The Recipe for a Shooter

On June 14th, 2017, James T. Hodgkinson walked into a baseball field where the Republican congressional baseball team was practicing and opened fire.  In the end 6 people had been injured and the shooter was killed by law enforcement on the scene in a shootout.  It should be no surprise that this is a situation that can easily be made political.  This was not a random act of terrorism.  The intent was to attack members of the GOP, and the shooter knew who would be at the baseball diamond that day, and the political views of this shooter were that of a “liberal”.

Given the growing unreasonableness on the left, such as the suppression of free speech on university campuses and even outbreaks of violence, it might be easy to say that conservatives are under attack by liberals and that we must increasingly become concerned about liberals.  If we look at the trends of mass shootings over the past 10 years I think we can easily see that this is not a partisan problem.  This is just another of many mass shootings in this country.  Another act of terror of the many that go through our news cycle, where nothing gets done.  But if we want to look at direct response to shootings that were politically based, when Gabby Giffords was shot, nothing was done legislatively because of that incident so it doesn’t seem likely anything will change now.  However, this administration hasn’t been terribly predictable so who knows?

When the name of the shooter was identified, knowing that he shot at Republican politicians, I was immediately interested in who the man was, because I was worried that his political views would be on the democratic side and that in the face of our current administration this might spell trouble for other liberals.  I imagine it is similar to the feeling a good law abiding Muslim must feel when a shooting happens.  Hoping the shooter isn’t a follower of Islam.  My Google search brought me to his Facebook profile.  This was literally a minute after his name had been released by the news.  I immediately saw that he was a Bernie supporter and was anti-Trump and naturally I groaned.  Several posts were public as is typical on any profile that shares stories.  What happened next was something I did not expect.  People began commenting on those posts.  Within a minute, hundreds of comments had been made with the larger proportion of those comments being insults hurled at the shooter.  The ugliness of humanity laid bare before me, and it was painful to see watch some meaningless rage.  One might argue that had this rage been directed to the actual shooter, maybe we could somehow have sympathy for such actions, but the shooter was dead.  The only people that could possible see this was family.  The anger could only hurt people who were only guilty of knowing the shooter.  No information about his family supporting him had been reported.  He could have been divorced, estranged, hated by them.  Perhaps they knew the man he once was and were simply saddened by the whole situation.  They were perhaps as appalled as anyone else at what Mr. Hodgkinson had done, and were simply grieving at the death of a man they thought they knew, or once knew.  I don’t understand people.  Unless a shooter actually killed somebody that I loved, I can’t imagine myself feeling enough rage to do the equivalent of “spitting on his grave”.

But I then reflected on my initial reactions to the shooting.  They were none too virtuous either.  Worried about how my “group” might be perceived in the future.  And yes even the thought of the irony of Republicans against gun laws, paying some penance for their views floated through my brain.  I am not proud of it, but perhaps this is what we’ve become in a society full of these incidents.  Of course, it’s also natural to have such thoughts, but what actions you take are, in the end, more important.  Despite my thoughts I did not get angry and lash out at anybody.  No shame or mocking.  This is a serious and sad incident and that is the most important position we should take on this matter. And as I saw comment after comment pour out I knew there was something important to be learned here, and wanted to take a few days to collect some thoughts and see what that might be.  I am not sure I’ve completely figured it out, but unfortunately I can’t help but worry that things aren’t going to get better here in the U.S. anytime soon.

CNN laid out quite distinctly all his liberal viewpoints, and that he was anti-GOP, and frustrated by the corruption and income inequality in this country.  The entire laundry list describes most people I know in my life who would never do something like this.  And yes, of course you never know, but I can at least say that probabilistically 99% of the people I know will not do something like this.  When we say that shooters like Dylann Roof are racist and that’s why he did what he did, or that Mr. Hodgkinson was a liberal or Bernie supporter and that’s why he did what he did, is this a fair thing to say?  I don’t believe so.  It ignores the many people who share similar views but don’t do these types of things.  We know John Lennon’s shooter was inspired by Holden Caulfield in Catcher in the Rye, but we know that millions of schoolchildren have read the book and certainly had no murderous thoughts because of the book.  The first thing that we have to be honest about, if we truly hope to lessen violent crimes like this in our culture, is that people who do these kinds of things are the confluence of more than one factor.  For any one behavior or trait, or any one environmental influence that you find in the shooter, you will find no solution to what makes somebody do this.  In the population of people that represent any one behavior or influence you will find far more non-killers than killers.

I should point out that there is one trait that all these acts of terrorism have in common.  The killer is male.  Yet of course we will still find far more males who aren’t killers, but it should at least make us ponder, what is it about being male through nature or nurture that increases the odds that they will become a perpetrator of these types of mass shootings?

One of the main points to come out about the shooter is his domestic abuse charge.  Why would someone like this be able to legally own firearms?  I’d like to look at this from two perspectives.  On one hand, it’s easy for everyone to get up in arms about a domestic abuser having a gun, given how often women are the target of incidents with firearms, this should be a no-brainer.  And maybe it is, although there are apparently some loopholes as discussed in the Slate article I just linked, but here is the problem:  he was never convicted.  This matters.  It must.  If we simply start denying people rights based on charges, then the rule of law has no value.

On the other hand, women know all too well about this kind of abuse.  It is very difficult to get a conviction for domestic violence.  What happens if your abuser threatens worse if you report them?  What happens if you do report them thinking, well they will be behind bars so I’ll be okay.  But what happens if you report it, but the cop doesn’t take you seriously?  Or the justice system fails you?  In reading about Mr. Hodgkinson’s domestic abuse case (it was against a daughter and a friend of the daughter), the case seemed a bit strange.  Though charged, he was never convicted because the victims never appeared in court?  Why would this be?  Perhaps they knew his temper.  Perhaps he threatened them. These are all likely scenarios and so the question then becomes, how do we deal with this type of person.  If we believe that evidence is still necessary for conviction, how do we get more people to come forward about their abusers?  How do we protect those victims adequately during and after their case, win or lose?  This is a problem we’ve been trying to tackle for years and there has been some progress, but not enough.  The progress that has been made has been a result of the rise of feminism.  Yes you may actually have to become a feminist if you want to make the situation better for those who experience domestic abuse.  And just because I am sure somebody reading this might say men are the victims of domestic abuse too, I shall freely admit that, yes, this is true.  But that doesn’t mean believing in gender equality is going to make you forget about male victims.  In fact, fighting gender stereotypes that oppress women actually makes things better for men.  Narrow definitions of masculinity and femininity also play into why a lot of men don’t get believed when they say they are victims of abuse.

Finally, we can’t ignore the role mental health plays when it comes to these types of incidences.  In reading about the shooter, beyond the domestic violence incidences, it is clear that he has a history of anger problems.  Anger has been linked recently to gun violence (link is an article that links to the peer-reviewed study but is only the abstract).  From the article:

“Swanson believes that it could be more effective to, instead of looking at mental health history, look at a prospective gun buyer’s record of misdemeanor convictions that could indicate impulsive, explosive and violent behavior.”

The paper also has a somewhat alarming graphic about men who experience excessive anger and gun ownership.

This is only one study and hopefully more research will be done in this area.  It seems also relevant then to ask, where does the shooter’s anger stem from?  Something in his childhood?  Is it some chemical imbalance in his body?  Is too much anger a mental health issue?  I would say yes, but there are a lot of people out there who get angry.  Like many things, any emotional reaction you find exists on a spectrum among people.  We could easily find someone out there who has anger problems but not quite as much as Mr. Hodgkinson, and some people with a little more.  Where do we draw the line and say, “this amount of anger is unhealthy, this amount of anger is healthy?”  And isn’t it more on how we act on that anger?  The study points again to convictions, but if there are none what then? How else might we learn about anger issues?  There are still stigmas for receiving treatment for any type of emotional struggle we are going through are still strong, especially for men.  In our society being aggressive and angry is valued for a man.  Such stereotypes imply that if you were to get help you would be seen as weak and less masculine.  Also, many people think of mental illness as only some condition you are born with or as something serious like schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or dementia.  Things like anxiety, depression, anger are things people think we should always be able to control.  Unfortunately, this is not the case and excessive bouts of these things, even if it is temporary within your lifetime can lead to some pretty unhealthy outcomes.

So far, I don’t think I’ve said much new, but I guess one of the other facets of this incidents that inspired me to write this post was to look at the political activism of Mr. Hodgkinson.  Here is a person who has been active politically for some time.  He was a local business owner, was constantly engaged in various political causes.  Signing petitions, getting others to sign.  He was wrote opinion pieces to his local paper.  He volunteered for political campaigns.  Despite his anger problems, here is a man who, at least for a solid portion of his life, tried to solve the problems in society through engagement with people and the system on a non-violent platform.  I’ll quote once again from Sam Harris, because I think these words are very poignant here “…all we have is conversation…you have conversation and violence.  That’s how we can influence one another.  When things really matter and words are insufficient, people show up with guns. That’s the way things are.”  The end of Mr. Hodgkinson’s life are indicative of a man who was suffering mentally.  He was living out of a van, he looked like he was homeless.  Had sold most of his things just to move to D.C.  These aren’t the normal decisions someone makes and at the age of 66, it seems likely that there was at least some brain deterioration going on.  But here was a man who believed strongly about the world not being right, and he wanted to make it right.  And for many years he engaged in that activity non-violently.  Maybe he wasn’t the best representative for his cause, but he also wasn’t wrong.  There has been growing income inequality, the government is corrupt and colluding with the top 1%, and poverty increases in this country.  These are good things to get angry about.  Here is a man who tried for much of his life to use words, and I couldn’t help but thinking of the Sam Harris quote.  The causes the shooter was fighting for really matter, for many of us it feels like words ARE insufficient, and here we have someone showing up with a gun.

I am not trying to make this man seem like some sort of hero, but it made me wonder, given that this was clearly an attack on a political party, what is the difference between a terrorist and a revolutionary?  Numbers and organization?  I think the collective population, regardless of their beliefs, can feel helpless as words seem ineffectual in influencing change.  There are so many people in this world and the weight of it is enormous given the rate we can receive information about all the terrible things happening in it.  It’s more weight than our evolution prepared us for, and as one person it can easily feel like the only way to make an impact in it is to really get noticed.  And violence gets you noticed.  Mr. Hodgkinson has far more people thinking about him then he ever did being involved in politics throughout his life.  So when you have anger issues, problems with gun laws, problems with domestic abuse, a patriarchal society, a corrupt government that doesn’t respond to the people, increasing poverty, how many more people like Mr. Hodgkinson will pop out of the woodwork?  Can we stop them all?  Perhaps this is a commonality among all of these types of shooters.  A desire to be impactful in a world that feels unchangeable or a world that is changing with the feeling that it’s leaving you behind.  Either way, the amount of women doing these things is so negligible that it seems worth asking the question why men seem more susceptible to this type of behavior.

There are no easy answers here, and it’s time we stopped pretending there were.  One’s politics and religion certainly play a role, but so many other things do as well.  Let’s not aim for simple correlations and blame that solve nothing.  We know there are societies where this isn’t as big of a problem.  We are NOT helpless when we work together to build something better.  Change, however, does not happen overnight.  It takes patience and perseverance.  I still hold hope that we can find that change through conversation instead of violence, but I won’t lie and say that a worry that violence will continue to rise grows in the back of my mind.  As I think about all those people hurling out rage on Mr. Hodgkinson’s Facebook page, I wonder which angry person is the next to become violent.  Which one of those angry people has a gun, and with the right confluence of factors is the next one to use it.  For all my talk about conversation, I worry that not enough people are listening anymore.

Advertisements

Anger, Fear, and Guns

Once again another mass murder brings up the debate on gun control, and unproductive discussions full of straw man arguments fly.  As I write this I am sitting in Edmonton, Canada where I grew up.  As a Canadian I have a hard time understanding pro-gun arguments, and I think it’s safe to say this would be true for a lot of Canadians and people in many other western countries.  In light of all the gun related deaths and mass shootings in the U.S. it is unfathomable to a lot of us why this right to bear arms is so important compared to other things like health care or education which many people don’t see as rights.  Two things that have the ability to greatly increase your chance of survival not only individually, but collectively as a society.  Such things many people have simply turned their backs on.  Other individual freedoms like the right to privacy have been openly exposed by Edward Snowden.  The outrage minimal, and Edward Snowden is labeled a traitor.  Things like income inequality, fair and democratic voting processes are sometimes discussed but little happens.  This simply adds to why many of us from other countries are simply confounded and don’t understand.

And believe me, I am trying.  If there is one thing you have convinced me of about America, is that any sort of ban on guns will not solve any problems, at least in a major way.  In some countries this might be the case, but not in America.  As many pundits decried after Sandy Hook, if the shooting of elementary school children is not enough to convince anybody that we have a national crisis and that maybe we have to revisit the applicability of the 2nd amendment to this current day and age, nothing will.  I have rested on this conclusion for a little while now, and even wrote a blog piece before in which I ask the question about why, if we won’t give up our guns, can’t we fight for a society in which we don’t need them?  It is along those lines that I want to write about again today, but perhaps looking at it from a different tack.  Because I certainly want to talk about my views, but productively, and try to ask more questions, because I don’t know that I have a lot of answers.  I just know that I really want there to be less shootings and schools and other public venues.  More importantly I want to ask questions that perhaps change thinking and can change culture.  Because I don’t think any true progress on the gun issue can happen unless there is a change in attitude about them.

America has a lot of fear.  While I also groan somewhat at Michael Moore’s overplay to the emotional in his films, his documentary Bowling for Columbine had a central thesis, and that wasn’t about the banning of guns, but that is about us living in a culture of fear.  When you debate about guns with people that are pro-gun, overwhelmingly their best arguments boil down to protection from violent criminals, but also to protection from a tyrannical government.  The very intent, we are told, for the 2nd amendment. Fear can sometimes be a sensible state to live in, if those fears are real.  Are they in this case?  In 2009 it was discovered that of the approximately 15,000 homicides, only 1900 were committed by an actual stranger.  This tends to be true for other violent crimes as well.  It’s people you know.  It isn’t because they broke into your home.  You let them in.  The Pulse shooter was a regular and had passed through the doors many times.  They know you.  Know something about your habits.  Killers pick the time and the place, the chances of you being ready to defend yourself are small.

In terms of protection from the government, well it’s understandable this was a concern of our founding fathers given what they went through.  How applicable is that today?  We know of course many countries that have far less guns, who have less murders and their governments have not rolled over them.  For instance the Netherlands has had between 0.8-1 homicides per 100,000 people (any method) for the past decade.  This country has only 3.9 guns per 100 people.  Such restrictive gun laws have been in effect for at least 20 years and to my knowledge the government has not attacked it’s people. There are of course other similar examples of low gun numbers, low homicide rates and restrictive gun laws without having a tyrannical government.  Are those governments waiting to strike?  Why don’t those governments roll over their unarmed citizens?  Why aren’t the citizens more worried and fighting to gain more access to guns?  Are they fools?  What is different about them and us?  And if they seem content with a lot less guns even when they are unhappy with their government is that an attitude we can learn too.  In talking with a number of people who have served in the military they are rarely happy with their government, Republican or Democratic, and have said to me explicitly that if they were ever asked to turn their guns on the people by the government, they would turn their guns on the government and not the people.  The military are not mercenaries, they are made up of us.  They are trying to protect us.  Why would they aim at us?  The trust you don’t have for your government is the same mistrust the people who make up our armed forces have.  So when you say you need your guns as protection from tyranny you are really saying you don’t trust your military.  Even if these horror of a government were to convince the military to turn guns on the people, of course guns wouldn’t come into play anytime soon.  There would be bombs from planes and drones, tanks rolling through the street, and long range missiles.  Given how armed the citizens are, it seems like the most sensible strategy.  Because among all those military people with guns come people with a lot of training, and experience in strategy.  And the government knows where weapons are being stockpiled by the citizens.  They are coming to destroy your stash first.

But let’s try and go a little deeper.  It seems to me that there is a feeling among those who are pro-gun rights that there is inevitability to certain things.  Governments will eventually always turn on the people.  Criminals will always be plentiful.  I am always in danger from unknown assailants and I need my guns.  To me it is this inevitability that seems to be most damning evidence to this culture of fear.  While no society is without criminals there are societies with a lot less.  While there are no societies without homicides there are ones that have a lot less.  While there are governments that attack their people, there are others that do not.  So we have plenty of examples of how we can change for the better.  What is the attitude and culture of those countries that make them safer from their government and each other?  When you know someone who is doing things in a better way, don’t you usually try and do it that way too?  This is at the heart of what I do not understand.  Even if these fears represent a real in present danger why would we not strive for a society where we live in less fear?  It requires no change to gun laws or the 2nd amendment.  You would simply find that your gun would be sitting in a closet unused as it does in Switzerland.  The oft used example of the safe country with plenty of guns.  Those guns though come from mandatory military service, and they generally sit unloaded in closets by those men and women after they serve.  Nobody is carrying them into the Swiss version of 7/11.

How much damage can an angry person with a knife do, compared to an angry person with a gun?  I hope everybody would agree the latter will do more.  The conversation about guns often focuses on the latter.  It assumed that liberals are thinking that by removing the gun, anger goes away, and it is possible that some liberals think that.  They would of course be incorrect.  Just like there are many societies with low gun numbers, low homicides, and restrictive laws, there are also many nations with restrictive laws, high gun numbers and high homicides.  What are the factors that make those more violent societies? They also seem to have angry people, and angry people with guns.  Our initial question indicates two problems.  Angry people, and angry people with guns.  However both those problems, as you’ll not have something in common. If you could make people less angry, whether or not that person has a gun becomes irrelevant.  And so I agree with the oft used argument that guns don’t kill people, people do.  The problem is people with guns, when they get angry, can do a lot more damage.  Taking away guns won’t reduce the number of angry people just the amount of hurt they can cause.  We can’t treat the problem like it’s all or nothing, if we can reduce deaths we should be doing that shouldn’t we?  But I’m with the pro-gun people, I’d prefer not to take away people’s guns, I’d rather work on the problem of how to make less angry people.  There are solutions to this.  There are examples of societies that have less of them.  There are studies about what factors lead to more peaceful societies.  It’s a challenging road, it means making a lot of other personal changes, but if you think keeping your guns is important those are your options.  Fight for that society that gets the heart of the problem that causes people to want to kill other people.  Don’t just throw your hands up and say it can’t be done.  We know better.

Finally let’s ask an even more fundamental question.  What are the grounds in which we should end someone’s existence?  Trespassing?  Burglary? Being suspected of a crime? Acting suspiciously?  Not listening to the police?  In debates over gun control issues with people you hear a lot about people deserving today.  “He should have listened to the cops instead of running away”, “If anybody steps foot into my house in the middle of the night I’ll shoot him dead”.  In Arizona a lady shot at a car that had children in it for simply turning around in her driveway.  In a country with due process, with guns we suddenly all get to become judge, jury, and executioner all at once.  In an excellent video about how we can arrive at morality through scientific means over divine guidance, they talk about why we have gradation of punishment in society for crimes.  Why for instance do we not punish rapists (a horrible crime) with the death sentence?  I honestly never thought about it before. Rape of course is an absolutely horrific crime.  The reason is, that if you are already going to be put to death for rape, you have nothing to lose really by killing your victim.  Your punishment can’t be made worse.  Imagine if all crimes were punishable by death.  Would this lead to a more orderly society, or a more violent one?  So if, as many claim, there is nothing we can do about criminals.  If we now arm everyone to the point where criminals now feel any crime they commit is likely to lead to them being shot, what is the response of the criminal mind?  Does the criminal let fear prevent them from doing the crime, or does the criminal simply increase their own arsenal when committing crimes?  Do the criminals not become more deadly instead of committing crimes less frequently?

Given the amount of guns in the U.S., we should be the most orderly society, but we are not.  So once again, I agree that there have to be other factors that lead to a more orderly society with less violent crime.  Can we not all agree to fight for those things?  Can we listen to our sociologists, mental health experts, people who study deviant behavior? Can we all work together to de-stigmatized mental illness? Can we all fight against poverty and income inequality?  Can we demand a media that doesn’t sensationalize and misrepresent statistics to attract viewers, but actually informs and covers issues objectively and reasonably?  Can we all fight for a government that has politicians that don’t try to make you feel afraid to win your votes?  They give you things to fear, give vague solutions on how they are going to make the fear go away, but they never do.  If one side is so naïve as to removing guns from the equations is the answer, then you also have to take responsibility for suggesting that more guns is the answer either.  If you are going to say having your gun is important, and that it is your right, then ethically if you have compassion, and care about living in a society with less death and violence you must fight for all these other things.  You must research solutions to how we create a society, like many that exist currently, with less angry people (whether they have guns or not).  Your evolutionary advantage is not your ability to shoot a firearm.  It’s your brain.  If you can’t see that increasing happiness in society is a more effective means of keep you and other safer then you yourself are a victim of the same fear that ends too many lives.

The Heart of the Matter

I was listening to another episode of the NPR podcast The Hidden Brain this morning and it rekindled something that often comes into my mind when tragic events happen and this the act of forgiveness.  This podcast was extremely interesting because they were talking with a researcher who was studying forgiveness by collecting data and interviewing people in Sierra Leone in the aftermath of their civil war.  It is a unique situation because after they democratically elected a new government people who were on separate sides of a conflict were in the same communities, and even neighbors.  You could be living next to somebody who cut off your hand, raped or killed a family member.  What happened in that country is truly horrific, and no side was necessarily worse than the other. People were allowed to go back to their lives unpunished by the new government (with perhaps the exception of certain leaders).  In the main story that they follow in the podcast the play excerpts of an interview with two men who were friends before the civil war and when one was captured by the rebels he was made to do horrific things. He came across his friend and the rebels wanted him beat his friend, and he would not do it, and so they shot at him injuring him and told them that if he didn’t he would be killed.  Fearing for his life he did as they asked, and then asked him to kill his friend’s father.  He also ended up doing that in fearing for his life.

I am going to stop there before I going into the aftermath.  Right now some of you are judging the friend harshly who killed his friend’s father.  Some of you feel extreme anger towards the adult rebels who would ask a youth to do this and some of you are just lost in sorry for the pain and anguish that both of these boys must have felt.  You are maybe thinking what you would do in the same situation.  You are thinking about it rationally and cooly.  Let me say first that whatever decision you are making right now, may not be the decision you would make in the moment.  And I think the most important thing that you should think about is that you never want to have to face this situation.  Fear, when facing our own depth makes us capable of much more than we think.  Sometimes horrific acts.

Now the question you have to ask yourself is how forgiving do you feel right now?  And if you can forgive, how much should we expect those who were in that particular situation to forgive?  The podcast asks the question, how does one move forward from such atrocities after neighbor has been set against neighbor?

The way Sierra Leone has dealt with this in trying to stitch their society back together is that all over the country they have reconciliation ceremonies in communities where people stand face to face with people who have done harm to them personally or friends or family members.  They confront each without physical violence.  There is confession and ask for forgiveness.  And forgiveness often happens, because those who are willing to take part in the ceremony want to be able to forgive.  When following up on those who had taken part in the ceremony and when forgiveness happened they found those people were more productive in their community.  They made friends easier, they helped others in their community, more participation in politics and ensuring a positive political future and were more conscious of social justice issues.  It all sounds pretty great.  Forgiveness is a powerful part of healing and there is no psychological study that I know of that recommends holding on to anger and exacting revenge.  Many think it will bring peace, but it does not.  But if forgiveness is the better way, why do we have such a hard time doing it?  Already there are a number of you who are thinking that you could not forgive in such situations as described earlier.

It turns out that the downside of these people who participate in these reconciliation ceremonies is that while society at large gains, the individual suffers.  The act of forgiveness requires a great deal of courage because in that confrontation with a person who caused you harm you must also confront your pain.  You must relive the trauma, the memories, and those horrific images.  Individuals report greater depression and other symptoms of PTSD.  The researcher’s recommendation is that the act of forgiveness needs to be followed by individualized mental health treatment.  It makes a lot of sense.  In addition to the obvious reminder about the importance of mental health it revealed to me that ultimately to truly overcome pain that we experience requires a confrontation within ourselves.  As hard as it may be for two people stand face-to-face in these reconciliation ceremonies, it’s even harder to face the pain with in us.  Perhaps this is why people choose not to forgive and seek external solutions so they don’t have to deal with that pain and never find that path to peace.  Anger, addiction, or just disciplined suppression are all hallmarks of those who cannot forgive and this generally leads to more pain for others and cycles of conflict and violence continue.  I say this without judgment, because no matter how rational my thought process is right now, I cannot know how I would react in the face of extreme fear, and extreme pain.  I find it hard to blame others for not being able to forgive, and I don’t blame people for being angry when they experienced trauma and pain.

shaw_trc_moyambaAs I’ve said to others in the past, the most powerful part of the message of Jesus Christ has always been about the power of forgiveness and that if there is something to believe in, it’s redemption.  The good news from the story told in the podcast is that those two men are once again friends.  I am sure there are times when it is not easy.  The one who killed his friend’s father helps the other plant his crops as he was injured during the civil war.  There are no quick solutions I am sure for them but both are clearly on a path to peace and healing and a chance for a new generation to not have to face the horrors they faced.  And maybe that’s the best reason to be courageous and forgive.  Maybe our own wounds will still burst open from time to time and cause us pain, but maybe we can keep that pain out of future generations.  Because when we act outwardly on our pain and harm others the suffering it causes as pain ripples outwards into their loved ones makes your wound everybody’s wound.  And in I’m not saying it’s all easy but as a people we need to get better about supporting paths that lead to peace.  Especially those of us who have been fortunate enough to not have such events happen in our lives. We need to help people confront the pain that tears through their soul and teach them how they can overcome it.  Forgiveness has value in the face of hurt and harm in whatever form it comes in.  We need to give compassion without judgment and replace despair with hope.

Technological Literacy

I’ve been thinking a lot about technology lately. There are times when I feel I have made it too big a part of my life.  While I tend to be positive about this new age we live in, as I’ve written before, there are times when I feel like I might not be made for it because it can get very draining.  I see too much of the compassionless banter in comments sections or Facebook threads; story after story of tragedy, injustice, or prejudice.  Then there are times when I miss it.  There are people I have good conversations with over the internet.  There are moments where I laugh, and there are plenty of moments when I learn something valuable, something important, and something that will make me a better person.  I think about my many friends, some who I have known in person and live far away from, and I can still keep in touch and follow their lives to a certain extent.  I care and wonder about them often and the internet gives me ways of staying in touch that would be harder without it.  Some friends, I have never even met in real life, yet all of who I enjoy learning from, getting to know better, and some who have become as close as any other friend in my life, always provide me with an enriching experience.  In some ways I feel like my life would be less for not having met them and am thankful I have this thing called the internet that has such long arms that I can reach across the world and hold on to people that seem amazing to me and when they reach back I know it’s the beginning of a wonderful relationship.

I’ve been listening to a podcast on NPR called Invisibilia and one episode on there is looking at how computers have changed our lives and how they might change our lives in the future. What’s interesting is that you find many people who have zero problem with the way computers and related technology (smart phones, tablets, Google glasses) have become a regular part of our lives and have made us better humans.  They are ready for the future and all the wonders it will bring.  One gentleman named Thad Sturner believes that in time humans will have interfaced with computers so completely that eventually we will all become essentially cybernetic.  Those that have lived more “integrated” lives claim that the technology has made them better in every way, from how well they do their job to more meaningful face to face interactions with other humans.

Still of course there are those who have a not so favorable view of it. It can be addictive like anything else, and often not in a healthy way.  The validation we often get when we post things on-line through likes and comments can often give us a dopamine release but doesn’t necessarily help us really solve problems we might have or understand issues that make us upset.  A study of Chinese tweets found that anger was the most common emotion expressed over social media, and the anonymity of the internet can cause many people to let out cruelty that they would never let out in a face to face situation.  However that anonymity can also allow people to participate in discussions and express themselves in positive ways, that they may be too shy to do face to face, or because of societal pressures that prevent them from expressing themselves in ways that they would wish.

Rather than spend a lot of time posting all the research about how social media and the internet has or can change us, what’s clear is that academically a lot of people are studying it. People find adverse effects and positive effects.  It seems to me that most of what gets posted are negative impacts of technology or that our choices are between using technology and dealing with the consequences or backing away from it because it is seen as an unhealthy source of stress, shame, or anger.  But perhaps the time has come where we shouldn’t be trying to fight technology.  Our children are going to be immersed in this world, and while there is no doubt that developmentally children need time away from the screen, they are still going to be using smart phones, and tablets, and computers regularly in their lives.  So what they really need from parents, teachers, and society is the simple acceptance of this fact and need to be taught what are the harmful and beneficial behaviors in this new world of the internet and social media.  They need to learn about better ways to communicate through this medium.  They need to be reminded that technology is always a tool to be used as a means to end, and not the end itself.  As a tool, the internet, computers, social media have a vast variety of uses some good and some bad; some enhancing our functions, some suppressing or adversely shaping our functions.   As parents of this next generation we must help our keeps be effective navigators in this digital world, not just literate in finding information and surfing the web, but navigating the emotions, the attitudes, the pitfalls, and the advantages of this world.  Just like being aware of cognitive biases helps us perceive the world in a better way.  Being more aware of the impacts of computers in our lives will help us utilize the technology better.  I would support modern research about the interaction between humans, computers, and social media being used to design a curricula to be taught to school children. Perhaps around middle school.  I think it’s become that important.

I had recently reblogged a couple of good ethics posts about robots and artificial intelligence and what challenges our future holds. This era is coming sooner or later and so it’s time we gave up the fight against these technologies and start using them in a more moral and impactful way.  I say this not in any kind of judgment either, but rather as one who struggles with this myself.  We need to gain the literacy and positive ethics with this technology so that as new technology develops with the potential to be more world changing, that we can don’t find ourselves behind the curve as we seem to be today on the more negative aspects.

I for one am making a vow that I am going to work to use technology in a way that enhances me  and my world instead of diminishing me and my world.

A Change Will Do You Good

From http://ohiomarketingstudents.com

A friend of mine asked me a few months ago “What are your weaknesses?”  After mulling it over for a couple of minutes, to be honest, I couldn’t think of any.  Now don’t start thinking I’m a smug bastard, I know for a fact that I am far from perfect.  Then I thought, well I am not quite sure what my strengths are either.  I guess the way I have to come to view myself is a work in progress.  It seems to me that trying to determine what strengths and weaknesses are is tricky business.  I might say that I worry too much, but at some level worry brings about a level of awareness that might help you act or reach a solution.  Worrying too much is obviously a problem though as it can be draining and waste time.  Not worrying at all, might also be dangerous as it may make you apathetic to important things.  I used to be a huge worrier, but I always looked at it as a quality that was part of a spectrum from too much worry, to not worrying at all, and that there was a healthy balance in there.  So it wasn’t so much that worrying was a weakness but that I had to find an appropriate way of using that “worry” towards being constructive and not destructive.  And I always felt that worrying was better than apathy.   To me, all strengths and weakness are not an either, or, but rather qualities that lie on a continuum between two extremes and thus any weakness may have some important qualities that we simply need to foster more.

If I say that my strength is kindness, does it mean I don’t have room to grow?  Does it mean that I couldn’t be more kind?  I have never been one to simply rest on laurels as I think it is important to strive each day to be more than we are (provided we are lucky enough to live in an environment where we have such an opportunity and are not fighting for basic subsistence needs like so many in this world).  Our strengths might manifest themselves in different ways.  While I may be kind, how I show that kindness may not be the right way for that particular situation.  Sometimes “tough love” is the best way to deal with a particular situation.  Some people respond to a stricter approach, drawing definite boundaries.  Some people respond better to you when you are sensitive, soft-spoken and supportive.  Some people might respond to both depending on the situation.  It takes time and experience to gain the wisdom to know how best to be kind to those around you.  Should I say it is a fault or a weakness when I show kindness in a way that makes sense to me, but is not received as such to the other person?  Or should I simply reflect and say, “I am glad my heart was in the right place, but I need to do better.”  And what if the person you are showing kindness to, feels grateful, but isn’t good at showing it?  As I’ve mentioned before, one of the amazing parts about life is that we never know how we may impact others.  Someone might be angry or frustrated with you in the moment, but only realize the kindness you showed years later.

In the end I would say that my greatest strength is that I feel I value good things like happiness, learning, compassion, self-reflection, equality, a strong work ethic, and humility, and that my weakness is that I am incomplete in demonstrating those qualities to a capacity I am completely comfortable with.  And that I may not be aware of the importance of other character traits that might make me and this world a better place.  And I accept that not only will this “weakness” never go away, but it might also be the very thing that allows me to become stronger, wiser, and appreciative of life in new ways all the time.  And so, in what might be a somewhat ironic way, the parts of me that I will not change, are the various things that allow me to change.  After all, why would I want to be the exact same person all my life, as if that were even possible? 🙂

Do you really want to hurt me?

I have always been interested in how the emotions we feel translate into behaviors actions.  One of the things I have always wondered about is why feelings of hurt make us want to hurt others.  Now I don’t want to over-generalize, but I think all of us, at some point in our lives, have felt hurt to the point that if we didn’t lash out at another person, we have really thought long and hard about it.  I am not talking as much about physical pain here, although there certainly is an instinct to obviously fight back at times physically.  I am talking more about feelings of hurt at the emotional level.  Sometimes we have inflicted pain upon those closest to us and people we love.  Such things never lessen the pain, and tend to only make it worse since we are, in general, compassionate beings who know that we’ve inflicted pain upon others.  This usually just adds guilt in with the emotional pain we are already experiencing.  The question becomes why do we think it, and why do we do it?  As usual I don’t really have any answers, but will just explore some possibilities.

While it’s true that perhaps we do end up being strengthened by the hurt we feel, there is a period of time where it doesn’t feel that way.

The first thing that comes to mind is that it is sort of a primitive survival mechanism.  If you’ve ever felt really hurt by someone’s actions towards you, you know that it takes a toll on you physically.  Our emotions are a product of the release of various hormones and other chemicals in our body, and so a certain emotional state can have a strong effect on our physical systems.  Thus we can actually feel like we are in a fight for our life and the only way to win is by defeating the threat that has impacted us so strongly at the emotional level.  This can also be done on a larger scale.  Governments can (and have) play up threats to one’s existence and way of life, and dehumanize the enemy to rile up many people into an emotional state where they want to lash out at the threat.  It seems clear that feeling threatened on an emotional level, by making it feel personal, making you feel fear, can incite one to fight back.  The simplest answer is very often the right one, so perhaps feeling hurt simply makes us feel threatened so fighting back feels necessary to our survival.

 

Of course what it doesn’t explain is why we might inflict pain on those that we care about.  When unknown

enemy or someone you don’t really care for who has hurt you or who you believe is hurting you, it almost makes sense to want to hurt them back.  But if you’ve ever lashed out at your spouse or partner in anger, at your child (either physically or verbally), it almost seems counter-intuitive that this would ever be a solution to alleviating your own feelings of hurt.  Sometimes those that we lash out at, aren’t even the ones that have hurt us, and so it seems even more strange that we should have such behavior.  On a more personal level, it seems to me that in my life when I experience a lot of hurt I often feel like I’m in the dark.  Perhaps that is not necessarily the best analogy, but what I’m getting at is that the solution for making oneself feel better is not clear.  So perhaps that’s why I equate it to being in the dark, because when you are in the dark it is difficult to find a way out.  Depending on the depth of the pain we may start to panic and fear sets in, so we get desperate.   We want the pain to end, and get out of that darkness so bad that we claw, and scramble, and we try to move quickly.  But like any fast movement in the dark we don’t know what we are grabbing at, we don’t know what we are reaching for and we hit all sorts of things along the way, hurting others and ourselves.  Flailing in the dark is never going to be best solution over keeping calm and thinking our way out of that dark palce.

 

Delving deeper I wonder if there isn’t something uniquely human about this quality that goes beyond some

From http://www.verybestquotes.com

sort of animalistic behavior and is perhaps darker, even if it isn’t necessarily malicious.  When I’ve felt really hurt by someone, it’s easy feel like you don’t matter to them.   Just like I said it is counter-intuitive to hurt people we care about, so when you feel hurt by someone who cares about you, it’s easy to arrive at the conclusion that they don’t care about you anymore; that they are indifferent.  I think apathy is one of the toughest emotions to have to deal with.  When you feel like nobody is paying attention to you, it’s easy to get depressed, and more often than not we react in a way that tries to get us noticed. Usually in not the most healthy way either.  The feelings of hurt may have us thinking that the world is so indifferent to us that our existence does not matter.  Many suicide attempts are simply cries for help from people that do not feel “noticed”.  In some way I think we’d rather somebody hated us than were indifferent to us.  And so it seems sometimes lashing out at someone may simply be a mechanism for being noticed.  If someone is angry at you, it means you matter.  It means that they can at least feel some emotion for you even if it is a negative one.  To reach that point though it is truly sad, because what we usually want is love and compassion, and when we become so desperate that the opposite becomes the next best thing, perhaps then we truly are in the dark.

 

The real problem is that I don’t know a good way out of this behavior.  There are all sorts of clichés and memes, and self-help books that tell us that harming others is never a bona fide way of alleviating our feelings of hurt, but nevertheless we seem to drift towards hurting others who hurt us.  Most of the time we just hurt people in a moment and then we quickly realize what we’ve done and apologize.  Sometimes we feel justified in hurting others for the short-term satisfaction it brings, even though it doesn’t end our suffering over the long-term.  When I look at war torn countries, where so many people have lost loved ones, and you wonder how can they alleviate the hurt that they feel without continuing a cycle of violence and feelings of hatred?  I wonder if this just isn’t a darker part of who we are, and the only thing we can really do for ourselves is to be aware of it, and hope that in the moment we can focus on what will eventually lead to true happiness in the long-term instead of just hurting others, especially those we care about, even if they’ve inflicted pain on us.  Maybe they are just as in the dark as we are.

It’s a mistake

Over my recent vacation to Canada to introduce our new baby to family we had one of those frightening moments.  He was sitting next to me on the sofa as I was watching him play with a toy.  Thus far he had been a pretty stationary baby.  He was starting to move more and I was paying more attention to him so he didn’t fall.  My aunt asked me a question and I turned my head and just like that I hear people yell out and I turned my head back to see him dive onto the floor, landing head first, his head bending backwards.  I picked up quickly and held him close, his cry was different.  My wife then grabbed him from me, not because she was mad at me (I think) but just her own motherly need to hold him.  I was on the verge of tears.  My head was swimming with thoughts that I had broken his spine and he’d be paralyzed or that I had caused some other brain damage…perhaps even fatal.  Thankfully he was fine, although if he gets a B in math class I’m sure I’ll feel responsible.

In reflection I thought about how quickly such horrible tragedies can happen.  What if the fall had been a bit harder?  Hit a different part of the head?  At times, life seems to be a matter of fractions of seconds and millimeters (inches for my American friends). It made me think about some recent stories I read about parents who have lost their children.   Earlier this year a bookcase killed a 3 year old girl as she tried to climb it and it tipped over killing her.  These kinds of things happen often enough now that we should be more aware, but there are literally a lot of possible dangers out there and I am not sure it’s possible to prepare for every one of them.   Very recently, footage at a London train station showed a baby carriage blowing onto the tracks as the parents stopped to help someone with their bags.  Fortunately the mother was able to get the carriage off the tracks in time, but the stroller literally gets turned by the gust of wind caused by the approaching train and quickly ends up on the tracks.   There is nothing remarkably different about these two events other than some fortune in spotting the trouble before it was too late.  I am sure there are many more parents who have been fortunate that a similar accident has not killed the child only injured them.  Or perhaps they caught the impending accident in time by catching something before it fell or moving the child out of harm’s way.  Perhaps when the child was a little younger and lighter, or the bookcase a little heavier they saw it teeter a bit and said “Hey, I should secure that.”  The positive outcome is most often the outcome.   Children can take more bumps and bruises than we think, and tears are often temporary.  No child dies from crying no matter how much we don’t want to see those tears.  But we simply can’t predict or foresee all possible dangers.

These two incidents and the one I experienced are good examples of how habit influences our lives.  We often get used to routine and what we consider as usual that we don’t take into account the unexpected.  After 7 months of my son not trying to roll off the couch you come to sort of expect that it won’t happen, even if that seems stupid in hindsight.  I am sure the parents who lost their daughter to the falling shelves, never thought she would try to climb it, or never had seen her try before.  I’m sure all of us who are regular train travelers are well aware of the gust of wind that rushes ahead of a train, especially in an enclosed station.  How many of us might think about how that wind might push a stroller?

The routine can even lead to more unfathomable mistakes.  Such as not realizing your child is in the car seat behind you and leaving them in a hot car for hours.  If you are a parent or just a compassionate person it takes just a second to imagine what the infant must have gone through.  There is no way your mind can take you through that slow death.  You will hit a wall before it gets really terrible and all you know is that unspeakable darkness comes after.

These incidents unfortunately also end up serving as a reminder of the lack of compassion that is so visible in society today.  The comments that people make to these parents are truly horrifying.  Scores of “perfect parents” who think they’ve done everything right and would never make the mistakes these parents did.  These perfect parents are calling for the gallows instead of realizing that the person you are criticizing is in a massive amount of pain.  If it could be displayed as a physical wound it would be a chest wound to the heart with the patient ending up in the intensive care unit in critical condition.   And how “perfect” are these parents anyway? Have these parents never had their kid fall? Driven over the speed limit with their kid?  Driven in a busy city with their kid?  Have they never lost their kid in a crowd?  Have their kid’s sweaty hand slip from their grip in a dangerous situation?  Did they never have to watch their kid after having a couple of drinks, perhaps affecting their judgment or reaction time?  There are more possibly dangerous scenarios than I can list, and the fact that nothing ever happened to them during that time is the only reason they are not one of these tragic stories.

Now don’t get me wrong.  There are terrible parents out there.  There are parents who do unspeakably horrible things to their children, or who are just irresponsible and are neglectful to their children causing them great harm, mentally, physically, and sometimes fatally.  It is actually the harm to children that led me away from the idea of their being a loving deity out there, but perhaps that is a post for another time.  The point is that the death of a child is always a horrible thing regardless of how it happens and so it is understandable that we would get angry.  That feeling, however, does not give us the right to lash out at other people in pain.  We all make mistakes, and many of them go unnoticed because nothing bad ever comes close to happening while we are making them.  You want to get angry, direct that energy into something useful; education, better safety standards, helping others.

These perfect parents, even if it were possible often sound like the kind of parent who hovers over their kid, never letting them play just because they might get a bruised knee and keeping them so far from danger that they are more likely to get brought down by the simplest things in their adult life because they’ve never had to cope on their own.  And here’s the rub – as parents we must walk that thin line between protecting our children and giving our children the freedom to overcome their own obstacles in life.  Children need to face fear, and they need to solve their own problems and make mistakes while doing it.  Children also need their parents to be good people, and not just good guardians.  The London couple helping out somebody with their baggage is a great act of kindness that kids need to see.  If you think that you are a positive individual who is a good role model for your children then part of you must continue to be the person you’ve always been.  Kids may take over your life, but you are not your kids.  You have your own identity and, again, if you value yourself then part of being a good parent is just being what you think is a good human being (good luck in getting an agreement on that anytime soon).

Finally, I want to quickly express my concern for the trend in wanting to criminalize every parent for these mistakes.  All the details of the case rarely get reported and unless you are intimately involved in the case you really don’t know the truth.  Furthermore, even though many parents do not face criminal charges thankfully for these horrific mistakes, some do simply because they don’t have what society considers having a “good character”.   Maybe you occasionally do some marijuana, maybe you flirt a little with other girls or had an affair. Maybe you just aren’t a rich white person.

All I can tell you is that had my son truly been severely injured or killed in his fall, I can guarantee you that no prison would have walls stronger than the one I would have built for myself.  Nothing you could say would be harsher than what I would be telling myself.  I will guarantee you that you do not love your child any more than I do and though your negative judgment would be despicable, I would still never wish on you such pain in my anguish.  So if you can’t direct your anger and sadness to the loss of a sweet child into something helpful at the very least remember the golden rule, which I hope you are teaching your children, “If you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say it at all.”