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Adam Lanza and All of Us

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By Miki Kashtan

I am a Jew from Israel, where the Holocaust is a core formative story we all imbibed. One of the most astonishing experiences of my life was the moment in which I felt compassion for 7-year old Adolf Hitler. So astonishing, in fact, that I am a little afraid to expose this in public. I was reading Alice Miller's For Your Own Good: Hidden Cruelty in Child-Rearing and the Roots of Violence, and I felt my inside shifting and changing as I was reading. Almost every word fell into a clear place, my heart and mind opened and stretched and realigned, and then, without knowing it was coming, there it was. The monster became human, so painfully human. I no longer hated him. It was a milestone on my path. Over time, I lost my ability to hate altogether.

From Alice Miller, and from many other sources, I have come to accept without any doubt that no one does violence to others without violence having been done to them earlier. From James Gilligan, whose work I have mentioned here before (e.g. here and here), I have come to understand the mechanism that translates violence received into violence enacted on others. From Marshall Rosenberg and my years of working with Nonviolent Communication, I now have a clear frame for making sense of the work of Miller, Gilligan and others. The language of human needs helps me understand violence with an open heart, without collapsing, without blaming, without shaming.

By far not everyone who experiences violence passes it on to others. I am no expert, I have done no research, and I cannot claim to know anything. My humanity is strained when I hear of what happened in Newtown last Friday. I am aware, mostly, of helplessness, of profound, unspeakable grief, of a fundamental inability to change the violence I know about, or to even grasp the violence that remains hidden. And, yet, my heart aches to say something, to summon my strained humanity, in all its limitations, to the task of bringing love and understanding to what I have learned about violence and how it may apply to Adam Lanza and our thinking about what he has done.

Violence as Tragedy

Both Gilligan and Rosenberg have helped me see that violence is best understood as tragic, not immoral. Violence, especially of the kind that Adam Lanza committed, is a response to suffering that cannot be contained within one's body and nervous system. The suffering, as Gilligan describes in his meticulous description of one murderer after another he had worked with as a prison psychiatrist, is the result of shame, most often shame related to the very experience of being human, sensitive, and having vulnerable needs. Gilligan talks about soul murder, which he believes has happened to all the people he interviewed in his 25 year career in the Massachusetts prison system. Unlike me, he speaks with the authority of countless encounters. I can only echo and make sense.

Last week, before knowing any of this would happen, I wrote about institutionalizing the experience of mattering. I am convinced, in the visceral, clear inner intuitive knowing that I sometimes have, that people who don't know they matter are more likely to cause harm than those who have a clear sense of their place in the human family. Lanza had no friends, nothing he knew to do to make a life for himself, nothing to look forward to in life. I have no doubt he carried enormous shame about being so dependent on his mother, so unable to fend for himself. I have seen rage, shame, and numbness before being intertwined - both individually and in whole groups of humans.