Has the Newtown shooting ruined Christmas?


Photo by: J W Foster

“Tragedy should be utilized as a source of strength.’ No matter what sort of difficulties, how painful experience is, if we lose our hope, that’s our real disaster.” -Dalai Lama XiV”

I put together these pictures to cope with my anger about the tragedy in Sandy Hook, CT. I live in Sandy Hook and I was working out at the gym when I first heard about the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School.  It felt like 9/11 again, people around me panicking and calling to check on their loved ones.  At first,  I hadn’t even noticed the headline because I was pushing hard on the elliptical and had lost track of everything around me. Suddenly, I felt an electrifying tap on my shoulder.  I wasn’t expecting it and because I was in a little bubble of space defined by that machine and the music playing in my ear buds I almost jumped out of my skin.  The man on the machine next to me was trying to get my attention, “There’s been a shooting at the elementary school!” I looked at him long enough to orient back to my physical surroundings and that’s when I got the flashback to that day back on September 11th, over 10 years ago.  I remembered the fear, not knowing whether my children were safe.  At that time, we didn’t know if the terrorist attack on the twin towers was national, which could include our own backyard, or limited to NYC and DC. I looked up at the television. The headline said that the Sandy Hook Elementary School was in lock down, and that there had been a shooting with 26 dead………

     The anxiety around me was palpable. People using their cell phones while still on their exercise machines, trying to workout, but really just using the rails to prop themselves up while connecting with loved ones.  I heard people calling family members, letting them know they had heard the news and wanted more information. But no one had any. Even the news offered nothing of substance. I could feel my anxiety rising because I felt I should be doing something, but I had no idea what to do. Even as a psychologist,  I wasn’t in a position to start any stress debriefings, or traditional outreach while in a gym. Plus, I didn’t know any details.  I was feeling powerless and helpless to act.  So what to do?

When anxiety is high, don’t try to talk yourself out of it.  It is like trying to stop thinking of a “pink elephant.” Right now, take a second and tell yourself not to imagine a pink elephant–no matter what–don’t think of one.

What do you notice?  Does your mind fight you?

Of course it does.  Just as a mechanic learns how an engine works, it is important for people with anxiety to understand how the anxious mind works.  The more we tell ourselves NOT to feel anxious, the more our mind latches on to the idea that there is something scary going on.  Imagine if someone walked into a room and  his first words were, “Don’t panic.”  Do you think you would feel sudden calm because of his warning, or would your heart start racing?

Shift focus from what you cannot control,  to the things you can control.  I could not control my immediate reaction of anxious worry. I couldn’t tell myself, “just don’t think about the shooting.” “don’t think about the fact that 26 people just died in a school that is walking distance from here.”

So what could I control?

  • I was already on the elliptical so I changed my activity to quick bursts to burn off the cortisol that is released when we are in a state of alarm (see my previous post for details about this and why it can hurt you).
  • I directed my attention to the news, listening for more information as it became available.
  • I actively observed the people around me for signs they could use some help or support.
  • I checked in with my own reaction, knowing I would not be able to help anyone if I was having  overwhelming feelings of my own. In fact, I noticed I was having a powerful reaction.

As I watched the news, all I could think about was the last time a horrific tragedy had occurred. It was just a few months earlier in July 2012. It was when the latest Batman movie was released and a deranged gunman had dressed as the joker and mowed down a theatre packed with patrons, killing 12.

It was so easy to feel hopeless, and I can remember thinking these shootings are going to continue and nothing is going to be done because the gun lobbyists are too powerful. They will not give up the money, and the media sucks up these stories like leeches.  They love it when they can sell drama from the suffering of others. The next day, it just got worse. As I walked down the main street in Sandy Hook, there were TV vans assembling everywhere, cameras, news reporters. I knew there were people suffering, but all I could feel was anger. It was as if I had walled myself off from the pain and suffering and  chosen to see only greed–the dark side of humanity.

I attended church on Saturday and prayed for compassion. I walked to “stamp out” my anger– drank wine to dampen my emotions. I limited the amount of exposure I had to the news.  Still angry.  Then I realized from mindfulness training that anger, is a living thing, it can not be willed away by sheer force of discipline.  It must be given time and respect to reveal its source and to finally dissipate.

“So this is Christmas, and what have you done? Another year over, a new one just begun.”

What have I done? Christmas is not a spirit that will blanket and shield me from the violent or even greedy people in this world.  But, if I lose hope, if I give up, than that is what I will have done–given up.  It is a choice to only see the greed and violence.  I decided I will choose to include the beauty, and that is what I will have done. What beauty?

The staff at the school who threw themselves in front of the children to save them.  The first responders who didn’t know what they were walking into but walked in any way.  And going even further–the police, firefighters, and soldiers who put their lives on the line every day, not even sure if they will see their families at the end of the day, in order to make sure we are safe. When the crowd is running away from danger, they are the ones you see running straight into it.  These are the things I will choose to remember this holiday season.  The violent and psychotic will still exist, but they will not count me as a new “victim”.

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