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The American Epidemic Of Psychic Numbing: Necessary Or Not?

The first Great War story of the Western canon, Homer’s "The Iliad," begins with immortal lines about Achilles’s rage in the face of betrayal. 

"Sing, O Muse, of the rage of Achilles!"

Although anger is often a first response to injustice, it's a difficult emotion to sustain across time. Climate change, impeachment, gun violence — at first we’re appalled, but all too soon, we’re overwhelmed and numb. 

Lately, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton’s concept of psychic numbing: how people sometimes need to shut down their emotions so they can simply go on. He first saw a version of psychic numbing he called "death immersion" in survivors of the WWII bombing of Hiroshima.

In another manifestation, the psychic numbing of everyday life, people shut down to avoid overwhelming emotions caused by relentless news or threatening, but low-probability (we hope!) future events like nuclear war.

In today's epidemic of psychic numbing, responsible citizens are not only avoiding the news, but also despairing about the future of our country. As so many of us say, "Every day! Every bad-adjective-not-allowed-on-the radio day!"

But that avoidance can lead to totally checking out.

However, Lifton also identified a phenomenon he called the psychic numbing of enhancement. Sometimes people have to numb themselves to do a good job at a hard job.

Think of all the blood and gore nurses and surgeons deal with: they can't avert their eyes, as most of us do. Or how therapists interviewing child victims of sexual abuse must keep their emotions in check to be there for the child.

What does this have to do with all of us everyday citizens curled up in the fetal position on our couches watching cat videos?

It suggests it's OK to shut down, or compartmentalize, the legitimate despair and rage we're feeling in order not only to keep on keeping on, but also to stay in the fight.

It’s OK to ration our consumption of the news — but only if we're doing so to stay good at our job of effectively engaging in the battles for justice and compassion that so very clearly need to be fought.

Elizabeth Vozzola, a developmental psychologist, is Professor Emerita at the University of St. Joseph in West Hartford, Connecticut.

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