If no one has told you yet, I’m a bit of an English buff. I don’t dabble much in the world of math or science, nor do I care to. For myself and all of the others out there who’d much rather write a compelling novel than a 978 page thesis on how to build a rocket ship out of pond algae, we get each other, including our innate dread of physics tests. So if you’re one who finds themselves at home among the realm of nuclear astrophysics, you’re going to have to refrain yourself from judging me and the countless others who can attest to the fact that the prospect of an upcoming physics exam is not conducive to a good night’s rest. It is just horrifying to ponder on. And even then, after every sickening time I have been assessed on my physics literacy, I have never felt more fortunate to be exiting a lecture alive as did today, and we didn’t even have an exam.
I had been deeply investing myself in my quest to discover the exact proportion in which the displacement of fluids influences the effectiveness of hydraulics (thrilling, I know) when we were ordered into a lockout of the campus. All doors were locked, students passing through were ushered inside rooms, and the lights went out. We stood at once and were instructed by a faltering voice to occupy the utility closet at the back of the room. With a nauseating aura of familiarity, our minds instantly shot to the cliché report of a falsely concerned newscaster standing in front of police cars, ambulances, and weeping chaos. Behind that, a school. Why did I not have enough fingers to count the number of shootings recently featured in the news as I counterproductively fixated on the worst scenario possible this morning? Why did I even have to raise one finger?
Danger elicits a tiered set of responses. I learned that this morning. At the base, the most nonchalant of the three tiers is indifferent acknowledgement, and then come the other two, increasing in intensity as they do with height placement.
Fear or Emotional Overdrive
Today, I passed through all of these, graduating from each of the first two until I reached the insight, and dread, of the third.
When news of a threat or tragedy reaches each of our spheres of awareness, we react minimally, unless it is our own. When we learn of a child who was shot and killed, our immediate reaction is to feel sorry for his or her parents rather than the child’s experience, and then forget after we’ve paid our “ethic dues” of the internal reflection of remorse which occupies a fraction of a second’s time – unless it is our own child. Our response to the distant loss of a stranger is more or less an indifferent acknowledgement, a simple nod of the heart at the close of which we resume our normal patterns of life.
I am not here to say that human nature is a deranged version of narcissism in which we live our lives as uninterested and self-serving beings void of empathy because our lack of interest in other’s tragic affairs. On the contrary we, excluding a few examples, are relationship-oriented, and for lack of a better description, love-loving people who experience authentic distress when learning of another’s pain. However, the time spent in this state of unease regarding the misfortune of someone not personally acquainted with us is almost infinitesimal in nature. On that note, I am also not here to propose that we are heartless individuals on the basis that we allot minute periods of time to sorrowfully reflect on these calamities. Individuals who choose to live above ground have to learn how to adapt to the ever-flowing influx of negative information. If they were to spend the time that a close family member does grieving for a lost soul every time one was reported on the news, theirs would be lost as well before they had time to live.
With that said, I am at a loss when it comes to finding a middle ground between not caring enough and caring too much. Is the reason that such horrific disasters can affect us so little because we’ve been desensitized by a perpetual tsunami of them? Should we care more than a few seconds of our day, or is the minimal regard to others’ pain the only way to protect us from the everlasting ebb of grief’s tide?
Of course, when enough examples of a specific type of incident accumulate in the mind’s queue, such as school shootings, the probability that we perceive for the reoccurrence of that episode in our own sphere of living grows astronomically higher. It is when tragedy appears often enough that we start to worry it could affect us somehow, that we experience an actual concern for the outcome of the event rather than a simple acknowledgement that it occasionally exists and happens to other people, or the second tier.
And then, of course, there is the appearance of legitimate fear or an emotionally charged craze. The lump in your throat, the uncontrollable pounding of your heart and within your temples, the overwhelming perception of doom, the whole deal. This is the feeling that occupied that closet. It seeped through the walls and pooled onto the floor, filling the room with a noxious gas of tension and terror. Immediately, I had gone from a general awareness that bad things happen to other people, to the slight concern that school shootings had become a common headline these days, to the ambush of terror as the last sliver of light was shaved off by the closing of that closet door. The image that haunted the mental theater of every human being in that room was that of an armed gunman patrolling the hallways in search of devastation. As we fought our own minds to stay practical and cognizant of our actual scenario, we began a losing battle and Aurora, Columbine, UT, Binghamton, Omaha, and Sikh Temple stampeded a victory lap around our psyches. Our mental states were utter chaos, yet the room was silent and still, intensifying the petrified atmosphere we had made for ourselves. I stood there, shaking, mentally tracing different routes out of the building, should the need have arrived.
It was then that a dread so deep that I have never before experienced entered into my body. I thought, this is what everyone at Columbine felt. And honestly it probably didn’t even begin to match their horror, because we had hope, we had the grace of the unknown on our side. It was possible that the campus was not locked down because of a shooter (it can happen you know), and although we still pondered on the worst, those malicious fears could not be confirmed without knowledge. Regardless, the shame and disgrace and despair that I held for those children and my reaction toward them was tangible as I suffocated. A dreadful shock ravaged me as I made the notion that the kids in that school wanted so desperately to live and be anywhere but where they were, and they experienced this mad sensation of grief and crazed need to escape from their current scenario, yet no one else truly understood. I wondered if anyone cared enough to come and get me sooner than the officers who deliberated for hours around the perimeter of Columbine before deciding to enact a search and rescue through the gunfire. I stood in that tiny area of that closet, berating myself for not giving a whole heck of a lot of thought in regard to how traumatizing that experience must have truly been for them, because now it was happening to me.
It had only taken up the span of 10 minutes, the time we spent locked in our self-made horror. In only 2 minute’s time, after the threat had dissipated, everyone had gone back to their former, tier one mode, as their personal status returned to “Me, myself, and I are not in danger, but others might be”. My peers regarded the experience as a mere occurrence in another day of their life, as if to cover up the fact that they were terrified. It was almost as if the person who tried to express how they had felt was ostracized, because it was silly to have been so scared; everyone was embarrassed. No one would admit that they had ever felt insecure or that they had ever questioned their safety. All of them had.
A man discharging his gun at a homeowner several miles from where we were was the reason for our lock down, not an intruder roaming through the school and wielding a machine gun. But every student on campus assumed they would need to dodge a bullet or two, they assumed what everyone assumes today, that there is a shooter, and because of that, they cared. They cared a lot, because it involved them.
I walked out of that closet thankful for not having to endure any actual pain or tragedy, and also wishing that the fear of a public shooter was not so readily manifested in our society’s mind. I wished that no one ever had to worry about such a deplorable act taking place, and I wished that, when indeed one did take place, that people did not have to undermine the severity of it. In no way am I endorsing the sensationalism of the media, however the extreme nonchalance and minimal regard that so many give to this issue and many other dangers our society faces is not conducive to healing, prevention, or progress. People need to learn how to genuinely care, regardless of if it is for their own sake or not, yet not allow their fear and the intensity of their feelings to reach a point where progress becomes regression.
Our world needs to set its standard on the second tier of the response to threat; we need genuine concern. Not apathetic indifference spotted with occasional remorse, nor emotionally overcharged activists, but a point of compromise and efficiency. This caring is necessary, as Elie Wiesel upheld in his speech, “The Perils of Indifference”. We need to care, because one day, when you’re the one in the closet, you’ll be glad when somebody else cares that you are there.
I know I was, and the thought that those who didn’t care could be the ones making the decisions on whether to send aid to Katrina victims, continue providing unemployment, or whether to take me out of that closet was way scarier than any physics exam.