I haven’t been able to stop thinking about the shooting in Parkland. Every morning I wake up, hug and kiss my kids, and I think of our friends who will never be able to hug or kiss their daughter Alyssa Alhadeff again. My heart aches. I have so many emotions – deep pain for their loss, and the loss of all the innocent people, inspiration from the action being taken by the courageous students, parents and faculty, confusion regarding the priorities of our society, motivation to join Lori Alhadeff, Alyssa’s mother, in her mission to make schools safe (MakeOurSchoolsSafe.org) and yet beneath it all I’m thinking of this boy, Nikolas Cruz.
Part of me wants him to suffer for eternity for what he did, yet part of me wants to hug him, for all the suffering he must have experienced that led to such an imaginable act. I feel guilty for the latter, almost as if there is a line drawn as to who deserves compassion.
As a therapist, I’m always trying to find out why we do what we do. What thoughts and feelings trigger behaviors?
People talk about the “red flags,” but what are red flags really? They are actions taken as an attempt to alleviate a deep pain. They are cries for attention – the need for love.
It is easy to blame “mental illness,” it dissociates us from “those villains” who do horrific acts. When we villainize the actions of others, we not only ignore the real problem, but we are being judgmental instead of compassionate.
What is mental illness? In layman’s terms, it the experience of unimaginably challenging thoughts and feelings, and a lack of tools to handle them in a healthy way. When we focus only on the horrific actions that people take, we are forgetting to ask why. Most violent acts are just like a bully on the playground, an insecure, suffering child, finds ways to feel power and strength to overcompensate for the pain. Simply put, hurt people, hurt people.
I was really touched by the New York Times article, The Boys Are Not All Right. This article highlights the fact that these student shooters are boys, and how our society lacks the support needed to encourage boys be vulnerable to handle their emotions. Another article, One Teacher’s Brilliant Strategy to Stop Future School Shootings—and It’s Not About Guns, highlights a teacher who asks students to write each week who they want to sit with, as a means to find out who may be feeling left out. In my son’s class, the teachers bring a bench to the playground so that those who don’t have playmates can sit on the bench, and others know to ask them to play. Efforts such as these are addressing the source of the issue, feelings.
If we stop blaming mental illness and look deeper, we realize there is a lonely, sad, terribly pained little boy who doesn’t know how to deal. I don’t know the details of his life, but when I look at just the basics, starting from his adoption, to the death of his adopted father, and recent the death of his adopted mother it makes sense that there were numerous red flags. This boy was in tremendous pain and didn’t know how to handle it.
To be clear, in no way does any of this justify the horrific acts that took place. It’s an effort to understand why it happened, why it has been happening, what needs to be done to keep it from happening again.
I think the mental health issue is twofold:
- How people handle their own difficult feelings
- How people treat other people with difficult feelings
With two small children, I’ve been paying attention to the social norms that influence their “brainwashing.” For example, “Oscar the Grouch” is not likeable. Why? Because he lives in a trash can. “He’s gross. He isn’t nice.” But why isn’t he nice? Likely because he lives in a trash can!
Maybe Oscar is really suffering. Why don’t we consider how we help him? Why aren’t we teaching our kids more compassion? Equally, Dora the Explorer complains of “Grumpy Old Troll who lives under the bridge.” Again, perhaps he is grumpy because he lives under the bridge! How do we have compassion instead of judge?
Why do we teach about “good guys” and “bad guys”? We are taught to fear or hate others rather than have compassion for their suffering. What if instead we teach that there are “good guys” and “suffering guys” who do bad things? What if we believed the “suffering guys” needed love – from themselves and from others? How would life be different with this simple shift in belief? Norway is a good example of a country that understands that those who are hardest to love, need it the most.
According to a Yale study, babies are born moral. Paul Bloom, from Yale University’s infant cognition center says, “We are naturally moral beings, but our environment can enhance — or sadly, degrade — this innate moral sense.” So why does society foster subtle and not so subtle ways to hate instead of love, to separate instead of unite?
On top of this, the gun issue. No question, if Nikolas didn’t have access to guns, he wouldn’t have been able to do what he did.
From my perspective, there are 2 reasons most people want guns, fear or fun. Those who want weapons to protect themselves are hoping never to use them. They are just afraid. They are uncomfortable going to sleep at night. Their mind wanders about all the possibilities of what someone might do to them. Rather than go to therapy, learn to meditate or find another way to soothe their fears directly, they get a gun. They gain a false sense of strength or power by having a weapon.
Getting a gun for protection is the essence of mental health issue number one, people are challenged to handle their own difficult feelings (ie. fear) directly. Personally, I’ve never heard a hero story of how someone’s “protection gun” saved the day. Particularly since those guns are generally locked up, so the chance that would be available to protect if needed, is more unlikely.
The “fun guns,” used for hobbies such as hunting and shooting ranges can still kill people. I can’t think of any reason that the desire to kill animals for sport or going to the shooting range should be prioritized over the safety of our people.
Most importantly, the guns of today have nothing to do with the guns from when the second amendment was created. I wonder if those who support the second amendment would feel so strongly about it if they only had access to weapons that were considered when the amendment was created.
In sum, in addition to restricting access to weapons, I believe it is time to become more compassionate, for ourselves and for others. We must improve the mental health of the masses, not just the “mentally ill.” Deeply painful thoughts and feelings trigger destructive behavior, let’s learn to better deal with the source and stop focusing only on the symptoms. We don’t need a tragedy to connect with ourselves and one another. If we tend to our own feelings with love, we are more likely to tend to those of others with the same compassion. Make it your responsibility to reach out and give love to someone who needs it, even if they don’t ask for it.
Lead with love, not just in trying times, but always.
“Hurt people, hurt people. Free people, free people.” – Unknown