Someone murdered 26 people this morning. Someone killed 20 children, innocent children. In my process of reflection (psychological reflection) I couldn’t help but think that it was not just innocents that were assaulted but also, innocence itself; I couldn’t help but think that maybe our “innocence” needs a wake up call. While many say it is not time for philosophical or political discussion, I also feel that we can do something. We can act; we are not only powerless. I know that thinking psychologically so close to a moment of trauma can be insensitive; forgive me if my words insensitively injure or offend anyone.

James Baldwin in his seminal book, The Fire Next Time wrote, “[I]t is not permissible that the authors of devastation should also be innocent. It is the innocence which constitutes the crime.”[1] Are we, as a culture, too innocent? Are there still too many people for whom this kind of violence seems like a rare event? Have we become too comfortable focusing our attention squarely on the killer’s psychology while neglecting to look at the epidemic nature of American violence—an epidemic that can’t be ignored by analyzing one murderer? Have we become so accustomed to experiencing only feelings of powerlessness upon such horror that we inadvertently learn to close our eyes to the violence all around us as well as inside us?

I was reminded this morning of a newspaper story I read some twenty years ago titled “Don’t I Look Happy?” about a blond-haired blue-eyed teen who had murdered his parents and siblings. The article suggested it was hard for anyone to have predicted that this boy, as reflected by his appearance, including his smiling face, would have had the potential for such horror. In connection with another incident some years later, when a television interviewer spoke to friends and neighbors about a high school shooting, they noted their surprise, saying that the shooter “always seemed like a happy boy.” Is this need to look happy, to keep others smiling, feeding a dangerous form of innocence? I think so.

The forces of denial, of a kind of collective amnesia, urge us to keep ourselves “looking happy” rather than show our pain, suffering, anger, and rage. We have become so invested in revealing only a narrow range of upbeat expressions that we don’t notice the signs of violence, depression, stress, and distress behind the happy demeanor. We are so accustomed to people telling us they’re “fine” that we no longer trust the feelings that arise when things are not “fine.” In other words, we no longer trust our distrust. Thus we don’t see teenage girls on their knees throwing up in the toilet but instead admire their “nice” figures. We don’t see businessmen in danger of having a heart attack as they eat and drink their way to relaxation but instead view their excesses as the privilege of success. We don’t notice the difference between gritted teeth and gleaming teeth, strained faces and composed faces, eyes that glare and eyes that glow. Our vision leans toward seeing the light but not the dark. Our disconnectedness ensures that these dark aspects of people remain hidden.

It is time for many of us to come out with our deeper feelings and experiences—our pain, our sadness, our anger, our grief, our hurt. It is time for us to recognize these feelings in others. Otherwise we collude in the violence by hiding; we collude by not seeing. Cornel West, author and Princeton University professor said, “There is something about American folk. They’re so obsessed with comfort, convenience, and contentment. It’s just like living in a hotel where the lights are always on.”[2]  It’s time to learn to “see” in the dark. It is my hope that psychology can help us do just that. 


David Bedrick, J.D., Dipl. PW is the author of the book Talking Back to Dr. Phil: Alternatives to Mainstream Psychology. Follow him on Twitter @lovebasedpsych for regular updates on dieting, dreams, relationships, sex, addictions, and more. Feel free to join his Facebook page and post your comments and questions.

[1] James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time (New York: Vintage, 1991 [1962]), 5-6.

[2] Cornel West, Hope on a Tightrope: Words & Wisdom (Carlsbad, CA: Hay House, 2008), 29.

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