How do we process the horrible shooting in Las Vegas? I’m in Southern California, but I was surprised to discover that a number of my clients were personally impacted. Four young people from the towns near Claremont were shot and severely injured, one killed, so yesterday involved more trauma processing in my clinical work than I expected.
Our brains are not prepared for the instantaneous loss of humans we love. When vivacious, complex, irreplaceable people are taken away from us instantly, there is no way to easily process the magnitude of the loss. How can this entire human being be simply gone and never returning, when they were so fully here yesterday, with no warning signs?
This is a brutal paradox of being a human being. We are designed to connect with each other, to entwine ourselves deeply, to depend on each other, and to take each other for granted in little ways. We couldn’t function in daily life with a constant awareness of the possibility of immediate loss. And then death can feel like a trick, and make our entire comfortable lives and loving relationships feel like a cruel set-up. How can we fully enjoy life and love side by side with the awareness that it could end in a moment?
When a horrific nightmare event happens, we struggle to gain mastery and a sense of control. We try to find cause and effect. If we can locate the warning signs, the latent violent capacity in the killer, we might all feel more control over this event, and keep it from happening again. This is why we try to understand the killer, going back to his childhood. When no signs are there, we get no relief.
The need to have control over the unpredictability of life determines much of human endeavor. We build houses so that random weather does not impact us. We save money to prepare for unexpected crises. We establish families and relationships to establish positive routines to meet our emotional needs. And then events like Las Vegas happen, and for those directly impacted, all those efforts to shape life into something positive and predictable are rendered useless.
But we have mixed feelings about the word control. Most of us want to exert it in our own lives, but being controlled by others is terrifying and intolerable. And here we have the gun issue, which reaches down deeply into the primitive regions of our consciousness. The primitive regions of consciousness are irrational, however. And when you throw in a huge industry driven by profit, greed enters the picture- another primitive, irrational and extremely powerful force.
Rather than using the word “control” when talking about guns, we would do better to say we should discuss “gun regulations” or simply “guns,” since the word “control” activates those primitive fears.
The debate over guns (I hesitate to call it a debate, since no real conversation seems to be happening) is about our deep psychological need for control on both sides. It’s about people who fear the trauma of losing control vs. people who fear the trauma of losing life. The irony is that advocating for our right to freely own whatever guns we want without limits creates the dangerous scenario in which others are much more likely to lose what we are trying to protect. That’s why the musician Caleb Keeter changed his mind on gun regulations after experiencing the violence in Las Vegas - the preventative measures have become the tragedy.
This is where we have common ground- we want protection from the fragility of life. The task now is to use that common ground to create actual change.