Lucia Riet de Mahhov: It isn't numbness
While the Paris attacks in November 2015 clearly shook a lot of people in Estonia, the attacks in Brussels this week seemed to have a different effect. There was no flood of comments on social media, no place where people went to lay down flowers. While many think that we're becoming numb, Lucia Riet de Mahhov says we're actually managing an emotional reaction.
While for many years terrorism seemed to be something that existed far away from us, lately in Estonia we’ve heard about explosions and attacks in cities where we wouldn’t have believed they could actually happen. We know that there are parts of the world where unfortunately violence has lasted for a long time. “But not in Europe!”
These last attacks were perceived as much closer by the people here in Estonia. Of course that’s partly due to the smaller physical distance, but probably even more due to a feeling of identification with the people who live in the attacked cities. In almost 25 years of regained independence, Estonians have travelled and visited many other European countries on vacation or on business. They’ve studied, made friends, found partners, you name it. It’s easier to identify with the people of a country with which you have a direct bond.
Having lived in Estonia for 20 years myself, I’ve learned to understand and not to be surprised that there aren’t many emotional outbursts, and that there seems to be a lack of public expression of sadness in the light of the latest news. The local media have covered the factual events well, and there were discussions too, no doubt, at the political level.
But when we focus on the emotional reactions and compare Tuesday’s attacks with what happened in Paris last November, there have been far fewer posts on Facebook and fewer comments on what is going on. Some find it easy to think that we’re becoming numb. But is it really numbness? Do the people disregard what happened? I don’t think so.
By nature and habit, Northern people don’t tend to be overly emotional. We know that. Still, there is another factor: silence in the face of such events might be a way to deal with fear.
We’ve seen people in the news, interviewed in the streets of Paris and Brussels, saying “I am not going to be afraid”.
In Estonia, we’ve heard people say “I’m not worried, it’s too cold here, terrorists wouldn’t like it,” or “What’s happening isn’t part of my reality and doesn’t belong to my world”. These attitudes, forged in denial, may protect us from fear, yes, but at the cost of not taking the actions needed to eventually avoid potential danger.
Actually, fear is not necessarily a “bad” emotion, it isn’t something we would need to avoid at any cost. Fear can protect us, as long as we can use logic to control it and stop ourselves from succumbing to panic. In a way, it can be useful.
We should use this stimulus of fear to our advantage and think what safety measures can be taken. While it is important to avoid brooding about the danger, it is better instead to prepare answers to different scenarios. Historically, what has protected people in difficult circumstances the most has been collaboration, and helping each other.
Lucia Riet de Mahhov is a clinical as well as industrial and organizational psychologist in Tallinn.