There is an Old Testament story of three men, Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-nego, who were hated for their religious convictions by the king who had once loved them. He had them bound and cast into a fiery furnace to die. When my mother read me this story as a child, it never occurred to me to worry that such a thing might happen to me, or to someone I loved. It was a story from long ago and far away. No nightmares, no trauma, no fear intruded on my childhood because I heard this ancient tale.
Recent headlines change that reality for children today, imposing horrifying possibilities on them and the parents, doctors, state officials, mental health providers, lawyers, police officers, firefighters and thousands of others whose keen desire is to surround those children with love and safety — not brutal details of stolen lives.
When we witness other people’s deliberate actions, or even imagine them, mirror neurons in our brain fire in resonance with those actions. This is the probable basis of empathy as well as social learning. But when we must witness or imagine violence, this process seems to turn against us. We are left with the bitter taste in our brain and body of the human capacity for evil. Or we join the powerlessness of a victim, traumatized and afraid. We glimpse firsthand the reality of violence, and we glimpse it mirrored in our own hearts, even as we recoil in horror.
People who work in emergency services, mental health fields, news reporting or similar professions not only put themselves in harm’s way physically, but psychologically. The very empathy that connects them compassionately with victims can also connect them emotionally to the heinous acts they must strive to understand and redress.
The trauma we feel at such events is magnified if we have been exposed to trauma in the past, if we are connected physically or emotionally to the victims, if we feel some sort of responsibility in the event, or if our life circumstances make the event feel close to home. I still remember a trailer I saw years ago for the movie "Sophie’s Choice," depicting a woman in World War II being given the “right” by a sadistic Nazi guard to spare the life of only one of her two children. She had to choose in an instant which child would live and which would go to the gas chamber. I had two young children at the time, and the thought of being put in such a situation was so horrifying to me that I had nightmares about it. The memory can still bring me to tears. And I didn’t even see the movie.
I am deeply grateful to be able to feel empathy, even for horrible events that cost me peace of mind. My capacity for empathy with another human being —whether a violent murderer or a violated victim — is something to cherish. When the details in the media seem to draw me against my will into a fiery furnace, locking the door of escape behind me, I try to do the things that violent people tend not to do, things that connect me rather than distance me from my humanity: seek out other people, talk things through, weep, remember the good, stop trying to control things I cannot control, take responsibility, forgive.
I also look for the angels. I can only hope that those two little boys, like Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-nego of Old Testament fame, “in the midst of the fire (had) no hurt” (Daniel 3:25) because angels attended them. Sometimes angels come in the form of memories of love received. Sometimes angels are ordinary people who never give up trying to right the suffered wrongs. Sometimes the angels must watch and wait, filled with empathy, until they can bring healing from an unseen world.
Wendy Ulrich, PhD, MBA, psychologist, author and founder of Sixteen Stones Center for Growth (sixteenstones.net), most recently co-authored the New York Times bestseller "The Why of Work."