Never Numbing Out; Overcome and Carry On

This is the first of four follow-up articles on the many facets of fear including a four-part Interview/Special Report with Rabbi Moshe Scheiner of Palm Beach Synagogue.

After I wrote about the paralysis of fear, its’ numbing effects, and resultant feelings of powerlessness, it was pointed out to me that there was another, more intentional, response to fear beyond freeze, fight, and flight.  That response is loving persistence or courageous non-violence. It is evidenced in the Sermon on the Mount, as Jesus called for his followers when confronted by fear and violence to turn the other cheek.  This was not an instruction of pacifism.  Turning the other cheek was about demanding equality from a person of authority. This is the most measured and effective action that can be taken when fear, anger, and aggression show up.

Courageous non-violent cheek turners were named by Columbia University’s School of Journalism as 2019 Pulitzer Prize winners on Monday, April 15th. One award went to the South Florida Sun-Sentinel for exposing failings by officials before and after the deadly shooting rampage at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. Another went to Staff of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette for immersive, compassionate coverage of the massacre at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue that captured the anguish and resilience of a community thrust into grief.  These journalists stood strong for their communities and for us all in the face of fear and anger.  They exposed the truth and rejected the lure of moving on to other stories.  They refused to numb out.  The parent of a Parkland victim wrote South Florida Sun-Sentinel after Pulitzers were announced encouraging the paper to continue its’ work saying there was still much to be done.  He can rest assured that they will carry on.

It takes a lot of guts to persist, to remain steadfast, and to overcome.  A courageous cheek turner must have the resolve of Gandhi, who when confronted by his jailers with threats intended to invoke fear replied; “They may torture my body, break my bones, even kill me. Then they will have my dead body, but not my obedience.” But this is exactly the kind of response which will defeat fear in its’ tracks.  We shall overcome. It is the essence of love.  And love refuses to capitulate.  It will not retaliate-in-kind.  It will not run away.  it will not numb out. Love is an action-choice made by the brave soul who finally rejects all notions of self in deference to the greater good.

Paralyzed by Fear; Numbed Out and Powerless

Fight and flight responses are generally recognized and accepted as the norm when it comes to fear.  We are all familiar with them.  Just like the boys in the 1983 classic movie “A Christmas Story” so comically portrays, a bully pops up and we run as fast as possible to get away.  But at some point, perhaps when enough is enough, just like Ralphie, our rage becomes a fight for our lives.

But fight and flight are not the only behaviors that follow fear.  A kind of numbing paralysis known as freeze is more common than we recognize. Often mistaken as cowardice, apathy, laziness or even collusion, this third survival response has gripped so many people in our times of increasing fear.

When we cannot seem to defeat or outrun the predator a ‘deer in the headlights’ freeze response can be life-saving.  Helpless to do anything about a horribly dangerous situation, we dissociate from what is going on. Over the years in my work as a clinical counselor, kids and adults showed up completely numbed out in my offices. They had been diagnosed with a variety of anxiety disorders when more often than not were actually showing symptoms of the freeze response.  

It manifests in those who are sexually abused, those suffering from substance use disorders, PTSD, and in battered spouse syndrome to name a few. Chronic dread, panic, and terror rob them of the ability to stay in the present.  Available resources become impossible to access.  Being paralyzed allows them to not feel the horror of what is (or seems to be) happening. This can go on for years, long after the menacing situation has disappeared.

“They’re used to self-medicating. They’re used to escape. They want to find that place where they can’t see their pain from.” ~

Fr. Gregory Boyle of Homeboy Industries

In ever more anxious times, the tendency to numb out is also increasing. It seems quite likely that our over-reliance upon screens, drugs, alcohol and other ‘addictions’ are freeze responses to chronic fear exposure.  Mass shootings, threats of terrorism and a cacophony of negative talk coming from everywhere including the pulpit have created a sense of helplessness and a need to disconnect.

We must begin to understand this if we are to empower ourselves to change what is happening.  Our power has not been taken away even though it may appear to have been. This is a time to encourage action in those who are isolating.  Together we can overcome the powerlessness caused by fear and fear mongers.  The solution is not complicated.  Here is the message; Bring an abundance of love to the table. Fear cannot coexist with love. Do something to help and do it now. 

Ask for Help

NOTE: It cannot be emphasized too strongly that those who are suffering from trauma and clinical dissociation caused by fear must seek the assistance of professional helpers to get relief and to return from being missing in action. They cannot pull themselves up by the bootstraps nor can they just get over it.  Trauma resolution is possible using such therapies as Trauma Informed Care among others.