When I first read about the bombing at Manchester, I wasn’t shocked. I don’t know if that’s an acceptable thing to say, but it’s the truth. I mourn for the families affected by such a tragedy, yes, and I grieve for the loss of life, of course. But I no longer have the emotional capacity to register shock at such events. The surprise factor no longer exists in my mind. Where I should feel pain, there is nothing but a faint remembrance of a certain tragedy that happened—has it been days or weeks?—a long time ago.
I watched news coverage of this terrible—terrible—tragedy and I felt numb. Images of chaos and confusion played on a loop on my TV screen, and while I may have grimaced the first time I watched this footage, by the third time through I felt almost nothing. Children were murdered. Stop. Read that again. Children were murdered, yet the attack on Manchester will inevitably turn into nothing but another date on a list of such violent acts of terror.
This story, although revolting, is not unique. The use of poisonous gas in Syria and the bombings in Afghanistan have both happened in the past couple of weeks. Weeks. Are you tired of the use of italics for emphasis? Me too, but I need this repetition and type change to draw my eyes to our harrowing reality. I need something that breaks the numbness of my eyes scanning across these words.
In an article titled “The Numbing of the American Mind: Culture As Anesthetic,” Thomas de Zengotita opens with a quote from Friedrich Nietzsche: “. . . the massive influx of impressions is so great; surprising, barbaric, and violent things press so overpoweringly—‘balled up into hideous clumps’—in the youthful soul; that it can save itself only by taking recourse in premeditated stupidity.” Here, Zengotita explains, “Nietzsche was not thinking I.Q. or ignorance when he used the word ‘stupidity.’ He meant stupidity as in clogged, anesthetized. Numb.”
I can’t think of a more accurate description of our current culture. We move through events and happenings too fast for our minds, let alone our emotions, to comprehend them. We treat our attention as if it’s limitless, giving it away to countless soundbites and statuses every day, and in effect we numb ourselves.
We no longer feel the gravity of our situation. The jarring effect the speed bumps of modern events—wars, terrorist attacks, human rights violations—once had on us is gone. We roll right over these things and barely even notice we hit a bump. These events that continue to occur with an eerie regularity should have deep and profound effects on our daily existence. So, what happened?
Have you ever heard of a rumble strip? This term may be unfamiliar to you, but I guarantee you know exactly what I’m talking about. Rumble strips—also known as sleeper lines, drunk bumps, and “woo woo” boards—are strategically placed bumps on the road that are meant to alert inattentive drivers to potential danger. You know those super annoying bumps on the sides of highways that you accidentally drive over every once in a while when you’re not paying attention? Yeah, those are rumble strips.
You’ll most commonly encounter this road safety feature on the sides of major highways, but longer rumble strips can also be found lying horizontally across the road in front of particularly dangerous intersections. Some of you may be ahead of me and already see where this is going, but rumble strips are basically miniature speed bumps that do nothing more than annoy you for the two seconds as you drive quickly over them.
In terms of our treatment of current events, we as a culture have trained ourselves to replace every speed bump in society with a rumble strip. That which we used to have to slow down for in order to absorb the shock, we now roll speedily over without so much as an upward glance.
At the most, current events cause us to look up for a moment and maybe move our foot toward the brake pedal, but nothing more. And that’s not enough. Monumental things are happening around us every day, but we are incapable of slowing down long enough to give these things our full attention.
In a culture where numbness has reduced speed bumps to rumble strips, nothing shocks us—not because nothing is shocking, but because we are incapable of being shocked. This can be seen with absurd clarity in the Trump administration. Every day, there is “breaking” news surrounding the events and people in The White House.
In fact, John Oliver recently did an episode of Last Week Tonight where he spent a half hour trying to break down just a single week of the “absolutely insane” news pouring out of The White House—noting that things have moved at an “exhausting pace.”
And he’s not wrong. The accounts of news stories from the week Oliver reported on alone are staggering—to the point where even listing them here would be exhausting for both of us. At this moment, what the Trump news is doesn’t matter. Here’s the point: every single piece of news that comes out of The White House is supposed to shock me. The news media sounds the alarm day after day—in fact, they may have left the alarm on permanently—but I hardly acknowledge this emergency warning anymore. And the same could be said for many other current events topics.
When everything is shocking, nothing is shocking. And with the constant exposure that social media facilitates, we are incapable of discerning which events deserve our full attention, let alone our full emotions. As a result, we give smaller and smaller pieces of attention to every single thing. And when we spread ourselves thin, giving every event nothing but a glance, our emotional response follows suit.
Then, when things like the attack in Manchester, the gas attack in Syria, or the bombing in Afghanistan occur, we are incapable of responding to these events with the depth of emotion they deserve. Speed bumps become rumble strips and we move right along. Yes, we can acknowledge the tragedy of such events, but all too often we don’t have the capacity to absorb their full effects.
At this point, I should present a solution to this problem—an answer we can all apply to our lives—but I don’t have one. My only thought is that maybe, just maybe, we should pull back a little bit. To disengage from the news cycle entirely would be irresponsible, and that’s not what I’m advocating for at all. But maybe we should put our foot on the brakes long enough to handle the difficult events around us in a manner that is worthy of their magnitude.
Ultimately, if we don’t learn how to slow down, we run the risk of growing numb to the point where reality no longer feels real. Sound melodramatic? Maybe it is. But if you’ve read this far—have been willing to give this article this much of your attention—something here resonates with you. Whatever that may be, I hope you give it time to have its full effect. To fight numbness, we have to slow down and give ourselves a chance to feel.
Cover image by Fran Young.