On Saturday, December 15, I picked up my children at the childcare center in our gym.  I could hear a child crying as I approached the door, but I soon saw my two coloring by a table, so my initial panic turned to a blend of relief, concern, and curiosity.

Once inside the room, I saw a father cradling his wailing 2-year-old son in his arms.  The little guy had fallen and hit his head on the corner of a wall.  I saw the lump– it was bluish and raised to the size of a demi-golf ball.  The father was pacing around, barking accusations disguised as questions at the childcare staff. “Why wasn’t Zachary wearing his shoes? Did someone push him? Who else was around?” He probed for answers, while trying to comfort Zachary and dial the pediatrician.

That’s usually the moment when I would have that self-satisfied thought that he should worry less about who to blame and just focus on little Zachary.

I didn’t.

You know what I thought?  Jesus. It’s a bump on his head. He’s alive, you reactionary prick. RELAX.

Nice, huh?

If you are following along, you will note that was the day after the Newton massacre. It was less than 24 hours later and huge pieces of my emotional life had been rearranged.

Now, in my mind, because his child was alive and well (if bruised and upset), I had the sincere belief that the dad with his Adidas sweat pants should just chill the f*ck out and recognize that Zachary is gonna bump his head from time to time because that’s what happens when you let your kids ambulate.

I was disappointed that my reaction was so judgey and insensitive to that father, who, though a little intimidating, was simply reacting to his son’s pain. He was probably scared and shaken and trying to deal with the situation the best that he could.

That morning, I gave myself a pass because it had only been 20 hours since I had heard about the devastation in Connecticut.  I wasn’t thinking clearly; nobody else was either.  I grabbed my babies, wished little Zachary well, and went home.

Then, in early January, I came across an article about the sexual abuse scandal at Penn State.  (Last fall, when that story was splashed all over the headlines, I couldn’t read about it, because it was so upsetting to me.  One night I had to wake Jeff up after reading a paragraph on CNN because it scared me, and I couldn’t sleep.)  Last week, when I revisited that topic, I felt less triggered.  At least all of those kids are alive.


Did I just minimize a systematic sexual abuse scandal simply because it wasn’t a flat-out massacre?

I did. That’s exactly what just happened.  And there are other examples of how my thoughts have been perverted since Newton. The calculus is forever altered because now Newton is the worst  nightmare I can imagine befalling a family or a community.  Anything short of that is, well, not as bad as Newton. Would I rather my kids fall prey to a depraved pedophile or a sick person with an assault weapon?  Of course, we all know the answer.  The problem is the question.

I hate the question. Because the real answer is that I don’t want any horrible things to happen to my kids or any other kids.  Hell, I don’t want them to ever get a bump as big as Zachary’s, much less suffer the more tragic, damaging things. None of it is acceptable.  It all keeps me up at night, and that seems like an appropriate reaction to evil.

God forbid, if something worse than Newton happens, then suddenly, will Newton not seem so horrific? How can that be?

I don’t want to live in an ever-escalating parade of horribles, where yesterday’s tragedy becomes  “not as scary” in light of today’s.  I don’t want to be desensitized.  I want to be prickling with sensitivity and compassion and energy that might lend itself to solutions and healing.  But I need to change my thinking first– starting with the questions: instead of “What’s worse?” I’m trying, “How can I be part of the solution?”



65 thoughts on “Desensitized

  1. The Newtown ghost haunted me–haunts me still. My imagination falters and fails when it comes to thinking about those families whose lives collapsed just a few weeks ago. And is that the “worst thing?” I dunno. I guess that, ultimately, sexual abuse and horrors of that sort are–theoretically, anyway–heal-able. Which is to say that there might be tools with which a life can be put back together after rape and/or abuse. Not the same life, of course, but a life. Whereas in Newtown and elsewhere…those little lives are gone forever.
    I am already hearing people say “well, probably you don’t want to hear about Newtown anymore…” as if there is a kind of Newtown fatigue or something, to which I say DAMMIT BE ANGRY. BE LOUD. Demand demand DEMAND that as a country we do better. Or give some other country the title of “leader of the free world.” Because a leader who lets children get slaughtered every single day (statistic: 21 kids A DAY die of gun-related violence in the US) is no leader of anywhere I want to live.
    Thus endeth the rant.

    • You’re right. I don’t want my own outrage to slip away until next time…. I have had enough. No Newton fatigue here. But my thoughts indicate that a new horror would change the calculus again.

      And we are not the leader. We don’t deserve that title currently.

  2. This gave me so many goosebumps. I never, ever, ever want to EVER hear about anything that will make Newtown seem less horrific. I can’t (and I’m glad that I can’t) imagine how that could be possible.

  3. It makes me so sad that after every event like Newtown, there’s so much pain and outrage and demand for change… for a week or two… and then the news is back on idiot politicians having affairs and Kardashians having babies. I hear the term “recreational outrage” a lot and I’m afraid that’s what we’re devolving to – horrible news just being something else to get riled up about for a while, like a bad football game. Media coverage of horrific crimes has gotten out of hand, in my opinion. We’re all losing perspective.

      • It makes me sick, too, and sad that so many smart people avoid real news because it’s depressing.
        I studiously avoid the celebrity magazines, but star news is everywhere. I think many people like to pretend they know Kim Kardashian. It’s related to the phenomenon wherein sports fans on the couch congratulate each other when their team scores, as if they were somehow instrumental to the play.

  4. Beautifully written and evocative. I think about people in the middle east where suicide bombings are routine, or the genocides in Africa, and I can’t put myself there to imagine what it would be like to constantly have death hanging over one’s head and how much I’d have to shut down just to keep going if I lived with that every day. I wonder if those people become desensitized at all. Obviously one of the horrors of Newtown is the absolute contrast of perfectly beautiful innocent kids and absolute brutality of the attack – sort of how 9-11 happened on a gorgeous blue-sky day – it seemed almost surreal. Yet, it’s hard to imagine any parent anywhere losing a child, even if it might be expected, as any less devastating. All this to say I’m always making comparisons in my head, and whether I like it or not, I probably always will.

    • That’s true. I may not be able to control the comparisons because that may be how I cope with horror. And genocide is pretty awful on a scale I can’t imagine. It’s so untidy– the business of comprehending evil.

  5. I was a DCS child abuse investigator before my son was born, and I became a stay-at-home-writer-mom. I found that, when you are in the middle of the horrible, you become desensitized. After the horrible ends, you sometimes become overly sensitized. Finally, I hope, you get peace with it. Sometimes I’m still trying to figure out being at peace with it means.

  6. I am convinced that playing the “It’s not as bad as . . .” or “Hey, at least it’s not . . .” game is the only way to stay sane in the face of crisis. My older daughter was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes in March. It sucks. And every day, I pick a new ailment/disease/affliction that, in my head, is worse than T1D. It’s how I make it through each day.

    • I’m sorry to hear about your daughter. And I would do that too– diabetes sucks and is scary, but it’s not… Cancer. Gah– how are our minds supposed to deal with this?

  7. It makes me physically sick to imagine anything more horrible than Newtown. And when my mind goes there, I can’t even think about what that would be. But you are so right. Getting to “how can I be a part of the solution” rather than “what’s worse” seems a good place to recapture our compassion and sensitivity; two qualities I know for certain from reading your blog that you are positively brimming with.

  8. I am outraged by all of the horror that happens to children, both in the US and elsewhere in the world. I don’t know that those feelings will ever subside. But I rail against that negativity — I refuse to let my children lose the magic in their world just yet, so my energies are spent there for the moment. I don’t quite know how to pick my head up and see past them just yet.

    And I’d have thought little Zachary’s dad a wee reactive, too. Kids get bumps, some of which need medical attention. Losing your shit doesn’t help your kid stay calm when they’re injured. And this is from a mom whose already dealt with two broken bones in her kids. We have to keep it together so they can get a grasp on what’s going on — both with physical pain and the pain that comes with societal issues. If we can do that, we will always make a difference.

  9. UGH, that’s so true. I mean now that the Aurora shooting trial is happening, I caught myself thinking “at least it wasnt 4-5 year olds….” Which is a HORRIBLE thing to think. Because it’s all awful.

  10. I don’t think you are the only person to ever think, chill out it’s only a bump. Once you have children, you need a little bit of that to get you through the days. I thought this when mine were small – 20 years ago. It’s what allowed me to get up and enjoy each day with them instead of cowering in a corner.

    Before Newton, you may have even had these same thoughts. I probably would have, because I would not have the true horror of sending your child to school and not having him come home to even compare it to.

  11. i agree, i would have probably thought the dad should chill out before newton also. but i got a wake up call, when a friend of mine died young some years back. that forever changed me, i became acutely aware of life and how little some the stuff we focus on really matters. i became a more appreciative person. newton did that to me again. it hit low and hard and reminded me again how fragile life is, how vulnerable we are and how we should just try to get as much loving and giving and laughing and hugging in life as we can.

  12. I tell myself I will keep the horrors of Newtown in my mind and heart forever (just today I felt sick/sad walking into our daughters’ school when thoughts of Newtown and armed guards flooded my brain), but more often I’m already focusing on less significant issues (whom I’m triggered by today, etc. ;-)). The human condition? A coping strategy? Personality flaw? Perhaps all of the above. I like the idea of fighting desensitization and being part of the solution as it unfolds. Compelling topic and discussion. Well done!

  13. You are always thinking, aren’t you? God bless your commitment to improving yourself and our world. I think someone who questions whether or not they are becoming desensitized couldn’t possibly be. I will pray for peace in your heart. Thank you, as always, for your profound posts.

  14. I think we are desensitized, at least in part, because we sensationalize these events. We start hearing about them so much that they become woven into our cultural fabric, so then the next time someone goes on a rampage the story is a bit more padded by the past. There are truly awful things that happen in every single country, but I think we live somewhere where we can at least talk about what’s wrong and what we can do about it. And maybe we can turn things around.

    • You’re right too. Ya’ll commenters are a smart and insightful bunch. It’s true. I had clients who escaped political persecution in Democratic Republic of Congo….they had plenty of ills to report about the things that happened on their soil. I think someone (me) needs to go on a news diet pronto. If it’s not gun rampages, it’s freaking Kim Kardashian…none of it is any good for me.

  15. Great reflective piece. I think we all find ourselves lining things up in a hierarchical order from time to time when really, as you so eloquently pointed out, it is an absurd way to look at it. We have been desensitized as a society, so that even when something horrible happens and we react w/ genuine (and sensitive) grief and concern, if it’s not as bad as something else, then we’re thankful. I wonder if it’s also just natural human psychology to do that (asks the person who never studied psychology).

  16. This post really gave me a lot to think about. You are right, with all the horribleness, it seems like we are now comparing the lesser of two evils instead of trying to find good, make good, be good. Great post.

  17. A very honest, well-written look at the questions we all ask ourselves. (Or should.) I think you might be a little hard on yourself. At least you are honest with your emotions and feelings. I’m afraid that some of us don’t think much about our thoughts and how they affect others. Newton was a terrible shock. The unthinkable happening. But hopefully, it will be a once-in-a-lifetime incident. Sexual abuse of children will be with us always. And I’m afraid it’s far more prevalent than we dare imagine.

  18. It’s funny. I had kind of the opposite reaction and can still get worked up about it. When the absolutely appropriate outpouring of sadness and horror came from the country with regards to Newton (which I felt, too), I also felt downright irked that people seemed much more up in arms than they did when people were slain in Aurora or the children were slain at Columbine or Virginia Tech. (Teens are still someone’s child and it makes me seethe that they somehow seem to have less “value” to the population in general than smaller children. As the mother of a teen and an elementary schooler they are exctly the same to me). I think all of these incidents are equally tragic, horrifying, and inspire my desire to want to something–anything–to be a part of a change for the better. –Lisa

    • That’s interesting. Listening to the Aurora preliminary hearing details, I thought of that too. LIke teens are still someone’s beloveds. My thinking just puts me in a bad mood so I went to contribute to Gabby Giffords new PAC. And if someone took one of my beloved adults in my life, I would be grieving too. UGH. see, it makes me sick to think of it.

  19. I read less of the newspaper every day and have even considered cancelling our subscription. I know exactly how horrible the world is, and I find myself tensing when I pick up the paper, trying to brace myself for the latest evil. I don’t want to play ostrich, but I feel helpless to prevent any of these things, so I almost don’t want to know about them.

  20. I love your line about the problem being the question. That’s where I’m at too re: Newtown and the larger questions it raises. On the hand it’s good to be aware of the terrible things that go on in the world and realize that you’re really lucky none of them are happening to you right at the moment. On the other hand focusing on currently having an un-shot family doesn’t seem like the best jumping off point for a healthy world view. For me on both a personal and national level I / we need to figure out what the hell it is we want so that I / we can ask ourselves the right the questions. So much of the conversation that’s happening in my head and nationally right now is either circular, desensitized, hyper-sensitized, or otherwise unproductive. Great, insightful post!

  21. Who’s the badass now, mama? I applaud your candor. You write what many of us think but fear judgment for expressing. Damn fine piece! Also….”that’s what happens when we let our kids ambulate” <— brilliant.

  22. This was a very honest, brave post. I’m just so irrate that there is going to be a proud gun ownership day next week where gun owners demonstrate outside gun shops, etc. I do believe we should have the right to bear arms, but their insensitivity sickens the fuck out of me. I would like to ask those individuals fighting for their guns right now: “Make a choice right now. Do you want to give up your assault rifle or your child’s life?” Consider that, pricks. I don’t own guns, but there’s plenty I would give up to save my children’s lives. Anyway, I, too, applaud your candor.

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