Dahlia Lithwick’s published a well-written piece on the horror that is children being separated from their parents at the US/Mexico border for Slate this week. In the article, she implored readers not to go numb in the face of this monstrous atrocity. She is absolutely right.

And a bit wrong.

She correctly points out that going numb to the horrors of our government is a privilege. If you are white, if you are of the middle class or above socioeconomic status, if you are separated from Texas by a significant distance, it is easy to shrug. It is easy to give in to the sense that there is nothing you can do. It is easy to choose any of the literal or metaphorical narcotics around us a distraction.

However, going numb is also a natural reaction to trauma.

NUMB: Crossing
A family attempts to cross the Mexican-American border in 2015. (Courtesy of Getty)

When I First Went Numb

In doing 270 Love Wins (doing social justice oriented tasks for 270 days straight following the 2016 election) I was quite shattered by the end. I had given time, money, personal resources, and mental health over to it and felt utterly bereft. There were victories along the way, but they were small, brief, and felt so separated from the money I had donated, the phone calls I placed, the protest signs I made, that I received little positive reinforcement from them.

On the other hand, the losses, the losses hit like body blows. Every one felt personal, everyone ran down my hope that much more.

I know, I know. Boohoo, a white guy didn’t feel validated enough for his work. You’re right. We should do good in this world because it is right, not because it makes us feel good. That said, when you feel hopeless, when you feel like the government of your country is systematically tearing down everything you valued about the nation you grew up and live in, a victory now and then is like an oasis in the desert.

I wish I were wired better. To give and give and give and lose and lose and lose and never hesitate to get off the map. But I’m not. Sometimes I succumb to hopelessness. Sometimes I crumple. And, sometimes I go numb.

It’s a privilege AND a defense mechanism. It can be the result of not giving enough of a shit AND giving too much of one. Sometimes nearly at the same time.

A Terrible Week: The Scourge of Suicide

Making a Plan

This is not to excuse my numbness or anyone else’s but to recognize it can happen. Feeling guilty about it happening to you is not going to get you anywhere. Instead, I humbly suggest this.

Accept you went numb or are numb. Recognize it and take a step back. Your body and brain are telling you that they are overtaxed. Don’t play through the pain, that means the inevitable crash will only hit your harder, will only derail your farther. Rest, recover. Then get back out there.

The problem, I suggest, isn’t going numb, it is staying numb. Or rather using that time you went numb as an excuse not to re-engage.

I took a break after 270 Love. There’s no other way to say it. I can’t and won’t pretend otherwise. I wrapped myself in a warm blanket of distraction and apathy. Not my proudest moment, but I try to think of Superman flying into the sun to power up his cells.

(Yes, there is something wildly arrogant about comparing myself to Superman. I recognize that. The analogy works, but yeah, that is way big upping myself.)

Then I did let the blanket go. I went to the gun protests, I sent emails again, made phone calls again, did my homework on various issues.

There will be another day — relatively soon, judging by how I’m feeling — that will see me numb once more. I am but a human being and my capacity to take on human suffering is only so big. I will try to increase it, but that is an ongoing process, not a switch.

NUMB: Protests
A group protests the current border situation last week. (Courtesy of ABC News)

Together In This

Again Dahlia Lithwick is not wrong. We cannot afford to go numb forever if we want to change things. She acknowledges this is hard and we are all suffering. She’s not shaming anyone, really. That said, I know so many people who already feel like garbage for the fights they take a powder on, the protests they don’t attend, the letters they never manage to write.

This is a marathon, not a sprint. I know I can’t run full speed over the rocky terrain that is the political landscape of the moment. I imagine many of you feel the same. That is ok. When the numbness comes, recognize it for what it is, use it to heal yourself, and then get back to the battlements. We need you. We need each other.

Better you rest around and then get back out there then end up on the mat for good.

One Comment

  1. Joe Marino

    June 21, 2018 at 5:00 pm

    This was an outstanding article. Thank you for this .


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