Op-Ed to a community struggling to find compassion

Recently, the tiny mountain town of Nederland, Colorado was shaken by the discovery of an Improvised Explosive Device (IED) left on the doorstep of our local police station. It took the Boulder County Bomb Squad, Hazmat Team, and Law Enforcement Agencies nearly 24 hours to remove the IED from the police department, and take it into the middle of the shopping center parking lot to be detonated.

The contained detonation was powerful enough to shake the walls in houses a mile away, and loud enough to wake people up at 1:45 am. Fortunately, nobody was hurt.

The local reaction to this incident is not unlike the flares of rage and condemnation that burned through this small town last July during the Cold Springs Fire. Certainly, these emotions are justified and must be honored. The Cold Springs Fire was caused by carelessly leaving a smoldering fire pit unattended at an illegal campsite; the bomb scare last Tuesday was a deliberate attempt to injure or even kill a large number of people…not to mention the Police Station happens to sit in-between a nature school, a laundromat and a carousel in a busy shopping center.

I have to remember to breathe into this, myself, because that’s where I work, and play, and do my laundry, and take my 3 year old to ride the carousel every Sunday. In the aftermath of such a surreal reality check, lots of questions arise like, “Why this tiny, po-dunk, hillbilly town in the middle of nowhere, anyway?” and “Who would do such a thing?” and all of the worst-case-scenario “What if’s…?”

These questions, too, must be honored and explored. What, you might ask, does this have to do with health and healing? EVERYTHING.

The way we process events – globally, locally, and personally, impacts our physical health as well as our emotional stability. Consider what happens in a moment of crisis:

“…[the] midbrain reaches up and takes hold of the forebrain. Afterwards there appears to be an immediate, neural ‘shortcut’ to the midbrain, which mobilizes the body for survival in response to any ‘cue’ associated with the traumatic incident. Increased heart rate, respiration, perspiration and a host of other physiological responses will occur for even the slightest of reasons, and sometimes for no discernible reason whatsoever.”

– Lt. Colonel Dave Grossman, former West Point Psychology Professor and Army Ranger, as quoted in The Worst is Over: Verbal First Aid to calm, relieve pain, promote healing and save lives, by Judith Acosta LCSW and Judith Simon Prager, PhD, 2002, p. 36 

Furthermore, every one of the 37.2 trillion cells in our bodies stores memories as information that guides that cell’s development, and gets passed on to subsequent cellular generations. (Here’s a worthwhile TED Talk on the subject.) The really interesting, and liberating discovery is the idea that although we cannot control our environments, (e.g., we can’t evade every potential traumatic or dangerous situation) we can choose how we respond to surprising, or stressful, or traumatic situations.

Did you read that, clearly? WE CHOOSE HOW WE RESPOND TO TRAUMA. For example, if this article is bringing up some anxiety or anger for you about – “when is she going to get to the point?” or “here’s another sales pitch for compassion…” or “those terrible people who did this terrible thing really deserve to suffer!” may I invite you to sit back, just a little, and take one…deep…breath. If you can allow an audible sigh to accompany the exhale, “AH”, even better. Now, just consider for a moment, the fact that you – as an intelligent, capable, human being, living with all kinds of other human beings on this big beautiful planet – have the power to choose how you respond to traumatic events, and that choice has consequences.

consider the health effects of anger

Getting angry over something is a natural response to injustice or danger. However, when we choose to feed that emotion by justifying our hard feelings, and demonizing others, the detriments to our health are tangible:

  • increased blood pressure
  • impaired judgement
  • headache
  • anxiety

The effect of long-term anger that is repressed or not fully worked through is cumulative, and can lead to heart disease, chronic migraines, and violent outbursts. (Victoria State Government “Better Health Channel”, Austrailia)

consider the health benefits of compassion

First, the anger that is arising must be honored as truth for that individual for that moment. Why have we become so angry? If we can sit with the anger and ask this question, we may discover, in fact, the very root of anger is compassion. “I am so angry at the person who built a bomb and left it in that busy shopping center because so many people could have been hurt or killed.” This thought is the beginning of genuine compassion – and I’m not talking “mamby pamby, wishy washy, walk-all-over-me” kind of compassion. This is the real, nitty-gritty, gets you by the heart strings and maybe even changes your life kinda thing.

May I invite you to continue investigating, “what is this anger that I am feeling?” if you can ask this question, you have taken the next step toward cultivating real compassion: recognizing the anger is not you – it is just a feeling that is really up in this moment.

Here’s Deepak Chopra on the health benefits of practicing compassion.

Effective Anger Management and Stress Coping Strategies

Long-term anger management strategies include:

  • exercise (go for a long run, or join a kung-fu class and break some boards)
  • meditation (just think about it…)
  • counselling and therapy

Here is a beautiful piece on how New Yorkers’ are dealing with anger and stress in the aftermath of 9/11:


Here’s one example of finding inner peace through forgiveness, as trying as it may be to work our way toward freeing ourselves of the burden of chronic anger:

I think it’s fair to say the tiny, peaceful, mountain town of Nederland has been deeply traumatized this summer. In a certain sense, we live at 8,200′ and up because we want to get away from all this madness that seems to be consuming the world. It is a disturbing experience for our sense of security to be so inexplicably shaken. However, as a community, we have a choice: to feed the anger through publicly attacking each other, and lashing out at the culprits – or to take a deep breath and, rather than asking “why here? why now?” we might consider asking, “how can I help?”

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