People often remember where they were when a tragedy strikes. For me, almost exactly a year ago, I was working on a student-run TV pilot in Ann Arbor when my sister called me to tell me something horrible had happened.
“Did you see the news?” she said weakly over the phone. “There’s been a shooting at a synagogue in Pittsburgh.”
“Oh,” I responded, surprised and a little distracted. I stepped off the set to take the call and went into the adjacent room, alone.
“Yeah…” she trailed off.
A bout of silence followed. I stood for a minute, digesting what I heard, trying to come up with something to say.
But all I could muster was: “OK. Well…huh.”
I paced around, my head hanging low while my fingers cradled my phone case tighter.
“I love you,” my sister whispered, her voice fragile and quivering.
“I love you too,” I said, still uncertain about what tone my voice should be.
My guilt about my reaction (or lack of one) to the Tree of Life synagogue shooting, where 11 people were killed and seven were injured, generated a lot of introspection. Why wasn’t I feeling angry or sullen, the way I was supposed to, the way I was taught to in the event that something like this happens? The more upset I got about the fact that I wasn’t upset enough about the shooting, the less upset I got about the shooting itself.
Once I gathered my thoughts and headed back to set, I continued to ponder: Was I reacting this way because of the utter shock of how this hate crime affected my community or from being totally desensitized by the never-ending cycle of mass shootings in America?
Should I even say anything to my peers or would the news just bum them out and lower morale?
Then, another harrowing thought crossed my mind: Maybe I couldn’t articulate how I was feeling because I felt nothing at all. The constant frequency of gun-related tragedies—particularly in 2018, when a reported 340 mass shootings occurred in the United States—had not only paralyzed me with hopelessness, but also numbed me to the point of exhaustion. I viewed it as a normal phenomenon, despite it clearly being an awful abnormality, especially for the Jewish community. I had other things on my mind and I wasn’t sure how to deal with something that had come out of nowhere. Unfortunately, this wasn’t the first time that an attack carried out by gun violence had a disorienting effect on my mental health, nor would it be the last.
In the summer of 2012, when a lone gunman killed 12 people and injured 70 others at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado during a screening for The Dark Knight Rises, the media frenzy and the subsequent increase in security at movie theaters heightened my unease about my own safety. As a lover of films, movie theaters were my sanctuary, and even though I was far enough away from the chaos, it still terrified me to know that I could just as easily become one of many victims the next time I ventured to see a movie.
Five months later, during my sophomore year of high school, a student announced at our weekly town hall meeting that a shooting transpired at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, where 26 people were killed, including 20 children and 6 teachers. I can vividly recall the visceral, jarring feeling that came over me, the alarming, sudden weight of the news, and how disclosing it in front of the entire student body made the reality all the more palpable. What made Sandy Hook even more tragically coincidental was that just the day before, I had watched Elephant, an experimental drama that chronicled the events surrounding a fictional high school shooting. Considering the film’s premise was partly based on the 1999 Columbine School massacre, my naive high school self hoped something like this wouldn’t happen again, or at least something not as horrific. But I was wrong and would be proven wrong time and time again.
Over the next few years, my optimism for regulated gun control in America continued to diminish, as senseless acts of gun violence became a disquieting routine part of everyday life. It was especially difficult to escape or suppress the very painful reality that gun violence provoked during my time at college, a place where politics and hot-button issues were almost always at the forefront of conversations among friends, colleagues, and professors.
In the fall of my freshman year, I found out about the Paris attacks—where 130 people were killed and several hundreds were injured—during the elections for the next editor-in-chief at the Michigan Daily, the school’s independent newspaper. Having just joined the organization, I felt the best way I could process my grief was to displace it through analyzing how the viral #PrayForParis hashtag was both an uplifting symbol of worldwide solidarity and a passive attempt at sympathy. But even then, it didn’t feel like enough.
When it comes to mental health, social media offers a temporary albeit counterproductive release for our emotional burdens, an avenue through which we can deal with our feelings while simultaneously masking them. A hashtag could be a genuinely rewarding virtual bridge that fills the social gaps between ourselves and strangers, especially when it sets off entire social movements. But in the particular case of #PrayForParis, the well-meaning but detached tone of the hashtag reads as an easy and lazy substitute for action. It makes us feel better, but should it?
The summer before my sophomore year, I found out about the Orlando nightclub shooting—where 49 people were killed and 53 were wounded—while interning at The Wrap, an entertainment news publication based in Santa Monica. My boss at the time told me and the other interns to write a few listicles in light of the shooting, specifically one about how many Republicans didn’t mention the words “gay” or “gun” in their public statements in response to the massacre (spoiler alert: there were zero). As validating as it was to be part of the cultural conversation via journalism, it still wasn’t enough for me. Reinforcing my own political bias certainly helped me and The Wrap’s readership contextualize the stakes for getting stricter gun control measures passed in our government, but to what end?
During my junior year, a friend of mine revealed to me right before our 1960s History lecture that a shooting had occurred in Las Vegas, where at least 59 people were killed and 422 were wounded at a music festival, becoming the deadliest mass shooting in US history. Having not read about it before class, I was dumbstruck. Then, our professor started the lecture and we took down our notes, as if it was just another blip in the news.
A few days following the Pittsburgh shooting in 2018, I attended a vigil on the Diag, a central location on the University of Michigan campus for rallies, protests, extracurricular fairs, and walking paths to classes. The vigil was reverential and solemn, the weather appropriately dreary and cold. Tilly Shames, the director of the Michigan Hillel, said a few words. A group of women students sang a somber prayer, while the throngs of spectators and I awkwardly swayed back and forth. I almost contemplated not going. My social anxiety was afraid of being around so many people, especially under such dire circumstances. My academic anxiety told me I should go and study instead. And perhaps worst of all, my deep-seated existential dread sensed that something bad might happen.
So the next time a vigil commemorating the victims of a mass shooting would occur, which would be for the New Zealand mosque shooting this past March, I decided to stay home because of all of my anxieties combined. Ironically, it ended up saving me from experiencing the trauma that ensued later that day when I received a text from my friend Nina: “Active shooter near [the] Mason [Hall school building]. Stay away from Diag.” Frightened, I quickly informed all of my roommates and we promptly issued the protocol for such an emergency: close the blinds, lock the doors and windows, stay low. The seven of us, plus another friend, sat quietly in our living room while watching “Keeping Up with the Kardashians” to soothe our fears and turn off our brains for a bit.
A few hours passed by and I received a notification on Twitter, informing me that the active shooter threat was a false alarm. According to a statement from the Public Affairs Department at the University of Michigan, there were reported shots fired in a school building right next to where the vigil was being held, prompting DPS officers to evacuate the scene and attendees of the vigil, including several friends of mine, to flee. The shots were later discovered to be the sounds of balloons popping, possibly from celebrating St. Patrick’s Day that weekend. Relieved, my roommates and I unlocked the doors, opened the blinds, and returned to the normalcy of our Saturday afternoons.
Out of all the gun-related tragedies I encountered over the years, this disturbed me the most. I was lucky enough to trust my gut and not attend the vigil, but I still felt the very real possibility of a gunman hunting people down on campus. I called my family to notify them just like anyone would in the event they might become a nameless statistic in a violent act of hate. And even when it was revealed that no one had been hurt or killed, the danger of something happening lingered for days until it no longer seemed relevant.
Thinking about it more, I suppose my numbness isn’t necessarily to the violence itself, but rather the overwhelming struggle of not knowing what to do in the face of such destruction, knowing that those in power aren’t doing enough to ensure everyone’s safety, and knowing that the festering polarization of our political discourse has poisoned any potential compromise for better gun control regulations.
Social media has become the main repository for our collective mourning, but it hasn’t made the mourning any easier. Holier-than-thou Facebook essays, painstaking Twitter threads, well-meaning but tone-deaf Snapchat filters, CNN think pieces, and clever but still awful memes about gun violence in America can only do so much. At the same time, taking action—be it calling and writing to our respective state senators, protesting on the streets, or attending vigils—can be mentally and emotionally taxing, especially for someone like me who is constantly torn between focusing on my own priorities and on the suffering happening around the world at large.
It’s much easier to escape the harsh, painful issue of gun violence than it is to face it, but we must face it. With the harrowing rise in gun-related death tolls rippling throughout America, not talking about gun violence or even acknowledging its relevance only further dilutes the possibility for massive social change. Now, a year after that phone call with my sister, I try to avoid wallowing in self-pity and instead recognize how I could contribute something productive and meaningful to the ongoing cultural discourse.
Social media and journalism are definitely helpful first steps in keeping us motivated to stay connected to national or worldwide crises, but they shouldn’t be the only step. Educating ourselves on gun control through research and articles, reading stories and testimonies from survivors of gun violence, reaching out to loved ones when a mass shooting transpires—all of these could be potential catalysts for action. Attending vigils or rallies is important, but not always necessary, especially if the emotional intensity of these kinds of demonstrations compromises one’s mental health.
There really is no perfect or universally correct way to respond to gun violence, but as long as we don’t fall prey to “compassion fatigue” and exit ourselves out of the issue entirely, there is something that can be done. And hopefully, the next time we remember where we were when something like gun violence occurs, it’ll be the last.