I was sitting at the bedside of a drug-addicted hospital patient at the moment when 19 people were shot in the second-line of the New Orleans Mothers Day parade. I can still feel her fragile, papery skin on my hands, and the ache of disbelief and sorrow as her slurred, wandering unsentences of denial trailed off into slack-jawed vacant dozing. As I was documenting the failed attempt at conversation, I saw the headline scroll by on my cell phone screen. I Googled.
“Too much!” my brain screamed silently. I stared at the news bylines aghast, paralyzed for a moment by sheer amazement, and my breath fled my lungs as if I’d been punched in the chest. “Too much!” In front of my eyes, the number of injured began to climb, first 12 then 15 then 17. I felt first a wave of near-hysterical relief that no fatalities were being reported, then a chilling, shuddering repugnance that I could be feeling any relief whatsoever in the face of this horror.
Nurses have a host of ways to cope with emotional trauma at work; it’s a necessity when patients need us to keep our wits about us and our judgment clear. One of my favorites is to go into a patient’s room and focus on his or her needs while my own internal firestorm abates in the background and the initial flood of panic chemicals subsides. On this day I returned to my drug-addicted patient and watched as she struggled to lift her eyelids and remember my name, feebly attempting to delude us both into believing that she had an atom of self-control left.
At first I felt frustration rising at the incomprehensible waste of it all, a lifetime of human potential cut short, a family fragmented, a world of dreams unrealized because of the subtle demon of addiction. But the germ of an idea began to ooze its way around the slammed door of my mind and take shape: can’t the weaknesses of a culture that celebrates meaningless violence be traced back to the weaknesses that plague the most isolated and powerless of its members? America has always prided itself on being the land of the free and the home of the brave. Could the insanity that is wreaking havoc in our streets be the natural result of our being, at heart, cowardly and dependent?
One thing that never fails to amaze me when I work with addicts and those with severe mental illness is how deeply some of them believe they have nothing to lose. They may have loving families, vibrant personalities, extraordinary intelligence or other gifts, and yet they are convinced that what happens to them is meaningless. They see no value in their own lives and no obligation to improve or protect the lives of others. Some element of this conviction must exist in the minds of those who would blow up the finish line of a race, shoot into a parade or riddle a schoolroom with bullets. What troubles me more, though, is how engrossed our culture is with those who have abandoned their own lives and now exercise such a peculiarly strong hold over our own.
What glues us to the TV, watching the same footage of bloodshed and chaos over and over again when a tragedy happens? What makes us crave information about those who slaughter more than about those who cherish? What is broken in those of us who call ourselves “normal” that we are willing to spend our precious time and money focusing on the devastation of strangers? Are we becoming like Ancient Rome, so jaded and despairing that we turn away from our own families, our own selves, our own communities to watch slaves fight lions to the death in the arena?
Are our own lives so devoid of excitement or interest that we can only feel satisfied by minute observation of the sufferings of others? If so, then where exactly is the line between us and those who perpetrate those sufferings? If we are making the news organizations and video game makers and movie/TV producers rich who feed our hunger to experience the adrenalin of violence without getting our own hands dirty, who are we to blame those who can’t resist the urge to step forward and seize their own day in the limelight?
We gravitate towards ringside seats at public tragedy like moths to a flame, or like junkies to a fix. We rig the game to generate more entertainment for us—we allow poverty, ignorance and discrimination to flourish; we promote deception, intimidation and powermongering as negotiating methods; we turn a blind eye to injustice and oppression of the weakest by the strongest. Of course there’s violence! Like a pressure cooker with no safety valve, keep the heat on and it must explode.
My drug-addicted patients have an entire healthcare system in place to help them recover and start a new life. Yet the majority of them shy away from treatment and eventually succumb to disease or overdose. Doesn’t that sound like our culture at large, unwilling to abandon its cultish fascination with second-hand violence? Clinging to anything past the point where it hurts others and ourselves is a workable definition of addiction. We need to look in the mirror and tell ourselves that it’s time to lay our addiction down, time to start preventing tragedy instead of wringing our hands on the way to the TV set. It’s time to be both free and brave, willing to come out from behind our screens and headsets to experience life as it happens in front of us.
The devastation wrought by addiction on individuals is indescribable. It destroys people, their families and their communities. Look at the devastation our addiction to second-hand violence is doing to our society. Look at the time parents spend away from their children and partners spend away from each other in our fascination with the atrocities of strangers.
In medicine and recovery circles, we ask addicts to lay down the fear and shame that accompany their attachment to their drug of choice. We encourage them to see their addiction as something that can be overcome by focusing on learning to take care of themselves with respect and compassion. We support them in becoming self-sufficient, engaged in healthy relationships, active personally and professionally in their communities. Surely we can do the same for ourselves and break this cycle in which we play the role of the bloodthirsty horde, while the weakest and most broken among us attack the innocent front and center.