This time, tragedy struck in San Bernardino. Since the alleged shooters came forward without any known hint of a violent streak, implications are especially difficult to absorb.
The media bring up the usual debates that follow these incidents: gun control, access to mental health services, how to protect ourselves if we personally faced something similar. The arguments of both sides eventually fall to the wayside: The inadvisability of adopting extreme positions eventually takes hold, we sensibly agree, and we move on, letting our individual resilience take form.
But wait–what’s wrong with this picture? Isn’t that exactly what terrorists do? Look at the extreme interpretation of a position, then act accordingly? Is that truly logical, adaptive, or resilient? Does this approach place us at the same level of functioning as the terrorists?
The Folly of Extremes
Any concept taken to the extreme becomes absurd, no matter what the concept. However, during initial trauma the brain does just that, adopting both chaos and rigidity: thought processes go into disarray as the rug gets pulled out from under, and automatic hardwired behaviors are activated that are driven by little thinking, generally of a fight-or-flight nature. Such extremes are adaptive in the wild, where creatures would not survive long if such reactions weren’t relatively automatic.
Fortunately for civilized society, we only rarely need this built-in response to survive. It usually activates during fears for the safety of ourselves or our loved ones. Our resilience and higher brain functions eventually put it in its proper place, after the traumatic incident has passed.
But not always. We can get “stuck” in certain extreme views, also sometimes called all-or-nothing or black-and-white thinking. There is a piece of strength found in shoving forth an absolutist position and clinging to it, when all else feels helpless. However this approach clearly did not turn out to be adaptive for the alleged shooters in San Bernardino, not to mention for their victims.
Outcomes of debates that follow these incidents often fall victim to the same style of reasoning:
- Neither banning all gun ownership, nor giving easy access to everything from assault weapons to atomic bombs is reasonable.
- Neither making people with serious mental illness fend for themselves, nor incarcerating them all or adopting wildly expensive mental health programs is reasonable.
- Neither shrugging our shoulders at threats in today’s world, nor spending life hiding out with hoarded supplies or organizing life around a trigger finger is reasonable.
Abandoning that task because extreme solutions are unreasonable is absurd. There are happy mediums to be found in gun control, services to the mentally ill, disaster preparedness, and most any other social issue. But answers will not be found if trauma reactions continue to run the show.
The remedy is both individual and personal, blossoming for each of us out of our own introspection:
- Are there ways you have adopted an extreme?
- How has it affected you – your thought life, your feelings, your behaviors, your relationships?
- How was it at one time helpful for you?
- How might it now be hindering your resilience?
- How might you reasonably soften such a view?
Politicians, spiritual leaders, academicians, peace officers, and government officials can’t do this for us. Yes, they all need to consider their extremisms, perhaps more than anybody. But developing a saner approach to the problem of terrorism begins with addressing the terrorism we perpetrate within ourselves.
For more on adjusting perspective, see “How to Change your Perspective” at WikiHow.