Saturday, June 20, 2009

Difficult Images

Very few are lucky enough to go though life without having to face a few difficult situations that etch horrible images in our minds. Most of the bad news we hear is is far away and affects people we don't know. While we feel empathy when we hear of the suffering of others, our exposure to these events is limited. When we are directly involved with a traumatic event, the emotions can be quite different.

When speaking to people who have been through war and other disasters, I am often struck with the detail in which they speak of events that occurred many years before. To them, the events are as clear as if they happened last week. In its extreme, these images are often the cause of post traumatic stress disorder suffered by some of our returning veterans.

We need to be mindful to place even the most difficult images in the proper perspective. Regardless of how we have been affected, these are incidents that we cannot change. When we allow ourselves to identify too closely with things that are long gone, we trap ourselves in the pain of that moment even though it may have been many years ago. We should allow ourselves to acknowledge the memory without becoming attached to it.

I began thinking of this subject a few days ago after speaking to a new paramedic about some of the major incidents I had responded to during my career and how I dealt with the emotions that came along with them. While I still work as an emergency responder, it has been many years since I responded in the role of paramedic. I do not tend to speak about this often but felt it might help him find perspective when he is faced with overwhelming situations.

As I began talking about an incident that occurred nearly 30 years ago, I became aware that my breathing had become shallow and I was experiencing an overall feeling of tightness in my chest as I relived the day. The incident occurred on Thanksgiving Day, 1980. I was fresh out of school and to this point had only dealt with crisis on a small scale.

The picture below ran the next day and shows a small portion of an incident that was spread out over 4 blocks. A person had intentionally driven a 1970 Lincoln Continental down a crowded sidewalk in Reno, Nevada at 40 miles an hour, killing 5 and critically injuring 26 others. I am the one being pulled from the ambulance in the background by a panicking police officer after I had ran back for more supplies.

While I have placed this and many other similar incidents in their proper perspective, I am amazed at the detail in which I can still remember the sounds and even smells of that day. I have to choke back a few tears when I think of how some of the victims continue to suffer for the simple fact that they happened to be on the sidewalk that day.

The point of this post is to highlight the point that bad things happen, often to good people. Life sometimes exposes us to things we would rather not see or that we are not equipped to see. Understanding this point allows us a better perspective, hopefully to prevent some of the emotional damage that can occur when we are thrust into horrible situations.

It troubles me that with all the research showing that support systems are critical to the long term mental health of our solders and rescuers, both groups often receive little more than lip service from those charged with the task. The stigma of weakness still plays a big role in the problem, preventing many from seeking what help is available. Being human is not a weakness and we can do a better job in helping those who need it.

If you know someone who you believe is suffering, don't be afraid to talk to them about it. If they are not ready to speak, respect this but let them know you are available. When they are speaking, listen without interrupting. Don't try to make the situation seem less than it is. Let them know that you understand the suffering they are feeling and that it must have been a terrible experience. When a person's feelings are validated, it is much easier to move through those feelings. It may be uncomfortable, but the help you give can be immeasurable.

I could not write this without dedicating it to Dennis Godfrey, who was my partner that day. Sadly, Dennis died in a hang gliding accident the following summer. I have never met a person who loved life and people more than he did. Thank you for all you taught me.

We will never live in a world without suffering but we can help each other move through that suffering for a better tomorrow.


YogaforCynics said...

A few years ago, something terrible happened to my family--I won't go into details here, but, when I do, I can always count on a wide eyed "oh my god..." and myself thinking "did that really happen to us?" While, certainly, I know that worse things happen every day--and not just to "people putting out negative energy" as some of my new agey friends would have it--somehow I still never really thought anything like that would happen to me. Actually, it was only two weeks later that Katrina hit New Orleans...which, I must confess, though I knew it was a much bigger tragedy on any kind of objective level, didn't bother me nearly as much. At the time I was teaching maximum security prisoners, and I was really struck by the empathy I got from them--they definitely knew that this kind of disaster didn't just happen to other people....

Tess The Bold Life said...

I was at my father's funeral last week and my two nephews that served in Iraq were there dressed in their uniforms.

Ryan talked to me about his experience of being shot at. He then asked me to visit him soon.

As a psychologist I know people are often retraumatized by past events. This was a good reminder of how I need to be present when with him.

SandyCarlson said...

Life happens. To be sure. You know, your post is making me think of all the people who write about the good things that come out of funerals. Let it come, right?

WR said...

I will just say it - so here is today's lesson in ambivalence! - on one hand, I can't figure out why you are following my blog and on the other I am delighted that you are! I've read several of your post. They are interesting and thought provoking.

In my very humble opinion, life is a sorrow. I am a nurse, a watcher and a survivor. I have been observing life's pageant for over 60 years. I know far more about death and dying that I ever thought I would or wanted to. I know that we are here for moments. I know that "guarantee" is a frivolous word. But in spite or perhaps because of sorrow and tragedy I have a passion for life "in the moment". I'm not a Christian. Neither am I am blue or red - very conservative on somethings and not so much on others. I did not vote for the current President.

The elders that have passed me by on this path have taught me much but never enough.

That is a very long winded way to say that when staring at the face of PTS in others I remember the book "The Worst is Over" by Judith Acosta ...

Robin Easton said...

I have been reading several of your posts and I'm just blown away by your depth, and it goes way beyond the thought or concept in your writing (which is beautiful). It is energy that I feel, something that is attached to and carried on the words. It moves me very deeply. I sense someone who has really lived and has an intimate relationship with Life, a relationship that was forged through life-experience, not book learning. I always leave your "home" feeling changed. Thank you for choosing to embrace life in a way that affects me and so many others.

I Stumbled your site as I think there are SO many who will appreciate it's message.

Lee Ann said...

This is a brilliant post. Thank you.

The Buddhist Conservative said...


Thankfully, most people have not had the personal experience of a major tragedy in their lives. I'm sure you can tell those who can relate to your story over those who have no point of reference to compare it to.

It is not surprising that maximum security prisoners can relate to tragedy. There may be a few people who are just born bad but most have developed 'environmentally' from exposure to bad things. These are not always easy people to be around and I commend you for the willingness to teach. What we define as rehabilitation is a sad commentary on our humanity as a nation, and I'm a conservative, sort of.

The key is what we do after disaster strikes. If we have a good support system, we will do better. The choices we make afterward is also key.

On a side note, my now daughter in law, from New Orleans, was visiting her then boyfriend, my son, out west when Hurricane Katrina hit. Many of her families' homes were damaged or destroyed and she was forced to stay a little longer. A small bright spot on a horrible event that changed millions of lives.

Thanks for your comments and for the great blog you write.


The Buddhist Conservative said...


I'm sorry to hear of your father's passing. It is never easy to loose a loved one.

The idea of being shot at added to the constant fear of being blown up by an IED would take a toll on even the most centered person. Your nephews have my utmost respect and thanks.

Regardless of how one feels about war, I pray that we will look back on the current conflicts as one we supported the men and women who risked everything to serve our country.

We can protest and rail against the political leaders who send our children into harms way while they sit comfortably in Washington sipping cocktails but those on the front line deserve our respect and support.

History will decide if we are doing the right thing in Iraq and Afghanistan and part of me hopes that the intelligence we do not see proves its necessity. There is no rational explanation for war but mankind has never quite figured that out.

Thank you for the comments and your blog.


The Buddhist Conservative said...


At the time it can be hard to see good coming from a funeral. Often I think people finally realize what a person's life stood for when it's too late to recognize them for their worth.

Thanks for the comments.


The Buddhist Conservative said...


Once in a while, I start following links of people following other blogs to see what they are writing. I stumbled upon yours and enjoyed the photography and the stories behind the pictures.

I guess it is no surprise that there is a connection to our experiences with life and death. Perhaps the perspective it gives you on living fully and appreciating the little things comes out in a subtle way in how you write.

I also do not consider myself incredibly religious or conservative on every issue. The name of the blog was coined from a humorous, in my opinion, event rather than an ideology. Besides, I may be the first "conservative Buddhist" :)

Coincidentally, I was born in California's Central Valley but moved away as a child. I have great childhood memories exploring the cornfields and vineyards surrounding my grandparent's home.

Thank you for the great comments and for your outlook on life.


The Buddhist Conservative said...


I am deeply touched by your comments. I feel so much the same when I read the inspiring words you write and the totally connected way you respond to those who comment on your blog.

The greatest thing about writing, for me, is the opportunity it gives me to examine what is important in life. The simple act of siting and pondering how to articulate the feelings that most of us have deep inside us forces us to see our own life from a different perspective. So much energy is wasted on things that really don't matter.

It has been an incredibly powerful experience!

Thank you for the kind remarks, I am truly humbled.


The Buddhist Conservative said...

@Lee Ann,

Thank you for the ongoing support and the perspective you give to those who read the great ideas you have.


Innerspace Yoga said...

"While I have placed this and many other similar incidents in their proper perspective, I am amazed at the detail in which I can still remember the sounds and even smells of that day." A perfect example of how trauma stays in all the layers of the body and the consciousness. Thanks & Namaste.