Sunday, July 26, 2009

Corellian Death Rays and Trauma Involving Children

Eight people were killed in a three car accident about 20 miles North of New York City today.  Unless you know the people involved, you probably read that and were not particularly affected by it.  But it's all in the description.  Do you feel differently about this one?  Four children, as well as four adults, were killed in a three car accident in New York State today.

Conventional wisdom tells us that traumatic incidents involving children are harder than those that only involve adults.  We all know that instinctively, but why is it true?  It all comes down to the ever-present worldview.  Most of us hold a set of beliefs on a gut level that are something like these:
  • Children do not die
  • Parents do not outlive children
  • Bad things do not happen to good people
  • Children are inherently good
  • Parents have the obligation to keep children safe, and we can accomplish that goal
  • Short lives are a waste
When a child dies, it violates the first five of these beliefs, and stimulates our sadness about the sixth.  Trauma involving children takes things that we think we know to be true and turns them on their head.  And when one closely held belief is challenged, it seems like everything is challenged.  How can we carry on in the fact of such uncertainty about how the world works?

But with the possible exception of "children are inherently good" (and we can argue about whether short lives are a waste -- I really do not believe they are), none of these things are actually true.  And in fact we know they are not true.  So why are they so important to us that we lead our lives relying on them being true?

I find myself reminded of the scene in the movie Men in Black where Tommy Lee Jones' character says,
There's always an alien battle cruiser, or a Corellian death ray, or an intergalactic plague intended to wipe out life on this miserable little planet. The only way these people can get on with their happy lives is that they do not know about it!
In other words, as you've heard me say before, we base our lives off of what is likely, not what is possible.  We choose to ignore what we know to be true -- that tragedy is possible -- because if we lived in the shadow of tragedy all the time we would not be able to live at all.  We choose not to know what we know.  Until we read headlines like the one today, and we remember.


Colleen said...

You mean, using that river in Egypt is actually important to our sanity?

Naomi Zikmund-Fisher said...

I actually would argue that this isn't denial. Denial is if I ask you if it is possible that your children could ever be killed in a car accident and you tell me that no, it is not possible. This is more selective attention. You know it is possible -- you don't deny it -- but it doesn't rule your life.

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