There’s two theories on human nature, one is that we’re basically good, the other is that we’re selfish and destructive. A recent event has me thinking about which I believe. I was in my local Walmart shopping for groceries the other day before I had to pick up my daughter from school. It was supposed to be a quick trip in and out, well as “quick” of a trip as Walmart can be, anyway. On my list was candles, as I had just decorated for Christmas and needed a little votive candle for a Christmas decoration in my bathroom. After I got all of the groceries, I almost decided to skip looking for the candles, as I was already taking longer in the store than I had planned. But I decided last minute to go look anyway, so I ventured to the back of the store to check out their selection. I was surprised to see that most of the candles were gone, and assumed it was due to Black Friday a few days before. So I began smelling the selection that was left, looking for something that would compliment the pine scented candle that was already in the bathroom. I lost track of time doing this, and when I looked at my watch I realized it was already past noon, and I should have been checking out by then. I quickly moved to the check out line, which, in true Walmart fashion, was very backed up. Eventually I checked out and hurried to exit the door I had entered a little over an hour earlier. When I got to the door, I was told the exit was closed due to an “incident” outside. I looked up and saw several police cars. I whispered to one of the employees to ask what happened, to which she replied quietly, “a stabbing; it’s really bad!” I found that my heart started to beat fast as many thoughts raced through my mind. I quickly walked to the other exit and left the store. The scene outside was shocking. It literally stopped me in my tracks. There were at least eight police cars, two fire trucks, and an ambulance, along with many emergency personnel. There was yellow police tape surrounding the entire area. I struggled with what to do next, as my car was parked in the row that had the police tape around it. I walked toward the scene, trying to see what was going on, but also feeling like an intruder. I took a few photos, but didn’t want to attempt to look past the barrier of emergency vehicles to what may lie inside. I heard people saying they were giving a man CPR. There were rumors that he was dying or had already passed away. I felt scared. I felt confused. I felt like an intruder. Someone was having the most traumatic event of their life and I, a complete stranger, was there to witness it. There were people taking pictures and video, people creeping closer to see more, people like me trying to walk past. The scene was confusing and terrifying.
Once I got in my car and left, my mind started racing to a million different things. What had happened? Were the people ok? How was this scene happening so close to my house, in a store I frequent? What was happening to our safe little town? And then I realized that I could have been involved in this incident. I was minutes away from walking out of the store when it occurred. If I hadn’t spent so much time being distracted by candles, could I have been injured? Could my life had ended? Those thoughts were terrifying. The idea that I could have entered a store to buy a few groceries and never made it back home to my family. The idea that something so violent and so random could happen so close to me. And so close to my home!
The rest of the day I had a headache. My body was tight. I found myself thinking about it nonstop, being distracted by the images I had seen. I thought about the victim, his family, what they must be feeling at that moment, how their life had changed in the blink of an eye. I thought about the people who had witnessed the altercation, the people who had seen the violence and the blood and the ending of a human life. I thought about how their bodies must feel. How stressed and worried and scared and sad they must be. If just seeing the police cars and knowing what was occurring was impacting me this strongly, how did all of those individuals feel?
It reminded me to be empathetic towards other’s experiences. It reminded me how precious life is. It reminded me to cherish every moment, because we don’t know when it will be our last.
Then I thought about my work as a psychotherapist. About all of the people I had helped with trauma over the years. About the people I was currently working who had been victims of the recent Las Vegas shooting. I thought about the intensity of their reactions, the stress and anxiety that kept them up at night and made them jump at every little thing. Having this experience that put me near trauma, not even in it, was consuming my thoughts and making me question my perception of safety. It increased my empathy and my understanding of what it must feel like to experience something so life changing as what so many victims of crime and violence have experienced.
Over the days that followed, as my town attempted to make sense of this senseless act and heal from it, I witnessed such a wide range of responses from others, both on social media and while out in the community. Some of these responses were filled with anger, understandably. But I think, even through this anger and pain, it is important to also remember the core of who we want to be as humans. We have a choice in how we let these events shape us. Pain and fear can either bring out anger and hatred, or it can bring out understanding and support. I personally believe in human kind and that tragedies like this are opportunities to highlight the best in us, and not the worst; that it can bring out the understanding and support. That we can show our best versions of ourselves to our fellow man.