It Can’t Happen Here


Considering Dying —

With a special thought concerning mass murder,

And how soon we “forget.”

December 6, 2015, after the San Bernardino massacre.

Rea L. Ginsberg, LCSW-C, ACSW, BCD


You’ll miss the best things if you keep your eyes shut.

                                                                        — Theodor S. Geisel


It can’t happen here.

It won’t happen to me.

How many of us report this from our snug, smug homes.  Complacent to a fault.  A little self-righteous.  A lot of turning away from painful realities.  Refusing to admit what does in fact exist.  Denial.  It is the omission of truth.  That is the essence of our belief that “it can’t happen to me.”

How we fool ourselves, willfully, joyfully, inviting others to follow, insisting that this is the right and righteous way forward.  Others are captivated, convinced by our cheerful confidence.  They do follow because the path of denial is so much easier and more attractive.  Better by far than a harsh reality that we can usually grasp only with accompanying pain and suffering.

Maybe denial is necessary in our arsenal of defenses.  We cannot live in fear and outrage all the time.  We must have relief.  We must find periodic escape.  We “forget.”  However, to fully protect ourselves, we also need to confront truth head on.  Otherwise, truth will catch us by surprise and hurt us even worse because denial prevents adequate mental/emotional preparation for adversity.  Unarmed truth must have the final word.

Yes, denial protects – sometimes.  Thinly.  Self-awareness and insight bring us solidly to who we really are and how then to proceed.  Insight is the ability to perceive clearly and deeply, understanding the true nature of a situation.  It is the capacity for understanding our own mental processes.  It is our personal truth.  It is not easy and it is sometimes painful.  What counts is the courage to consider.

We are stronger than we suppose.  Emily Dickinson said it memorably, poetically:

We never know how high we are

Till we are called to rise;

And then, if we are true to plan,

Our statures touch the skies—

Dr. Charles Seymour, an historian and former president of Yale University (1937 – 1951), once famously remarked, “We seek the truth and will endure the consequences.”

What’s the point?  Death, of course.  In our case in this article, keep in mind death especially by sudden and unexpected violence like terrorism.  But also think of dying by many other means as well: illness, accident, disease, and “natural” causes.

How much we gain from looking directly into the depths of death and remembering to prepare, remembering to test the what-if’s – reality testing.  What if “it” did happen here; what if “it” did happen to me?  Imagining our place in a future reality is a “what-if.”  It poses a question of how we would feel and behave in various circumstances, if they occurred.  We can mobilize hope and moral energy through questions.

We cannot afford to be trapped by living only in the moment or mostly in the past.  We must also wrestle with future possibilities.  They deserve careful and lengthy consideration.  Very soon – sometimes too soon – the future becomes Now.

We do not need to have all the right answers, but we need to ask the right questions.  It is mental preparation for the future.  It is a search for safety; we can never be too safe.  It is a self-taught and vital lesson in caring for the Self – call it self-defense or creativity.  It is a buffer against FutureShock.  Imagination lights the way.  Something new is born this way.

Maybe this should become a required high school/college course, a how-to, the new iPsych 1.0 – IntroToPreparedness.  It would examine and debate the crucial psychosocial first aid kit, what to pack, how to pack, and why.  There, we would also teach how and why to carry on this learning for a lifetime.  We would advise our students to reality-test often, to be prepared in case of various hurtful developments / crises.  Don’t “forget,” and sooner is better than later – the later which may be too late.  Don’t turn the unenlightened yesterday into tomorrow’s sorrow.  Think about it.

The future is unknown and unknowable.  It is radically open.  It can be predicted only without certainty.  The future remains to be made – largely but not only by our choices.  Nevertheless, we can imagine it in many forms if we care to try.  Denial often fails, but preparation often triumphs.  Preparing is protective.  It informs choice.  It has the force to save lives…promoting health and strength and positive energy.1   Heaven can wait awhile.

Life is richer this way.  The honesty of insight pays.  Each relationship becomes a greater gift to be cultivated, tended, and harvested.  We need others and others need us.  Every day grows to be more meaningful, powerful, even precious and peaceful.  We are freer, unbound from denial and its hapless aftermath.  Choose the informed heart.

It’s not about what it is, it’s about what it can become.

                                                                                                — T. S. Geisel


  1. The field of medicine offers a parallel concept, a more concrete and literal example of the value of preparedness. It is called “prehabilitation” or prehab. It optimizes post-operative recovery.  Patients who participate in prehab physical therapy regimens are more likely to have better surgical outcomes, fewer and less severe complications, faster recovery, and shorter hospital stays (thereby reducing the cost of care).  Studies show that prehab targeted interventions reduce hospital readmissions and improve survival outcomes of cancer patients.  Also, the prehab exercises tend to trigger mental health benefits such as decreasing anxiety, increasing positive and optimistic feelings, and restoring the patient’s sense of control over his illness and treatment.  Simply said, eyes-open, focused prehab helps the patient to prepare for a better, healthier future.

Please see:  “Prehabilitation before cancer treatment improves outcomes,” Medscape Multispecialty, August 01, 2013.

(See also:  “A Focus on Recovery Before Having Surgery,” The Baltimore Sun, 1/31/16. )


Rea Ginsberg is a retired director of social work services, hospice coordinator, and adjunct professor of clinical social work.  She can be reached on LinkedIn and on Twitter @rginsberg2

Tags:  #eol, #denial, #hope, #insight, #preparedness, #reality testing, #prehab

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  1. Monica Williams-Murphy, MD February 21, 2016
    • rginsberg2 February 22, 2016

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