As Japan reels from last week's earthquake, tsunami and now nuclear threat, the power of the nation's communal approach to tragedy shines brightly in the midst of the wreckage.
Reports of on-the-spot organization, mutual helpfulness and unified focus have been encouraging to see. Overcoming this type of national trauma emotionally will be a difficult journey but is easier faced in the company of others.
Knowing that you are not alone when tragedy strikes is a deep comfort to the soul. Connecting with others, reunions of loved ones thought lost and other examples of solidarity bring a sense of relief that even a casual observer can feel. One of the reasons support groups work so well for those who have undergone painful situations is that members are able to commiserate with those who also have walked that path.
Trauma is a difficult part of the human experience. Experts tell us that often the memories of things observed and experienced come back to haunt individuals, causing on-going pain even after the event is long past. Memory, however, is not always purely factual. It is impacted by perception, emotion and our internal narratives.
In a popular movie in the 1990s, "Eve's Bayou," the narrator discusses this often misunderstood aspect of memory as the story gives different possibilities for a single scenario in one family's history, showing that each person's memory of it was slightly different.
Trauma counselors believe that breaking free from the grip of unwanted memories is key to overcoming painful and frightening events. This can be done in different forms, but the general idea is that the meaning of the event must begin to change.
The first story one tells may be one of feeling powerless and overcome with dread or fear. The next narratives may be of heroism and courage in the face of overwhelming difficulties, the joy of survival; and so importantly, the comfort received and given to others in the midst of it.
In fact, for many individuals, just hearing about tragic events spurs them into action for those in need. They organize fund-raisers or spend time educating others on what to do next. This is the meaning they assign to tragedy: Even though this has not personally affected me, I choose to act as though it has, sharing the load that others have to bear. This approach brings hope to both parties.
Contrast this with the astonishing reality many of us in the West are witnessing in our densely populated cities and even in smaller venues, of strangers ignoring people in need, even while they cry out for help. A friend and I lamented real life scenarios of bystanders stepping over people collapsed in the street, struck by cars, or otherwise victimized, choosing to focus only on their own personal agendas at the time rather than attend to the valuable life before them, hanging by a thread.
For some reason, we have allowed this non-truth to permeate our mentalities at those moments, that we are only responsible for ourselves. "We need each other to survive. People are going to find out the hard way," my friend remarked.
We must remember that despite all we are not in this all by ourselves and should never behave that way. We can even use our own experiences and sense of compassion to help and encourage those around us.
Tabi Upton, MA-lpc, is a therapist at CBI-Richmont Counseling Center and founder of www.chattanoogacounselor.com. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.