Fighting Spiritual Numbness

There was a moment last week where I just broke down. No more “holding it together,” no stoic single tear rolling down my cheek as I read the news—just a full-on, ugly cry. It all just feels like too much. A lynching in Georgia, covered-up and ignored by local law enforcement for more than two months. Parents at the border, given the “choice” between letting ICE kidnap their children or risking their lives in indefinite detention—imprisoned in facilities where COVID voraciously spreads. An overall death-toll that now surpasses 100,000 people, while our federal government lies about its culpability in the mass slaughter of our people, and tries to hastily reopen our economy so even more can die.

All of this compounding trauma ought to provoke a near-constant state of grief and mourning, but I’ve been worried how—in recent weeks—a creeping numbness has overtaken my own sorrow. I can’t pinpoint exactly when it happened, but pain seems to have crossed a threshold where my body stopped being able to process it, and so it simply stopped trying. And I think that’s a far louder alarm bell than any wailing.

My mind is brought to scientists’ experiments with learned helplessness. In the laboratory, they inculcate the feeling by shocking rats, without giving them any possibility of escape. Repeated trauma is so effective that, over time, the rats stop even trying to flee the pain—and simply sit sedentary even when escape becomes available. Viktor Frankl describes suffering as “pain without meaning;” and too often prolonged suffering inculcates despair.

So, if you are despairing, know that you are not alone. It is not normal to watch your government ignore tens of thousands of deaths—for it to express no remorse about preventable, mass death. It is not normal to live in a country where armed white militias can shut down a state legislature. And it’s entirely reasonable to get angry, and demand answers from God about why a loving creator would let all of this happen. I think those kinds of questions are the very essence of faith, not its absence.

But it’s why I was actually really glad when God stirred me from emotional numbness—breaking walls my heart had erected—and shattered the numbing calm. To mourn is to be reminded that we are still human—amidst and against forces that intentionally try to make us forget and deny our humanity. So, if you’re able, feel the full weight of your grief and despair today. Find time to break down—to weep and admit that it’s all just too much.

Hope and despair are not mutually exclusive, but co-companions on this road. Moreover, I believe that it is actually through intimately knowing and feeling our despair that we bring hope just a little bit closer. Grief reminds us of the love that underlies our pain, of exactly what and who we are fighting for.

The book of Lamentations opens, “How deserted lies the city, once so full of people.” The writer mourns—not because the city will never again see life but because something irretrievable has been lost. The Babylonian exile did not last forever, the people eventually returned. But right now, we are in exile. It’s okay to cry.

Rev. Benjamin Perry is the Minister of Outreach and Media Strategy at Middle Collegiate Church in New York City’s East Village.

Photo by Tom Pumford on Unsplash

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