean, we criticize, we judge. If we vilify them (they’re ignorant, stupid, dumb, liars, soulless) then we can simply discredit their thoughts and feelings. This erodes how we see people. They are not a person anymore; rather the person has been reduced to simply being a vessel of ideas that should be snuffed out, a “thing” no longer deserving of respect and dignity. We dehumanize, and with the internet, we can take that to the nth degree.
How often have you done or said something mean or disrespectful directly to someone face-to- face? It’s not easy. That’s why so much ugliness happens on social media. We can sit behind the safety of the veil of Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram and so on – hiding behind fake names and fake pictures. With mere
keystrokes, we can break that vessel – rip apart someone’s thoughts, and feelings; rip their core apart. Some of us will never know the destructive affect we may have had on another. Is ours the comment that’s going to push someone to self-harm or to harm others?
Now what? How can we turn the tide? What happened to being compassionate and empathetic??? Feeling compassion and empathy allows us to care about another human being. They allow us to kind and thoughtful, instead of mean, disrespectful, and judgmental. Most people agree that compassion and empathy are good qualities. (I hope I am right about that). And I do believe that most people mean well, but we are all participating in an environment that is not conducive to developing or displaying those affirming qualities.
How can we be empathic and compassionate when we’re so disconnected and don’t even know someone’s story? Even as a therapist, sometimes it takes several
sessions (or more) of breaking through someone’s anger and defensiveness because they have been hurt or “mentally broken” for so long and are simply trying to
protect themselves from feelings of hurt and shame. It can be exceedingly difficult to get to the vulnerable parts, but when you do, it also becomes so incredibly easy to have compassion and empathy. This is the very reason that the students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas made me soul search. They were willing to share their
vulnerable feelings from the first moment that they appeared. The world saw it when they cried and pleaded for safety on national television. My compassion and
empathy moved me to face my own fears and participate in something greater than myself.
To develop a compassionate and empathetic society, most fundamentally, we must respect people because they exist – not because of what they have accomplished or what they look like. We must also, however, hold them accountable for wrongdoings. We must try to get to know who they really are. We must prioritize face-to- face interactions. We must stop making assumptions. We must ask questions. We must listen without judgment. We must work to understand why
someone thinks and feels the way they do. We must seek to understand their story. We must educate ourselves with the facts so we can have meaningful dialogue. We must speak from our hearts. Coincidentally, these are the same communication tools that therapists use to provide a safe therapeutic environment for their clients.
If we respect each other just because, and if we communicate in these ways, we would find ourselves feeling true authentic connection to each other and wanting
the best for each other. Perhaps, then, we can indeed become one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.
I end with the infamous words of Neil Armstrong: “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” What will your one small step be?
Written by: Lisa Aranas, LCPC, JD
Lisa Aranas, JD, LCPC, received her M.A. in Family Counseling in 2001. She devotes herself to helping adults, adolescents, couples, and
families. As a Certified Holistic Nutritionist, Lisa recognizes the connection between mind and body, and approaches counseling from a holistic perspective. Warm, relaxed, but direct, Lisa helps clients to either come to terms with what is, or to bridge the gap between what is and what they would like it to be. Areas of expertise include depression and anxiety problems, relationship issues, divorce and custody, family conflict, substance abuse, mental, physical, and sexual abuse, self-esteem, body image, gay and lesbian issues, anger management, parenting, school problems.