Adam Lanza and All of Us
Last week, while away and not knowing of the killings, I listened to the book on tape version of The Freedom Writers Diary - the diary entries of a group of high school children who had been deemed unteachable, and who had the extraordinary good fortune of being assigned a teacher who found her way to their hearts to create lasting transformation. Many of these youngsters were gang members or drug addicts. The repeating theme from their diaries was that prior to meeting their teacher and working with her over time, they had no sense that they mattered, that their lives meant anything to anyone, including themselves, that anyone cared. How can it be that we have created an environment in which this experience is so common?
Part of what leaves me so doubtful about the idea that the issue is one of mental illness is its acknowledged correlation with low income. If poor people are more likely to experience mental health issues, I am once again drawn to seeing the social dimension rather than the medicalized, individualized picture. I would prefer to see depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and other forms of emotional suffering as responses to intolerable conditions rather than as the issue itself. Treating the symptoms rather than the underlying conditions is, as I wrote about some time ago, a form of eliminating feedback loops. By labeling something as mental illness we are not seeing the patterns and are less likely to shift them.
What Can We Do?
The very first thing I wish for is honesty about the role of violence in our lives. At every turn we learn, again and again, that violence is an acceptable solution to conflicts and issues. The media, video games, our foreign policy, and our criminal justice system all demonstrate the same logic. Whatever the personal traits of a single individual, and whatever else we want to say about access to guns, Adam Lanza didn't invent the option of a violent response. Blaming specific individuals and calling them monsters when so much violence is a daily presence will not create any real shift. If we are serious about reducing or eliminating violence, I believe it would take a fundamental and deeper examination of the very premises and foundations of how we live our lives, from the metaphors we use to the role models we look up to.
Before concluding this piece, I read a response that spoke deeply to me. Sharif Abdullah, with whose message I find frequent resonance, is inviting us to break out of the soul pain and emptiness we feel, and aim to transform the culture of violence we live in. Nothing can undo the horror that happened. I can't begin to imagine how the families and friends of those who died, as well as the rest of the children and staff at the school will ever heal from this trauma. I can only hope that enough of us learn to identify the true causes of such horror, and come together to create a truly nonviolent culture in which pain is met with love every step of the way. Since violence is inevitably born of unmet needs, there is no question that the path to eliminating violence is the path of finding ways of meeting more and more needs for many more of us.
Although, ultimately, I see the solution as societal transformation, until such time, and to support its possible coming, I know we can each take steps in this direction. Years ago, I lived in a building where I regularly saw a girl I believed was being abused. There were odd sounds coming from the apartment where she lived. When I saw her, she always looked sad. I was haunted by the question, I still think about her from time to time. I did nothing at the time, because, like most of us, most of the time, I succumbed to fear and isolation. I'd like to believe that were this to happen today, I would find a way to reach out, to her, to her family, whose generational configuration eluded me, and make human contact. When I look at Adam Lanza's picture, and hear the stories about him clutching his briefcase and being so withdrawn, I wonder if anyone, ever, listened to him, invited him to pour out his soul. There is much we can't do, and yet I want us to transcend, each and all, the despair and apathy that keep us isolated and protected. It's one microscopic step we can take, because we all know how to let people know they matter. We can model, at whatever scale we operate, the world we want to create.