Save The Baby. Save all of us.

Psychic numbing can prevent real change towards peace

Bottle and box with the phrase “Save the Baby.” Elizabeth Harney.

By Louise Coleman

Bottle and box with the phrase “Save the Baby.” Elizabeth Harney.

When I was eleven, my little sister, Leslie, almost died. We had just moved into a creaky old house without any central heating. In Western New York, the frigid January air would seep through every crack and settle down into our bones.

My sister was just a month old and suffering from a respiratory infection – very dangerous in a baby in the dead of winter. Mid-morning, my mother discovered Leslie had stopped breathing. She pulled Leslie from her cradle and called me to help.

We filled two tubs with water: one very hot and the other very cold. My mother dipped Leslie into the hot water, then into the cold, then back into the hot as fast as she could, hoping it would shock her into gasping for breath. I remember glancing at the window sill in front of the counter where we were desperately dipping Leslie and seeing a bottle of an old-time cold remedy. In big bold letters, it said: “SAVE THE BABY.” 

“Save the baby!” I thought, “I’m going to do it!”  I ran from the house to ask a neighbor for help. She immediately called our family doctor, and good old Dr. Smith stabilized Leslie’s breathing and put her in an ambulance. Les went to the ICU and lived. 

This early experience made me aware of the absolute importance of asking quickly for help from the most effective people when in a jam. I didn’t truly understand until later, but it is true: one person can change the world, especially when they find the right allies. 

This way of thinking contrasts sharply with psychic numbing, a term Professor Robert J. Lifton coined to describe the tendency of significant numbers of people to deny pending disasters.  In his view, when something is a mega killer, the human psyche has difficulty dealing with that reality and tends to turn to psychological denial, the least effective defense mechanism, central to psychic numbingThe bigger the potential calamity, the greater the denial.  In Lifton’s view, whole societies or cultures can engage in psychic numbing, refusing to deal with issues that would otherwise be too overwhelming to consider. Lifton says “I thought about the psychic numbing involved in strategic projections of using hydrogen bombs or nuclear weapons of any kind.”

Fran Jeffries, a stalwart nuclear weapons abolitionist, suggests that to help people begin to confront the nuclear threat, we gently ask people what they feel about the danger of nuclear war and what can be done about it.  If they seem interested and willing to talk, we offer specific suggestions as to how they can influence their legislators and fellow citizens. Elaine Scarry, another dedicated nuclear disarmament spokesperson, is working on an ad campaign that features an extremely woe-begone golden retriever. She shows that it won’t be just people who are eradicated in a nuclear war.  Our best friends, dogs, and all other animals will suffer. Perhaps animal lovers will overcome their tendencies to denial to support efforts to save all the innocent lives on earth. In the words of President Kennedy at American University, June 10. 1963: 

Let us focus… on a more practical, more attainable peace, based not on a sudden revolution in human nature but on a gradual evolution in human institutions, on a series of concrete actions and effective agreements which are in the interest of all concerned. There is no single, simple key to this peace, no grand or magic formula to be adopted by one or two powers. Genuine peace must be the product of many nations, the sum of many acts. It must be dynamic, not static, changing to meet the challenge of each new generation. For peace is a process, a way of solving problems.”

To overcome psychic numbing, we must also generate hope that catastrophic threats can be addressed. Several members of Mass Peace Action have been working actively to spread awareness of this existential threat while also recognizing the reality of psychic numbing in today’s society. You can help by sharing resources and getting involved in work like ours. Please feel free to send feedback with your own suggestions as to how to un-numb our society to