Desensitization occurs when someone is overexposed to scenes of violence, cruelty or suffering. Those scenes then become less likely to cause feelings of shock or distress.

There is another definition. Desensitization is also a process by which someone is freed from a fear or neurosis by gradually exposing that person to the thing they fear until it is no longer an issue.

I’ve been noticing that I’ve become desensitized to much of the awfulness of the world, of which there is plenty. The big, bad headlines are there every day. Hurricanes. Wild fires. Mass shootings. Climate. Species die-offs. Our government. Voters in Catalonia being beaten by police for wanting independence. A lack of penguins.

Horrible things should cause some feelings, right? At the moment, I’m not really having them. I read about the horribleness, acknowledge it, and let it pass. It’s a rather Zen approach, but I’m not doing it for spiritual reasons. It’s happening to me because of the overexposure.

It can make me feel a bit cold and heartless at times, but my reactions have become stoic. Environmental destruction? Well, yes it is bad, but we’ve known about it forever and haven’t really done much of anything so it is expected. Mass shootings? Not surprising given the times and easy access to guns.

It’s too bad, and I’m sorry for those directly involved, but I have a hard time being surprised by any of it. (Spoiler alert: I anticipate more events in the future where more people die in horrible ways.) I’m tired of the predictable rhetoric that follows each horrible event, and the lethargy in taking any steps to improve the underlying causes of the horrible event.

I don’t think I’m alone. Our president is dangerous, racist, and myopic, but no one is in the streets. (No one was that upset about Obama continuing and expanding Bush policies, either. And lots of people liked Bush!)

I don’t see much, if any, concern about the massive amounts of spying and tracking of citizens. The opposite – I see “resistance” plans being made using social media platforms that are being tracked easily by the government, making all those plans worthless.

I see fellow citizens booing when others protest police violence. (Are they in favor of police violence?)

I see many, many people in need of very simple, basic things that the rich won’t let them have, like health care (or food and water in Puerto Rico).

I used to get angry about injustices such as these. Happy to fire off a letter, make a call, make the donation, attend a protest, or stick up for the little guy. Overexposure has worn me down.

I’m still paying attention. I am still pondering that better world of my imagination, but it is getting hazy. I expect more horribleness.

This brings me back to the definitions, particularly the second one. Am I being freed from a fear or neurosis? Was I afraid of things, but now see them as they are, without much emotion attached? Could this be a positive step toward accomplishing something, if many of us are being freed from fear?

A clerk at the store volunteered an observation yesterday: “The world is crazy.” Why, yes. Yes it it is.


To end on a more positive note, there have been some very interesting developments in physics lately, with additional detections of gravitational waves, and a discovery of warm-hot intergalactic medium (WHIM) – gaseous threads and sheets that help account for what we used to think of as “missing” matter in the universe. We still haven’t found all the missing matter, but this narrows the gap significantly.

Comments | 20

  • Huh?

    Penguins? How about pangolins?!

    Zen isn’t about numbing out, quite the contrary. 

    • zen

      Acknowledging and letting pass is, though… : )

      The pangolin might be a good analogy, though. It means “one who rolls up”

      • Letting Pass

        That’s not been my experience, Chris. The Zen Buddhists I’ve known and worked with have been amongst the most active and engaged people I’ve ever experienced, including a few Zen Masters/teachrs.

        Your statement reminds me of the Islamic phrase ‘Inshallah,’ God willing, and how many Westerners ascribe to the Muslims who use it a Laissez-faire attitude towards being active in the world.

        Buddhists have a supremely important concept of the Bodhisattva, people who puts off their own enlightenment in order to help all of humanity – in fact all of life – to evolve beyond pain and suffering. How could this be compatible with apathy or desensitization?

        I don’t want to discount what you are going through in any way here, it’s valid and real. But I also don’t want to let go unchallenged a statement that correlates the ‘giving up’ aspect of desensitization to some Higher Truth.

        • Depends on who and what

          Whether Buddhists, Christians, Muslims, Bahais, or anyone embracing one of the world’s high-minded traditions: Their interpretation will inevitably be very individual, often depending more on their own personality than on the teachings that they have embraced.

          Thirty-two years ago, when my wife and I experienced an unbearable tragedy, a Buddhist monk whom we were introduced to, after listening to our story told us about the advice the Buddha had given to a bereaved mother. Speaking with this this monk was comforting, not because he was a Buddhist, but because he listened deeply, and connected with us as human beings.

          He said that he had been raised a Buddhist that the Buddhist tradition speaks to him. But he made it clear that this does not mean that everyone should become a Buddhist. Instead he advised us to embrace the spiritual tradition which speaks to us.

          By contrast a local homeopath who practices “oriental medicine,” responded to personal grief with inhuman coldness based on his zombi-like interpretation of Vipassana Meditation. His Buddhism was not compassionate, but caused harm.

          Of great comfort to me during the time of my worst bereavement were conversations with my friend, the late Emily White. Emily was a dedicated Christian with what we might think of as very conventional views. Yet she was one of the most intensive listeners whom I have ever known. Her advice invariably came in the form of a Biblical verse. Those verses were not expressions of rigid ideology, but always provided enlightening insights to the particular matter.

          Personally I care a lot less about labels, such as “Zen,” “Buddhism,” “Islam,” “Christian,” etc. than I do on the essence of my experiences with individual human beings.

          • Love your Comment SK-B

            Sometimes I look at our wonderful dog who has so many facial expressions( mostly in his eyes) and ask myself what must he think of the human race that surround him and to us his owners who beckon his dependency with the same dish of food twice a day 365 days a year with shelter in exchange for pets, as in petting and play when we get a free moment (Although we do make a homemade supplement of chicken and rice to mix in a small portion of with the regular dry food to make it special along with treats given out on occasion for good behavior or just because).

            I wonder if he thinks of all of us with all our bizarre habits, behaviors, emotions, practices and accumulations concluding our kind has just gone too far off the deep end having to be occupied every second of the day before sleep with something he never will understand the necessity of in the scheme of things as essential. I also think he must be bewildered as he observes starring out my car window at all the busy calamity/ hustle and bustle passing us by as we drive seeing so much constant commotion these beings require to fill their lives with to find meaning or not.

            Ironically when we as a people have such personal devastation or happen to be traumatically effected (indirectly or directly) such as in one of the many catastrophic events occurring around the world we have seen recently, it is the the calming and loving nature of dogs and their teams that are recruited in on the spot to assist in finding, locating, calming and comforting some victims suffering from the fallout. These pet, companion aids selflessly help these people regain a hold long enough to function and to momentarily carry on. We turn to our pets(or surrogate pets) to be re-sensitized by their ability and heightened sense of healing our condition remembering this simple but strong shared connection and bond, (love if you want to call it that) to our animal friends many of us so value and desperately seek for relief from the harshness of the world we have more often created for ourselves.

          • Animals do inspire

            Much of my modern solace comes from hanging around and talking with animals, who tend to be in the moment and be interested in what seems most important – a nice day, a meal, a nap…. very simple, necessary, and not overwhelming.

            Imagine dogs checking their phones all day long. Or deciding they need to stock up on weapons. “yeah, yeah, hold on. I’ll go for a walk in a minute. Just need to watch then end of Lassie. And find my semi. It might be dangerous out there.”

          • If that were the case I would

            If that were the case I would not have a pet, I think there enough of those characters are out there already polluting our world. We have a cat that is 17 years old (Fatty Mae Dubois) and knows right where to apply her healing powers (she is a Master) if you have an ache. She’ll prop herself right up on top of the pain source and sit there until it goes away like she has a job to do, they really do know more and feel, comprehend than the human race gives them credit it for.

          • Dogs and cats

            Our little doggie, rescued from abuse, seems so focused on basic issues such as her precarious sense of personal safety that it does not seem to me that she has any additional attention to think about the odd things that humans do. So I do that for her.

            Sometimes I think about how my actions should seem awfully strange to little doggie, or to my cat friend, Mac. But doggie just does not seem to think that any behavior is odd: But rather whether it scares her or not. And Mac is too curious to find anything odd.

            Whatever I am doing, Mac’s nose is in it, curious, observant. If I am under a sink turning a wrench, Mac will be right beside me, ready to help. I think he has the soul of an engineer… wanting to see how everything works.

            Mac is particularly interested in water. Run a stream of water from a faucet, and Mac positions himself next to it, batting at the stream. Mac walks across piano keys, plays music, specializes in obscure John Cage compositions. Mac walks across my computer keyboard just when I am engrossed. He jumps up on my shoulders and starts purring when I least expect it.

            It is a cliche about a dog being your best friend, but my friend, the late Petey, really was. When he became ill and was close to death, I laid down next to Petey, he looked into my eyes with love and total trust as I embraced him. Petey closed his eyes, went to sleep, and died peacefully in my arms.

            How wonderful… how fortunate!

          • Know what you mean and I

            Know what you mean and I myself have had a few of these most major heartbreaks with pets passing on because I basically have never been without a dog, they tend to find me as I have always adopted strays (one at a time) that have crossed my path one way or another. Our dog loves to follow the vacuum cleaner as I go, he’s curious but actually doesn’t know what to make of it, why would we want to suck up all that beautiful dog hair of his!

        • Washing Bowls

          You are getting attached to words, grasshopper. : )

          My use of the word “zen” comes from personal zen study, and there are many flavors. Acknowledging and letting pass is a zen technique for some schools. It’s not dropping out. It’s highly active, and not hands-off. It’s high awareness, and not getting distracted by the muck of the day. Seeing as things truly are. All the world in a grain of rice. Who shall save the cat? (Inside joke for koan lovers…)

          BUT, I didn’t use the word apathy, and didn’t suggest “giving up”. I suggested that my reaction might seem to some to be zen-like, but it ISN’T. That’s important.

          If one is hung up my mention of one flavor of zen, the point has been missed. This isn’t about zen. Take that sentence out and read it all again without it.

          My point is overexposure. Too much. Not enough time to reflect on any or all of it. And lots of little distractions, like the panes of a stained glass window in gothic cathedral – (ha,… just kidding… no more analogies…)

  • "My point is overexposure. Too much..."

    In describing the last chapter of The Third Chimpanzee, (humans), Jared Diamond says, “Included is the grimmest chapter in any of my books, on genocide. All of us old enough to have seen, in photos or first hand, the liberated NAZI concentration camps in 1945, swore then, “Never again.” Despite that determination, since 1945 there have been at least two genocides that produced body counts exceeding a million, and four more with counts exceeding 100, 000. Why do people do it, and what can be done to stop it?

  • Callous Regard

    When I long ago realized that there is an explicit correlation between humans who believe in an afterlife and a callous regard for other “living” things, I was careful not to generalize that in assuming that all believers in afterlife feel that way. I was sure they do not.

    But that left me thinking, if not all feel that way, how many do and to what degree?

    Jared Diamond, born in Boston in 1937, became a professor of physiology at UCLA. His storied and tiered education and teaching broaden into an amazing multidiscipline of sciences. As an evolutionary biologist he wrote extensively on the whys and what for’s of the human animal, kind of like Desmond Morris on steroids…

    A callous regard for other living things is unique to the human animal. No other species could think or act along the lines of: “It’s necessary to destroy the town to save it.” (NYTimes report talking about the decision by allied commanders to bomb and shell the town regardless of civilian casualties, to rout the Vietcong.* “Major Describes Move”. New York Times. 8 February 1968,. Bến Tre Province, in the Mekong Delta).

    To my knowledge, Jared Diamond does not connect belief in afterlife with a callous regard for other living things.

    Despite the fact that believing in an afterlife is a greater psychological disorder than believing in a god, few, if any, scientists in behavioral sciences have a published thesis on that real possibility. Too many people more generally believe in the divine right to destroy each other and any life forms they think necessary, in the name of their God.

    But there are more people who believe in afterlife than people who believe in a God. Literally, having some place to go after a person dies, makes it too tempting to more readily kill and destroy. It is the ultimate desensitization.

    • Abstractions are fine...

      but it is best to begin by practicing kindness toward others in our own lives.

      • The statistical distribution curve

        Expressing ideas rather than dealing with actual events is what much of this article and comments are about. The subject and therefore the comments are largely abstractions.

        Whatever the statistical distribution curve is for mental illness and the behavioral sciences, the store clerk’s observation that “The world is crazy” and agreed upon by Chris, “Why yes. Yes it is,” being desensitized to horrible and tragic events is normal. Especially, when you see how much violence kids see in the media before their fifth year…including violent cartoons.

        The Mr. Rogers concept of “practicing kindness toward others in our own lives” doesn’t say enough to address the real issues of our most violent culture, nor, not even his own inconsistencies. Rogers was willing to discuss the Vietnam War with his kid audience but not gay liberation. He also could talk only in “straights” gender-binary, and it would be unimaginable for him to talk to his kid audience about transgenders or why men kill women, or sexual harassment of women – things that are often the source of violent behaviors too many are desensitized to.
        Of course, he was, after all, an ordained Christian minister.

    • Psychological disorder?

      Suggested Reading: Twenty Cases Suggestive of Reincarnation is a book written by psychiatrist Ian Stevenson on the phenomenon of what he calls spontaneous recall of information about previous lives by young children. The book focuses on twenty cases investigated by the author.

      It’s available as a pdf here:

      • I defer this to our resident believers

        My comments above are intended to be closely tied to the densensitization topic. People’s belief in reincarnation, which I also consider a psychological disorder as a part of the belief in the afterlife-syndrome, is not a comment that I can closely tie into the topic at hand, at this time. Sorry about that. However, your link might be of interest to some of our resident believers.

  • Sittin' around, thinkin'

    The thoughts I had were these:

    1. The only way to weather increasing storms of stress is reduce the level to which you are emotionally affected by them.

    2. It’s not healthy to be in a constant state of anger, fear, anxiety, and/or grief.

    3. Being constantly aware of (addictive, inflammatory, hypnotically repetitive, constantly updated) news headlines contributes to stress.

    To reinforce the main point, I think it’s actually a good thing to get beyond strong personal reactions to bad news. That doesn’t mean don’t care. It just means, don’t get so caught up in caring that you’re paralysed.

    • When ignorance is bliss

      ’tis folly to be wise.


      God, grant me the serenity to live with the things I cannot change,
      Courage to change the things I can,
      And wisdom to know the difference.


      Humor is a great way to acknowldge the rampant, daily insanity in the world while still giving ourselves the emotional distance we need in order to keep ourselves whole. Lise is on to something about the need for some desensitization.

      • or you could just call every

        or you could just call every major news event that get’s under your skin and irritates fake news.

  • Real wisdom is to know the extent of one's ignorance

    I was glad to see that when Chris wanted to balance his rather morose topical view, to “end on a more positive note” he diverted our attention to developments in physics.

    By taking his account off-world his philosophical outlook was not looking back over his shoulder at the foibles of “man” unkind.

    He could have offered the usual insipid platitudes employed in general use but instead rose above it by offering and acknowledging the advancement of our knowledge of the wonders of the universe from whence we came.

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