We have been inundated over the past week with images, stories and concerns about the earthquake and its after effects in Japan. It is common to hear friends, family and colleagues passionately engaged in conversation about the latest developments occurring there.
In addition to witnessing the impact of the earthquake and tsunami on the Japanese people I have been observing the impact on people here. It is clear that many people are being severely affected by what they are seeing, hearing, and imagining is occurring or might occur on distant shores. As I observe the impact these events are having on those around me I wonder whether we are well served by our persistent exposure to the world's most tragic events.
There is always some catastrophe, disaster, or unfortunate circumstance to capture our interest, concern, and attention. If it's not the earthquake in Japan or Christchurch, New Zealand, it's a plane crash, a car accident, an assault or other story of desperation and despair.
I've learned that my heart is too tender to regularly expose myself to these images and commentary. I become wounded, hurt, scared and angry when I take in tragic events when at the same time I have little or no capacity to respond in any meaningful way to bettering the circumstances or improving the condition of those I'm observing.
In an effort to maintain my peace and joy I've chosen to remove myself from exposure to these images and stories. About ten years ago my family and I made a decision to disconnect cable service and remove the televisions from our home. At the same time I unsubscribed from national and international print media. I restricted my newspaper reading to local papers that report the events of my immediate community.
Some might say I'm sticking my head in the sand; that I'm being an ostrich. The argument could be made that I'm ignoring my responsibility as an international citizen. My mother regularly challenges me on my decision and worries I'll be ill informed should there be some disaster in the making.
My rationale is that I'm restricting my exposure to areas where I have some influence and capacity to effect change. I've learned that to inundate myself with images, stories and speculations where I have no capacity to influence the outcome only serves to overwhelm my emotions and leave me feeling frustrated and powerless. I've learned there is little I can do to alleviate the suffering in Japan, the turmoil in Libya, or the hardships in Christchurch. And so I prefer to focus my attention on events and circumstances where I can make a difference.
Research into the impact of the bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995 provided some interesting information on the human experience when confronted with a tragedy. When the explosions first occurred many citizens rushed to the site of the demolished building and worked feverishly to remove debris and rubble in an attempt to release trapped individuals. Eventually the Police, Fire and other professional first responders arrived at the scene and restricted access to the demolished building. They insisted the average citizen stand on the outside of the taped off area.
Researchers investigating the impact of the trauma discovered those citizens who first arrived at the scene and had an opportunity to make a contribution to the recovery effort experienced a lower level of trauma. However those individuals who arrived later and were restricted to only watching the recovery efforts of others were the most severely affected by the events of that day. It appears the ability to contribute and make a difference allows us to cope with difficult life events.
And so we might want to re-evaluate the value of regularly exposing ourselves to traumatic events via television, newspapers, You Tube, and other forms of mass media. I am not suggesting we ignore the plight and hardships of others. Rather, that we be thoughtful and discerning with our exposure to these traumatic images and commentary, and when possible participate in opportunities where we can make a difference in alleviating the suffering of others. And in this way we are all healthier and happier.