7 Mar 2021


For Security And Happiness, Humans Will Rationalize Any Tragedy

"This human capacity to normalize very difficult experiences over time comes from resilience at the individual as well as at the level of social structures".

 By Jok Madut Jok*

Every crisis, be it a pandemic, a financial meltdown, ascend of a divisive leader to power in a country or an environmental disaster, no matter its severity, has an end. People will always find a way to come to terms with it, no matter how stunned they may react to it at first.

Such occurrences may be shocking, disorienting, but most people, whether individuals or entire societies, are capable of resuming their ordinary functioning over time. Such is the story of human history. For example, at the start of Covid-19 pandemic, the whole world was gripped by terror unleashed by this disease.

But as measures put in place by governments to fight it have begun to take roots in our daily lives, both the fear of the disease and the pain inflicted on the people by these measures are increasingly becoming manageable.

Psychologists tell us that all manner of calamity that befalls us, whether at individual or collective level, is often overcome in short order when people work through the shocking events and turn them into realities of their everyday lives.

This human capacity to normalize very difficult experiences over time comes from resilience at the individual as well as at the level of social structures. Resilience and recovery tend to be the norm, not prolonged distress.

People eventually do not only begin to learn how to live with the shocking events but actually normalize them to the point where those events that are almost unfathomable at the start become mundane and people find ways to live with the consequences of a disaster.

If these events persist for a long time, they even become almost unnoticeable, as people focus on ways to achieve normalcy and to be happy once again. One can observe this notion at play in the current public health crisis of Covid-19 and the debilitating measures instituted to fight it.

Such experiences as an outbreak of a war, state-sponsored brutality on citizens or the ascent of corrupt leaders to public office and the economic consequences of that on poor people take long to reverse, if they ever do. But the victims of such events often get to work so quickly that the effort to overcome the calamitous events become so central to life that the tragedies can coexist with the new survival techniques.


When South Sudan blew up in a vicious violence on the night of December 15, 2013, the shock was utterly devastating. And yet, almost 7 years since then, hundreds of thousands of South Sudanese still living in Juba have come to terms with it and with the atrocious civil war that followed.

They now see that incident in the context of their subsequent efforts to reckon with the situation, live with it while going about their lives, to the point where life’s challenges in the search for normalcy have overtaken the memories of how bad the war situation was.

Of course, the victims and their families who survived that horrendous night and the days that followed, will always remember the start of the war in terms of loss of life, in terms of the terror that gripped everyone and in terms of uncertainty about justice for the victims.

But the multiple forms of violence of the civil war, some of which are still happening now, will never be the center of everyday life. All these emotions have long gone into the backburner as people turned to survival, to moments where small pockets of peace and security began to restore the desire to live happier lives, as they turned their eyes to peace negotiations, to political settlements, to how the very men and women who presided over the violence began to talk the language of peace.

And despite the hollowness of the promises of peace being proffered by the leaders, these promises were more reassuring to people than the memories of violence. Many people adjusted their aspirations and expectations of how the government can improve their lives, away from the early painful moments of loss and fear that this very government and the people who lead it had caused.
It is these mental adjustments, I reckon, that allow so many people to support the government and the leaders who were primarily responsible for the massive suffering, giving the leaders the benefit of the doubt, and allowing them to take control of everything, until the next time these leaders misbehave again, and the cycle continues.

It puzzles anyone observing the political dynamics of South Sudan to see that the people who have been victimized by the government become its staunch supporters. Yes, there are strategic ethnic, regional or class considerations that could explain this, but it is the human capacity to normalize a tragedy at hand by looking for and finding normalcy within the tragedy itself.


Even though scientists have warned of pandemics the magnitude of the current coronavirus, it would have been unimaginable if we were told a year ago that there would be lockdowns, social distancing and face masks, which is why it felt like the end of social, cultural and economic life when it all started.

But it is truly curious how fast so many people seem to have already begun to build the behaviors we were instructed to adopt at the start of Covid-19 into their daily lives, almost becoming the normal way to exist, to the point where some people are almost forgetting the “old normal.”

To the extent that the Covid-19 induced behaviors are becoming the dominant ways to live, life as we know it is not exactly fading out, but some old ways will remain in memory, it is certainly not stopping us from being safe and happy in the new ways. This will remain the case until the next major event comes along and challenges what we have now adjusted to.

Americans have been waking up every day to racist tweets from their president, Donald Trump, to his distaste for facts or to his refusal to abide by the laws of the United States, they do not seem as shocked or outraged as they did at the start of Trump’s term of office in 2017.

If anyone had suggested before Trump took office, that he would turn out the way he is now dealing with COVID-19 or his response to Black Lives Matter protests, no one would have believed it.
Now he engages in blunder after another, but his behaviors have nearly become normal, as people have become used to his failures as president.

*Apart from the title, this opinion was first published by the Nairobi-based Daily Nation


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