The previously scheduled
blog has been pre-empted.

How do we stay awake in a numbing world?

I had planned this week to offer you a poem about the mysterious way we get what we really need from people, even though we often can’t see that until much later.

But that was before a catastrophe devastated hundreds of thousands of lives in Japan and much of it was piped into my living-space, live and in hi-definition.  I watched with a sympathetic, yet almost voyeuristic fascination, as whole towns were swept away before the camera’s eyes, undeniably glad I could watch from the safety of my desk chair.  But nonetheless, I felt my heart race, hoping and praying that those speeding cars and running people made the salvation of higher ground, like they do in Hollywood movies. Yet here, I knew, for a great many, there was no happy ending.

Through all the years of human history there has been misfortune and suffering, yet until recently, few were exposed to much outside their own village.  Tragedies or violent happenings in that small sphere did not happen often.  Our nervous systems evolved to manage these rare assaults, with the help of our families and tribe.

Even today, it is still rare that such things happen nearby or to those in our inner sphere.  What is different today is that technology efficiently distills the tragedies of six billion people worldwide down to the most tragic, the most heart-rending, the most fear-evoking available by news deadline, and presents it to us real-time, in color, or by replay in our otherwise peaceful living-spaces…often at meal-time.

Can we handle this onslaught without going numb?

I went to the hot tub at my club last night.  There was a talkative 20-something there making conversation with another.  As I was arriving he was saying, “It’s so cool how marketers, like Pepsi, for instance, can do things that make people think they want to buy a Pepsi and go buy it whether they really want a Pepsi or not!  That’s what I want to learn to do.”

I said not a word, but I thought, “this is unconsciousness.”  And I thought of the phrase “fiddling while Rome burned”, which has long epitomized the notion of being completely oblivious in the face of catastrophe and the suffering of others.

But do I have the answer?  Short of volunteering for disaster relief or giving lots of money, neither of which are possible for me right now, there is little I can do to make a difference.  I suspect many of you feel similarly.

I know many are choosing to limit their exposure to such news.  That’s a choice I respect, and yet find that I cannot make for myself.  Our great world has miraculously become quite small.  It is my world.  I want to know.

Yet I also wish to remain sane, not obliviously “fiddling while Rome burns”, but also not pacing the floor anxiously, helplessly traumatized by viewing the trauma of others 10,000 miles distant, or suffering survivor’s guilt because I am not suffering like those I see on the internet.

What about the moments of reverent silence, the occasional tear shed while watching those poor souls run…the candle lit…the prayer said?  Do these count for anything at all in the face of such overwhelming disaster and suffering?

I do not know if such actions soften the Earth’s tectonic tensions or change the trajectory of anyone’s life story…whether fuel rods are thus cooled or buried souls found alive as a result.  I hope they do, but I don’t know for sure. Maybe, as some cynics say, “that and a dollar will buy you a cup of coffee”.

I do know that these things help me keep my heart open.  They help me know that I still care, even if I am helpless and overwhelmed.  And maybe…knowing that I care, I can still find it in my heart to help someone in my own “village”. It’s not only people in Japan who are suffering.


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Paul Chubbuck is a practicing psychotherapist in Fort Collins, CO, using Somatic Experiencing® to help people release unresolved trauma. He may be reached at 970-493-2958 or through his website at

Your comments, questions, and stories are welcome below. I will respond.

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    • Aspentown

      A poignant blog, Paul, and applicable to us all. I think you’ve found an unusual way to point out the intellectual issues while giving a voice to the feelings that are so present as well.

      • Anonymous

        Yes, I suspect a large part of humanity is feeling some of this right now. Thanks for checking in.

    • Nancy McKelvey

      Paul, I am always touched by your writing!!!! I, too, feel so very traumatized by the devestation in Japan – but mine has a little different feel. I have spent an afternoon in Sendai. I have recognized a structure that I passed through on my way to the ferry to take me across the beautiful bay of 1,000 islands to Matsushima. . .It is surreal, hurtful.

      • Anonymous

        That must really bring it home for you. I am just astounded by the peaceful scenes of people wandering the streets, still in shock from the earthquake, trying to decide what to do, but the tsunami sirens going off, and 10 minutes later the whole village is under water. Probably only those who acted quickly survived. It is painful to take that in.

    • Ted Mathis

      The kind of devastation they are experiencing is difficult for me to comprehend–I’ve never been directly affected by a disaster of those proportions. It’s just weird to think about so many lives being disrupted in the stroke of an hour.

      • Anonymous


    • Sigliadiniz

      The news from Japan came to me in the middle of the night on March 11th. My siblings called me from Brazil around 3:30AM as they were already aware of the tragedy, and following the news basically in real time as it was already morning there. They were concerned about the mixed information about the consequences for California, and were afraid that maybe something else was going on here as well.
      As I live only two blocks from the beach, their concern was pertinent. I first sat on my bed, still sleepy, but feeling shocked, and for a split second I had the illusion that maybe something was happening outside my door, and then I tried to hear something, only silence, with the exception of the sound of (the usual) waves from a distance (speaking of freezing in face of danger, I would probably be one of the first victims if something else was happening);
      Then I stood up, called the local police, and then called the Tsunami warning Center in Alaska, and both places said that Southern California was under advisory and not warning for tsunamis. I was relieved but couldn’t sleep.
      In the morning, I saw the images from Japan, and the feeling is awful. I personally like Japan and I have been there once; I couldn’t believe in what I was seeing. And I feel my heart aching because it has been, among others, a sequence of major tragedies: Haiti, Chile, Brazil (floods in Rio de Janeiro) in the last 2 years. I believe that there is a huge transition going on at the earth level, at the humanity level, and for some reason all these things need to happen in order to have status quo to be established … but for me, sometimes is too much, and I feel really overwhelmed.

      I liked your blog, and I agree with what you said: “… offer someone in your own village your help. It’s not only people in Japan who are suffering”. I want to believe that there is a reason for all this, not going into spiritual talk here, but if I can not understand what is going on, I can exercise humanity in a broader sense, maybe yes, sending some dollars to Japan, but mainly to not allow myself to numb in face of the suffering of others, to be human by reaching out those around me either with a word, with sincere love, or any other help I can.
      When I saw the video below, around the middle of the footage, there was the image of a child crying when she and others were in a hilly place watching the invasion of the waves in the city. I cried to that, because that child’s sadness represents every other child in all other places whose losses are beyond comprehension, it is beyond my comprehension, but I am not numbed.

      • Anonymous

        Beautiful words, Siglia. I had no idea that you were affected personally…or feared you might be, but then I did know about the Crescent City harbor disaster.

        Thank you for your heartfelt sharing.