Co-written with Dr. David B. Feldman, professor of counseling psychology and author)
We were all horrified when the news first came of the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. As the day wore on and the casualties became clear -- 26 deaths, including the 20 children gunned down by a madman -- our hearts went out to the victims. The loss of their lives is unspeakably tragic, and the pain that their families are just beginning to experience is difficult to fathom.
Our thoughts also turned to other survivors of the horrific event. In the coming weeks, months, and even years, many of the Sandy Hook school children who escaped death, as well as teachers, administrators, and custodians, will suffer the psychological effects of having witnessed such an awful tragedy. The first responders, too, will have to cope with the realization of horror placed directly in front of them.
We thought about more geographically removed survivors, as well: the children who attended nearby schools who were sent home early that day; the community of Newtown shocked by the rampage in their formerly idyllic city; the surrounding communities stunned by the unthinkable; and the parents throughout Connecticut who would be hugging their children a little tighter that day. This trauma has cast a wide shadow.
In fact, this shadow reached one of the writers of this blog in an unexpected and personal way all the way in Northern California. Around 3 p.m. on Friday, Lee's children's daycare sent an email to all of its parents. The center was taking extra precautions to ensure the security and protection of its children. It was meant to assure him that him kids were safe.
Instead, it had the opposite effect. He began to worry. Big time.
Lee had never questioned his children's safety at daycare, never had reason for concern. People must swipe a badge to get inside the main gate and swipe another to get into the classrooms. To move from the infant to the toddler yard takes another badge swipe, and a fourth swipe to exit the school. In some ways, it feels like the kids are in perpetual lockdown. And yet, this email shook him. What if our children are danger? Maybe someone here, just like in Newtown, is capable of perpetrating such a shooting. What if none of us is safe?
The truth is, near or far, we are all affected by the tragedy at Sandy Hook.
Given the quick and thorough media coverage, when the unspeakably horrible happens, we are all connected to it, even if in only a small way. From hurricanes to mall shootings, we've been exposed to a lot of tragedy this month alone. It's easy to overlook the emotional effects of such events experienced from afar. They become the backdrop of our lives, the context in which we do virtually everything -- what's on the radio as we drive to work, the television as we prepare dinner, or our home page as we go to check our email.
Much has been made of the feared "copycat" effects of shootings like the one at Sandy Hook Elementary. It's disturbing to think that someone across the country from Newtown, Connecticut could be inspired to go on his own shooting spree as a result of Friday's tragedy. But a far more pervasive way that events reach out and touch our lives from a distance is a phenomenon known by psychologists as vicarious trauma.
University of Massachusetts psychologist Ronnie Janoff-Bulman suggests that even the most jaded people carry around some pretty benevolent assumptions about the way the world works. According to her research, on some unspoken level, most people believe that the world is basically safe, that good things happen to good people, and that they, fortunately, are good people. Without these beliefs, it would be hard for us to function and to trust others. We might be immobilized by the realization that such a trauma could occur in our own lives at any moment. But emotionally seismic events like Friday's shooting undermine these beliefs.
It's what undoubtedly has happened to millions of Americans in the last trauma-filled decade. We've collectively faced terrorism, war, financial downturn, hurricanes, and floods. Rewinding just a bit further, we saw the shooting at Columbine High School and the unspeakable events of September 11, 2001.
Research has shown that the more empathetic people are, the more they experience these worldview-altering effects. Perhaps this is why a lot of caretakers, humanitarian workers, physicians, nurses, and psychologists -- people who over time witness others' suffering -- burn out. Vicarious trauma makes us feel connected to events even though they might not personally touch us. It explains why many experience sadness, depression, anxiety, and even fear when these events happen. When we care deeply about others, we tend to become jaded by the erosive properties of such events and begin to see the world as a scary place filled with dangerous people. Self-protection may start to feel more important than human connection, than reaching out and helping others. It's easy to find oneself thinking more about "me" than "we." We've seen a lot of this in the last decade, as we've seemly become less trusting of one another and more pessimistic as a society.
But becoming alienated from the world of good people around us won't change what happened to the 26 innocent victims in Connecticut. Even if fear, self-protection, and mistrust keeps us marginally safer, it won't heal anything or anyone.
There is another psychological phenomenon that's worth reflecting on here: post-traumatic growth. Don't let the name fool you; there's no optimistic spin to Friday's national trauma. Rather, research by psychologist Lawrence Calhoun and Richard Tedeschi at the University of North Carolina finds that, along with negative effects such as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), a majority of survivors say they also experience some kind of positive personal changes in trauma's aftermath.
Post-traumatic growth does not make light of the terrible, life-altering effects of trauma. Trauma leads to suffering, period. There is nothing inherently positive or indispensable about atrocities, violence, disasters, or loss. Nonetheless, with post-traumatic growth, some survivors say they become closer to those they love, experience an increased commitment to the goals they pursue, an increase in personal strength, enriched sense of spirituality, or greater appreciation of life. Even while causing immense suffering, trauma can turn people's sights toward what they value most in life.
In the aftermath of Friday's shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, it's easy to conclude that the world is a dangerous place, to allow our belief in humanity to erode. Lee felt this temptation when he opened the email from his children's daycare. He felt, momentarily, that no volume of locks on the doors of that daycare was enough. But locks ultimately won't protect us. We will protect each other. Ultimately, it is the goodness of other people we must rely on.
As we collectively mourn the tragic losses of the victims in Connecticut, let's ask ourselves what we can do to make our own corners of the world better places both for ourselves and for the people around us. Small actions matter -- kindnesses and slights alike -- and influence our communities and ourselves.
Let's grow, as much as possible, from this tragedy. Let's make this part of the legacy of an otherwise heartbreaking Friday.
Co-blogger David B. Feldman, PhD, is an associate professor of counseling psychology at Santa Clara University. Visit www.facebook.com/SupersurvivorsTheBook.