You might be tempted to think that once we learn the truth about an event like this, once we have a good set of facts to process, that we would be done making up stories in our own minds about what happened. But that is simply not the case.
What happens next in cases of a traumatic event is that we attempt to create a new sense of security, and the way that we do that is by drawing differences - real or imagined - between our reality and the event that took place.
We usually start by establishing for ourselves a difference in circumstances. For example, we may say, well, I never go to the mall. Or when I do go to the mall, I don't eat in the food court. Or we might even go so far as to say to that we would never go to the mall on a Sunday night. Anything we can say to create a little distance between ourselves and the place.
Then, we start creating differences between ourselves and the other persons who were in that food court that evening. We start telling ourselves how aware of our surroundings we are, how we definitely would have noticed a guy taking a couple of backpacks into the restroom, how we certainly would have noticed that he didn't come out for more than an hour. (Yes, we actually say this to ourselves, and some have even dared to say it through comments on social media. But let's be real - who among us sits around and judges the bathroom habits of total strangers in public? None of us.)
Maybe we start creating hero scenarios in our heads. Maybe we know that we carry a weapon on us, so we fancy ourselves that we would "Never be a victim." We have vivid fantasies of shooting the shooter, or of tackling him from behind, or of running toward him to protect our children or our friend or whoever. We craft these incredible narratives whereby we are heroes, not because we would actually necessarily be brave in a situation like this, but because we cannot live with the truth that we might someday be a victim.
Finally, we start creating narratives about the shooter. We start theorizing about what is different in his life than ours, about what kinds of internal resources we have that he doesn't. We could never be him, we conclude. We're simply better equipped to handle our lives than he was. And those we love could never be him because we are creating an entirely different environment for them than his family obviously did for him.
We create narratives about how this world is different now than it was in our generation. Or, if we are in the same generation, perhaps about how our experience of this world is far different from his. We say things about entitlement or about disconnection or about video games or about an inability to take responsibility for one's life. We think about things like support vs. neglect, isolation vs. connection, friendships vs. loneliness. We create an entire story about what his life must have been like until we are confident that it is nothing like our own.
All of this is in an effort to come to one very powerful conclusion: this could never be us. We would never be in that mall, we would never be a victim, we would never be a shooter.
It's meant to give us a measure of comfort and security, to assure us that we are safe in a world that just doesn't feel safe any more. If we can latch on to a powerful story with a thousand details that can mean nothing else except that this could never be me, then it seems easier to separate ourselves from the whole thing and just become, at best, onlookers. Shaking our heads, perhaps, but not shaking in our boots.
Of course, it's never really that easy....
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