Understanding mass violence and what we can do about it
Van Oosterhout is a psychologist and author of “Slow Down and Lighten Up: Letting Go of Stress and Tension.”
I was home playing with my children on my day off when I got a call from the clinic: "Your patient Paul called. He said his guns were loaded and he’s heading out the door to blow those people away. He said he promised to call you first." I found a movie for my kids and called Paul.
Paul (not his real name) was an intelligent, sensitive and creative man whose appearance and quirks made him an outsider. He was bullied in school and had dropped out. His talents and interests were neither recognized nor developed. People laughed at him. He didn't fit in and didn't feel like he belonged.
Paul had a lot of guns and he knew how to use them – they gave him a sense of power and control. He was drawn to conspiracy theories – they provided an explanation for his isolation and made him feel connected with others who seemed to be "in the know." Paul didn't hurt anyone that day and the people he would have killed were fortunate that his doctor had encouraged him to seek counseling. Many others were not so fortunate. There were over 1,800 mass shootings in the United States between 2020 and 2022.
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I've been a psychologist for 45 years – counseling, teaching and community organizing. I've worked with dozens of people who had problems with violence and have seen a clear pattern. For the most part, they were isolated and didn't fit in. No one really knew or appreciated who they were. Their gifts and potential went unrecognized and undeveloped. They had no sense of belonging.
Human beings are social creatures. Belonging is a basic, essential need – ultimately our survival depends on it. There's no need for violence when we feel respected and understood. Violence isn't a consideration when we're curious and interested in something meaningful. We don't give it a thought when we're exploring who we are, who we can be and what we can contribute to our world.
Modern culture has made belonging conditional. It depends on who we are, how we look, the things we have and what we accomplish. This pushes some out to the fringe where they're isolated, alone and increasingly fearful. They desperately seek some sense of recognition and a feeling of power and control. Acts of mass violence provide an opportunity to emphatically and dramatically meet that need. Media reporting and our conditioned desire for sensationalism have made mass violence an attractive alternative to desperate and lonely lives. I recall Paul saying, "I'm gonna be famous."
Belonging is elusive when we put conditions on it. We can never really be ourselves when acceptance depends on appearance, impression or accomplishments. True belonging requires authenticity. The fear of being excluded gnaws at our self-worth as it diminishes our possibilities. Some of us overcompensate. Others give up. But the fear never goes away.
Natural fear is short-term. It can be transformed into caution and concern when balance is restored and maintained. We can slow down on an icy road, seek shelter in a storm, walk slowly away from a poisonous snake. Fear dissipates when the ice clears, the storm is over or the snake moves on. A lack of belonging builds fear that doesn’t dissipate.
Prolonged fear undermines physical, mental and emotional balance. It builds tension in our bodies, narrows our vision and thinking and numbs and intensifies our emotions. It affects how we see and relate to our world and each other. Prolonged fear restricts our awareness and undermines the search for truth as it disrupts our sense of belonging. It feeds the well-established belief that humans are essentially selfish, aggressive and competitive when it’s actually fear that makes us selfish, aggressive and competitive. This belief creates a self-fulfilling prophecy that generates more fear.
I've worked with, taught, trained, counseled or organized thousands of people over the past 50 years. Some had killed other human beings. Others had molested children or committed a range of crimes. I’ve never met anyone who was naturally selfish, aggressive or violent. The people with those traits were stuck in prolonged fear fed by stress, trauma and a lack of belonging. When they recovered from built-up physical, mental, and emotional tension and began to think about what was really important in life, compassion, understanding, and patience emerged. Selfishness, aggression and the tendency toward violence dissipated.
We can't intentionally harm another person unless we close our hearts and lose sight of who we and they really are. Closed hearts and restricted vision make violence possible. The solution to violence is to see ourselves and each other clearly with an open heart. It's hard to open your heart when your life is dominated by fear and your sense of belonging is conditional or non-existent.
The lack of belonging and escalating fear are widespread problems. Acts of mass violence are increasing all over the world. A constant flow of fear-based messages from the media, politicians, and entertainment industry grab and keep our attention. Escalating stress throws us further out of balance while diminishing our ability to see and think clearly. Rates of anxiety and depression are increasing dramatically. Technology provides opportunities for increased contact but we’re more isolated and disconnected than ever. Fear leads us to exclude others. Fear leads some of them to react with violence.
What can the average person do about all this?
I have a few suggestions: The first is to make a commitment to restore and maintain physical, mental and emotional balance. Get off the stress and fear treadmill that restricts your capacity to see and think clearly. Learn to separate natural fear from man-made fear. Ignore fear based messages that you can’t do anything about. Transform natural fear into caution and concern by shifting focus away from how bad things are to what we can do about them.
Pay attention to other people. See our shared humanity. Recognize our need for respect and belonging. Realize that everyone has gifts and potential as well as limitations and challenges. Remember that we're in this world together and that our actions affect others in ways we don't anticipate. Look people in the eye, smile, be respectful and welcoming. (There's a true story about a man who was on the way to commit an act of mass violence but changed his mind when a person on the street smiled at him.)
The roots of mass violence and fear stem from a lack of respect, understanding and curiosity about who we are, who we can be, and how we fit into the world around us. We can begin a process of becoming free of fear and violence by making balance a priority, disregarding fear based messages, and realizing the value and importance of belonging.