GETTING USED TO PROBLEMS IS BAD FOR COPING
I’m beginning to hear news commentators suggest that the proliferation of attacks around the world, and the saturation coverage of those events in the media, may be dulling us to the dangers of terrorism. Psychological research shows us the effect is real. Continually seeing and hearing horrific events sends our brains into protective mode: “Oh, well, there’s another one. Terrible! Is it time for NCIS? I hope they don’t pre-empt our favorite show!”
Psychologists call it habituation, becoming used to something presented again and again. The villagers learn to ignore the smart-aleck kid who keeps yelling, “Wolf! Wolf!” Habituation can be very adaptive. Let’s face it, how useful would it be for us never to learn that many of the things we experience can best be ignored? On the flip side, habituation can lower our defenses, as in the boy crying “Wolf.”
I remember a story from an eminent psychologist at a convention in the early 1970s. Paraphrasing:
“I was watching the evening news. As usual the lead story was Vietnam. The report covered napalm attacks by American jets on suspected Viet Cong areas. The film was vivid, showing the flames that spread across the jungle as the projectiles hit. My 4-year old son came walking through the room but he paused when he saw the jets. He loved anything having to do with planes, especially jets. But he heard this new word and asked me, ‘Dad, what’s napalm?’ I casually began explaining the flames and how they destroyed all the trees and plants so the enemy couldn’t hide. I said if any people happened to be in the way, the napalm would eat away their skin, giving them tremendous pain and leaving them scarred for life or burnt to a crisp. I must have been pretty vivid because I heard a whimper and looked at him. Tears were streaming down his cheeks. I had terrified him with my casual description of napalm. I had seen film of napalm attacks for so long I didn’t realize I had habituated to the horror of this weapon. Another napalm attack? Ho-hum.”
There’s no doubt that saturation coverage of real events ( mass shootings, suicide bombers, local murders, street riots, a mean-spirited political rally or town-hall meeting) over a long period of time can dull us to those events as we become used to seeing them. And it’s hard to avoid the coverage. The ubiquitous presence of cell-phone cameras, police body cams, and security cameras make “catching” real-life violence and mayhem highly likely. Your children could easily catch a murder, a horrific accident, a break-in, or a street riot simply by entering your TV room while CNN is on.
Here is where we have a problem, though. The kids are not habituated like you are and they’re likely to be upset by what they see. What, you wonder, is the emotional effect on your children of seeing this reality? Will your sons and daughters buy into the belief that the world is a violent place, and that meeting violence with violence, fighting fire with fire, is the only way to navigate through life?
The effect of repeated news reports on habituating us to violence and terrorizing our kids is bad enough. On June 14th I saw an even more pernicious problem. In the aftermath of the heinous attack on Republican Congressional members on a baseball field, I heard a survivor say in an interview: “We must tone down our political rhetoric. We do not hate our colleagues in the other party but it must sound to the public like we do. We’re out of control with how we’re presenting ourselves with such vitriol directed at others.”
Sounds good but look between the lines of this comment. It says we’re getting so nasty that we don’t even realize the negative fallout. All of us, from political leaders to citizens having lunch at the corner diner or a few beers at the corner bar, we’re getting used to nasty talk. Habituation is creating a new norm in social discourse: “Go to hell!” Need proof? When was the last time you heard a White House Communications Director engage in an on-the-record expletive-laden barroom diatribe with a reporter against a White House Chief of Staff? At least we can be reassured that the frequency of crude profanity in one’s social discourse is negatively correlated with one’s intelligence. Scaramucci may be a smart guy because he made a billion dollars, but he’s not too intelligent. Remind your kids of that distinction. Also remind them that anyone who is polysyllabically-challenged and can’t construct a grammatically-meaningful sentence will rely on the monosyllable world of Twitter.
How many of us recognize the new and evil norm that profane insults are OK in our public discourse? How naïve and self-absorbed are we? Can we not look in the mirror and say, “Enough is enough! I may have differences of opinion with adversaries, but I must be guided by certain absolutes in my interactions with them, absolutes like the inherent value of a human life, the importance of courtesy, respect, and understanding, and the importance of carrying myself with class and dignity.”
On June 14th, some politicians and news commentators said they were taking that hard introspective look in the mirror. Let’s hope they get concerned over what they see.
My biggest disappointment, however, is that in the aftermath of June 14th I heard no one deal with the elephant in the room: Courtesy, respect, dignity, virtue, and civility begin at the top. Courtesy is not pushing a world leader out of the way to get a better position at the front, and respect is not insulting others with barroom talk in tweets. No dignified leader sets an example by pouring gasoline on the flames of hatred that already exist in ample supply in America. A virtuous American leader realizes that because actions have consequences, “I must not perpetuate crude and disrespectful behavior in myself and make it easier for others to justify such behavior in themselves.”
I have heard members of the Legislative branch of government, and also media commentators, publicly express that awareness. Tragically, I have yet to hear a similar sentiment from the Executive branch, whose ignorant classless bullying continues unabated.
Is there a coping lesson in all this? Yes, indeed! When psychological habituation in us fosters negative actions in others, we must accept some responsibility. We must look inward and objectively examine our values, social conscience, and life purposes. We must ask ourselves, “How do I define myself? Are my actions consistent with my self-definition, with who I believe I am?”
If you define yourself by your negative emotions – your anger, anxieties, fear, and sanctimony — you are on a self-destructive coping road. Effective coping requires you to apply your values and standards to your roles as spouse, parent, friend, co-worker, son/daughter, etc. You must determine if your actions in these roles are consistent with your conscience and purpose. If not, you must work to correct the inconsistencies. That, my friends, is effective coping.