The recent events of the Stanford court case ruling and the mass shooting in Orlando have impacted the lives of many even beyond the victims. Their sympathy and own experiences make them struggle to grasp the right words to express their emotions. Whether you were involved in these situations yourself, a loved one was or you simply connect with the situation, just the reality of it can be difficult. In times like these, it can be immensely helpful to talk with a trusted friend, partner or family member, but not everyone has the ability to do that. Whether in fear of being insufficiently comforted or misunderstood by their loved ones, sometimes talking isn’t an option. When we need to shoulder this pain regardless, I’ve found that writing can lighten the burden.
Recently, I read excerpts from Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. I wondered why I hadn’t looked into his work sooner. This piece beautifully catalogs the different objects and emotions that soldiers carry with them each day into combat:
They carried USO stationery and pencils and pens. They carried Sterno, safety pins, trip flares, signal flares, spools of wire, razor blades, chewing tobacco, liberated joss sticks and statuettes of the smiling Buddha, candles, grease pencils….They carried the land itself—Vietnam, the place, the soil—a powdery orange-red dust that covered their boots and fatigues and faces. They carried the sky….They carried their own lives (O’Brien 6).
After witnessing a fellow soldier’s death, Ted Lavender, Lieutenant Jimmy Cross blames himself for being distracted by thoughts of home and letting the man die. “This was something he would have to carry like a stone in his stomach for the rest of the war” (O’Brien 7). The trauma of war adds to their physical and emotional load as the piece progresses. “They carried all the emotional baggage of men who might die. Grief, terror, love, longing—these were intangibles, but the intangibles had their own mass and specific gravity, they had tangible weight” (O’Brien 8). Jimmy Cross feels perhaps the heaviest weight, and it’s not due to any physical possession.
I don’t intend to draw parallels between one traumatic experience and another, but I believe we all carry these psychological burdens going through life, and they get much heavier when events like these happen. Whether we sympathize with victims because of our own past—as the entire LGBTQ community and all those with experience dealing with sexual assault and rape felt the agony of these attacks— or we know a victim ourselves, we must find ways to lift this weight and keep pushing forward.
Putting pen to paper or fingers to keyboard can be one way to do this. No matter what its form, writing can gather all stray thoughts on the matter into one area. It’s much less overwhelming to have these scattered pieces in a tangible manifestation. Writing is much more than a hobby, and styles like poetry, open letters and stream-of-consciousness really start the process of digesting horrible and unexpected occurrences. Nobody ever has to read these pieces but you, and even those who do not avidly write might find comfort in this method. It can transfer even a little of this burden to something outside of yourself.
Besides being able to bring together thoughts and navigate emotions, the simple process of writing can be extremely therapeutic. You can listen to some of your favorite music, have a snack (chocolate can increase dopamine), and situate yourself at that cozy table in your local cafe, a quiet park bench or a chair at home. Writing might allow you to remove yourself from reality and focus on what goes on inside your head, fully experiencing how you feel about these events and coming to new conclusions and understandings. After you’re done, you might look back on what you’ve written and discover a better way to bear the pain. It’s a tool that is universal regardless of age, gender, race or language. The sheer power of words and their ability to help and heal is something we might often forget in the wake of atrocities.
Even after you’ve begun to cope, and all you feel you have to say on the matter is recorded, keeping that writing and looking back on it later can also be helpful. That piece is a snapshot of you, a testament to who you are and how you relate to others. It can aid in self-awareness, growth and in dealing with future events like these. It can help to make the weight easier to carry.