Note: This article first appeared the day after the Sandy Hook school shootings. It is as true today as it was then – except for one small thing. One of those “disenfranchised” kids I mention below is no longer with us. He killed himself – with a gun.
A short time ago almost two dozen of our children were shot to death at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT. The news that day found me at work where, suddenly, the insipid Christmas music droning in the background seemed an intolerable mockery. I excused myself and, through tears, stumbled out into the cold December sunshine. Outside, cars rushed by honking and jostling for position - each with their own agenda - and everyone else be damned.
We know from statistics that violence is actually reducing over time. There are fewer wars and the wars we are having claim less lives. What is on the increase is a type of disaffected violence - desperate acts by lost and outlying men and women. These are twisted and distorted creatures that were once just like us. They have had the misfortune, or wrong turns, that have led to a profound estrangement from all connection - to themselves, their fellows, and their community. They have drifted so far from the flock that even acts of massive insanity, to them seem sane.
I learned this lesson early in my work as a psychologist in a maximum security prison. This type of explosive violence does not happen when there is connection. In connection with our families and friends there will still be pain and suffering in life, but the fabric of those relationships keeps us from spinning wildly out of control.
I learned this lesson in a different way during the years I worked on Search & Rescue crews in the southwest American dessert. When climbing or rappelling into a rescue situation the safety of the rescuer is in large part determined by their “points of attachment”. The more we are “connected” the rope, a tree, rocks, the safer we will be. One hand is precarious, two is better. Two hands and a foot is great. Two hands and two feet and your golden! Connection = Safety!
I learned the lesson again in a different way each time I would pick up my son his High School and see a student who I know to be "different" and disenfranchised – trying to look inconspicuous in their goth clothing and hoodie - and I do nothing other than say hello. I know from my experience and training that right in front of me is potential Dylan Klebold, Eric Harris, or Adam Lanza. Yet, I usually do not go to stand next to them, or try to break into their solitary, tortured world and try and make a connection. What holds me back? What holds you back? Fear I guess, and in giving in to that fear we fail the children of Sandy Hook. Every little act we can do as individuals to build social connection and return outliers to the fold is a step away from the next mass shooting.
I'm sure there are many places we can build connection - you may be thinking of some already and that's great. In my research on solutions to violence I have found the most powerful and ever-present venue for connection is right in front us - our cars! For all their dangers and carbon footprints cars afford us a daily opportunity to practice goodwill to ourselves and our neighbors. By changing how we interact with ourselves and those around us while we drive we can make tremendous strides in building connection. I talk about these specific techniques in the book "Driving Ourselves Sane", but you don't need a book to figure it out. Sit down with a piece of paper and write out five things you can do while driving that will strengthen a loving connection to yourself and five ways you can contribute to the supportive connection between yourself and other drivers. It won't take long and you'll be surprised what you find. As we change our attitude while driving from competition and aggression to one of caring and connection we slowly change our attitude about life and we send threads of connection out into our environment. Everything we do inside or outside the car is a step toward or away from increasing connection.
As the weeks after Sandy Hook unfold gun control, the role of the media, and our nation’s broken mental health system will all be discussed and questions will be raised - again. What we do know for sure is that every time Adam Lanza was ignored or disenfranchised by those who knew him (a perfectly natural reaction to someone who seems "strange" - especially in High School) the further he drifted into his own twisted world. In spite of how uncomfortable it might be, we need to do our best to reach out to others even if they seem different.
The children of Sandy Hook needed a world that was more connected. It’s too late for them now. The responsibility is ours to prevent the next incident. This is our community dammit and I for one don't want the Christmas music back just now. I don't want illusions of Dickensonian togetherness. I want - no I need a connected society. It's the real Christmas gift, the real New Year’s resolution we can give ourselves and each other. Only we can stop the next Sandy Hook. The next time you drive, drive with love and connection. The next time you see a disconnected and lost individual take some action to bring them back into the fold.