Our brains are wired to create meaning out of chaos.
They’ve evolved to help us navigate the world, and survive— and one of their primary tasks is to figure out why things happen. Especially things that are violent, ugly, and scary.
We can’t help ourselves from asking “why?” It’s hardwired into our neuropsychology.
It’s important to remember, however, even as we ask “why” in the wake of tragedy, loss, and trauma, that the answers our brains come up with are going to be biased. The fact is, we don’t always, or even often, really know “why” bad things happen. But our brains will furnish answers to us that have less to do with facts, than they have to do with helping us survive, cope, and go on functioning in the world.
The fact is, we can’t read anybody else’s mind.
The fact is, no human institution in history has come up with perfect answers to the problem of awful things happening— whether those awful things happen behind closed doors, in public venues packed with hundreds of people, or in the skies.
It’d be much easier if we could read others’ minds. If we could pinpoint the factors that went into people making decisions that led to trauma, suffering, and death. My field has devoted a great deal of its resources to developing valid “profiles” of people likely to harm other people, and psychologists have differing opinions on how well those profiles predict anything.
The real truth is: we have to learn to live in a world that, no matter what laws are passed, no matter what psychological assessment tools are developed, no matter what religious or moral movements are prevalent, is volatile and unpredictable.
Often grotesquely volatile and unpredictable.
We have to learn what it means to accept the world that we live in.
“Acceptance,” understand, does not mean “like.”
“Acceptance” does not mean “approve of.”
“Acceptance” does not mean “stop trying to change.”
What “acceptance” truly means is to deal, unflinchingly, with the facts of reality as we understand them. To acknowledge in a meaningful way that things exist— even things we hate, things that are unfair, things that are heartbreaking, things that should be otherwise.
You cannot change a situation you refuse to accept exists.
The unpredictability and uncontrollability of the world exists.
So much pain goes unattended to, because people refuse to accept that it exists in the first place.
People refuse to get treatment for addiction, because they are overwhelmed and terrified to admit they’re an addict.
People refuse to get treatment for depression, because they’ve been told to be depressed is some kind of “character flaw” that they should be able to simply “rise above.”
People refuse to admit they’re wrong, or they were wrong, or that there’s a different perspective that may be valid, because they’ve come to believe that they need to dig in and defend their positions to the death.
The 12 step traditions often discuss the differences between “pain” and “suffering.” The well-worn slogan goes, “pain is inevitable; suffering is optional.” The idea being that every life involves a certain amount of pain, just because pain comes with the package of being alive; but how we approach pain, how we deal with it, can prolong that pain into true “suffering.”
It’s a lesson that is reinforced by the Serenity Prayer: “Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
The first step to dealing with the pain and fear provoked by this unpredictable, uncontrollable world of ours is to accept that all those things— pain, fear, unpredictability, uncontrollability— they all exist. No amount of wishful thinking, legislation, good intentions, or denial will change that.
The upside of radically accepting that these things exist is that, if you make acceptance your starting point, your brain knows you’re being honest. Trust me, your brain’s not dumb. It knows when you’re trying to sugar coat things in order to feel better. It won’t let you get away with that, not over the long term.
I believe there are answers to the kind of suffering that the world is experiencing right now.
I believe there is tremendous reason to hope.
I believe we are greater, more ambitious, more beautiful, have more potential than anyone believes, especially after tragedies like Las Vegas.
But I believe our greatest challenge is accepting that the world is exactly as it is.
A is A.
Let us start the healing with our eyes wide open.
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