Powerless to Protect

Yesterday morning, shortly before noon, my wife Julia dropped off our daughter Emily at Santa Monica College to take her final exam in English. A few minutes later Emily called Julia frantically, saying that there were gunshots on campus and that she was running off campus to escape a lockdown. The three of us were all very shaken. A feeling of horror came over me as I realized that I was powerless to protect my daughter from the dangerous world we inhabited, and that feeling "portkeyed" me back to a traumatic loss with a similar structure.

In my book, Trauma and Human Existence, I characterized the essence of emotional trauma as a shattering of what I call the absolutisms of everyday life -- the illusory beliefs that allow us to experience the world as stable, predictable, and safe. The shattering of these illusions by trauma brings us face to face with our finiteness and our existential vulnerability, and with death and loss as possibilities that define our existence and that loom as constant threats. A tragedy like the shooting spree at and near Santa Monica College brings us face-to-face with our existential vulnerabilities -- vulnerabilities to harm, death, and loss -- and the existential vulnerability of all those we love and, perhaps worst of all, the limitedness of our ability to protect them.