Today, another mass shooting permeates the airwaves. Shock, grief, sorrow, and loss make our hearts heavy. Community leaders, sports coaches, athletes, survivors, parents, and friends speak out in pain of the latest tragedy. Our collective sorrow grows—this latest tragedy is only ten days after the one that came before … the previous against a religious community. Schools, workplaces, houses of worship, concert arenas, movie theaters, night clubs … all places that we Americans expect to feel safe.
Safety is a primordial need. Abraham Maslow, in his 1943 paper, “A Theory of Human Motivation,” defines his “Hierarchy of Needs.” He places the need for safety right after the most basic needs for food and water, shelter and sleep. After physiological needs are met, safety—which includes personal security, emotional and financial security, and health and well-being—takes precedence. The most primitive part of our brains causes us to fight, flight, or freeze; in essence, we instinctively do what is needed to protect us for sustaining life.
We will fight for our lives and our loved ones, thus the saying, “Never get between a mama bear and her cubs.” You won’t win that one. Our political climate today seems to be in a holding pattern at this level: if our personal and financial security is threatened, we fight back and create barriers, whether the threat is perceived or real. When we create in our minds an enemy of the “other,” we move into self-preservation mode, even at all costs.
What’s missing in my view of being in this instinctual survival mode is the ability to see the larger picture, the other point of view. In our shock and sadness, when a shooting occurs, it is of utmost importance to grieve, to stand with those who suffer with the deepest of compassion, and to make space for the grieving process, as long as it takes. I am intimately aware that knowing another’s compassion and being connected to the grace of God is how one survives such a blow in life.
And yet, it is also important to explore what could have caused the shooter to unleash such harm on innocent people. Is it retaliation, or repressed anger or hate? What is causing the anger or hate? What is feeding it? What is the source, and how can we affect the systemic root cause?
No doubt those questions have very complex answers in every unique case.
I also have no doubt that every human being born on this planet is a child of God. Everyone is born with a soul, with life lessons to learn. That is our spiritual path. Some choose distractions from the spiritual path, others simply cannot or are not given the opportunity to find the spiritual path if they are struggling with basic needs such as food and water, or safety concerns. My prayer is that even then, there is a glimpse of something more powerful beyond them, a peaceful, guiding force beckoning them home, into the light. In the case of a shooter, what is going on not only in their minds, but particularly in their hearts, their souls? What are they feeling? What need is left unmet that would cause this violent outburst? Is there a mental illness affecting their ability to function in society?
It is important to acknowledge the role of mental illness in such shootings. Mental illness is a real disease, just as is heart disease, diabetes, and cancer. It is one we often wish to ignore—staying in denial is a way to cope. But the illness doesn’t go away without treatment, careful attention, and nurture. I am not a physician, or a psychologist, or a mental health professional, but I am in the business of soul care. My priesthood is focused on healing. My life’s work to help others heal comes partly from a deep-seated “knowing” of the pain of being different, not fitting in, mild depression, and being the wife of a loving yet troubled man who committed suicide when I was age 29. I understand the pain of mental illness—and the impact of leaving it unattended. Ultimately, denial does not work. Every single child of God needs care and nurture to become whole, to discover a sense of well-being. As a society, we fail when even one is not given the opportunity to step into the path toward healing and wholeness.
But there is also another component to shootings. Maslow’s hierarchy defines the next level—after security needs are met—as those of social belonging: the need for friendships, intimacy, and family relationships. This need for social belonging is critical to health, and it is especially strong in childhood. Sadly, this is the time when children are bullied at school, on the playgrounds, at the bus stops, even online. It is hard to escape. Places that are supposed to be safe, schools where children spend sometimes 10 hours per day, are not always safe. I was recently blessed to hear a young woman speak at the Parliament of the World’s Religions, Carrah Quigley, the daughter of a school shooter. Quigley spoke emphatically of the tragedy of bullying, cliques, racism, and prejudice in our school systems. She awakened me to the seriousness of the effect of bullying and racism on the psychological well-being of some shooters, and for her courage to speak out, I am grateful.
Ostracism, ridicule, rejection, and bullying were alive in my school days. Whether related to one wearing glasses, the shoes or clothes a child is wearing, the color of their skin, their home country, native language, their femininity or masculinity (hurtful names like “gay” or “faggot” or “butch” were those used in my days) … these words DO have an impact. It hurts me to even write these words, as if writing them down gives them credence in some way, but in truth, I must acknowledge those words were intentionally tossed around flippantly yet with vengeance. We used to say, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.” Well, for me, that was a Lie. I suppose I was trying to convince myself that I was stronger than their meanness. But it was a lie. Many nights, I went to sleep sad as a young girl. Sometimes I cried, other nights I simply asked, “Why? Why are they so mean?”
Do young boys and girls who are ridiculed and bullied grow up into adults who still silently cry to belong and be accepted? Our culture willingly promotes and sensationalizes violence in the entertainment industry, and then we train our young men and women to become soldiers, placing a weapon in their hands to protect our freedom from any perceived threat that may bring harm. For some, it’s a good place to fit in, to finally belong. It offers a place to feel pride, to connect with something bigger than yourself. I know that many young adults have learned how to be acceptably mentally healthy to pass the entrance exams, even while suppressing painful emotions. We know how to “cope” and stay in denial–at least I did at that age. Tragically, our young soldiers often come home deeply traumatized, perhaps a continuation of a deep-rooted feelings from childhood, or perhaps it’s a new reality for them, trauma from encountering hate and anger, both external and internal. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in our veterans is a national emergency in our country. An alarming average of 20 veterans per day commit suicide in the U.S. This alone should cause alarm and deep compassion to radically emerge in our social rhetoric for needed change. Some shooters—and not all, to be clear—are military-trained veterans. I do not wish to stereotype in any way; I simply wish to point out that the effect of unhealed trauma can cause serious consequences.
Are we surprised that our national divisive language, hate language, universal access to guns, and the lack of resources for healing trauma, anger and anguish are tearing us apart? This is a complex problem for sure, but what seems most tragic to me is taking the position that “This is so sad, but it doesn’t directly impact me, so I’ll go on as usual. It doesn’t affect my life. I am not responsible. I will pray (a good first step, yet incomplete.) My happy life is just fine the way it is (in my protected bubble that I have created for myself and my family.)” That bubble is imaginary, however.
It seems the shooters are trying to tell us something. Even if under mental illness delusions, there is still a message. And it’s not all mental illness. Some of it may be the need to express deep emotional wounds. I wonder. Could they be saying to us, “Does anyone care about me? Listen to me. You are happy, but I have pain, even if I am hiding it. Do you care enough to see my pain? Who can I talk to, is there anyone out there? My feelings are going to explode someday soon. I don’t agree with you. “You” have hurt me. I am hurting.”
Whatever it is, we seldom get to ask. Usually, they take their own lives along with the innocent others whose lives they take with them. In the case of suicide, we are left with many unanswered questions and deep grief in our souls for things done and left un-done.
It’s not fair. It’s not right. But it is happening, and likely will continue. What forceful message are they projecting for us to hear as their “final say” screams and pierces through the air in our presumably safe places, as an equal and opposite force to what they are experiencing?
Can we hear? Can we hear? What do they want us to hear? Are we willing to listen? Can we ask, learn, reflect, and grow? Are we willing to change to create a society where healing and wholeness of everyone is of the highest priority, where everyone belongs?
Let us pray. Holy God, creator of the multiverses, you made us all in your image. Help us to see how we are all one, sharing this planet. Help us to ask how we can be a part of the solution. Help us to reach out and love those who have been hurt … on the playgrounds, in the battlefields, in the arenas with gunshots, the victims, the survivors, and their families. Help us to embrace that we are one big family, caring for each other with love, nurture, and peace. Guide us to heal our own wounds so that our lights shine for others to see. In the Light of Christ, we pray. Amen.