Feeling Our Way

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Paranoia and Violence

Schools shooters are almost always paranoid, seeking vengeance.

Because we have such good imaginations, we can always envision things going smoothly, or even wonderfully. Therefore, we are constantly frustrated, constantly dealing with disappointment. There are a lot of good coping strategies for this problem. You can shrug; you can count your blessings; you can take setbacks as opportunities or lessons; you can laugh or blog or make art or hang out with a friend. There are also bad coping strategies, including using drugs, indulging impulsivity, and viciously blaming yourself for the setback.

Positive coping strategies generally require some ability to see yourself as just another person facing just another setback. This is difficult for some people most of the time and for everyone at least some of the time. Lao-tzu said that the sage sees people as straw dogs. Straw dogs were woven for a ceremony, treated ceremoniously during the event, and then unceremoniously discarded. I can’t help but notice that sages are people, so sages must see themselves as straw dogs, and not just see other people that way. Sages don’t get too attached to outcomes, or to themselves, so they don’t get too upset by setbacks and disappointments. You are a sage when you shrug or make a joke or get some perspective on yourself. It can be as small as the difference between saying “I am a failure” (which overstates the case) and “That didn’t go so well.”

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It’s hard for some people to have perspective on themselves because, for reasons I won’t go into right now, they are overly impressed by evidence that they are the main character in this thing called life. After all, each of us is constantly hearing ourselves narrate earthly events, and each of us was present—on camera, if you will—whenever anything happened onscreen. And whenever anything happened off screen, we were the person who was being informed of the event. We feel our own feelings but only observe other people’s, so we have firsthand knowledge that we are flesh and blood but we have to infer this about others. It’s not hard to see why some people conclude that they are the main character not just of their own lives but of life itself. Such people are said to have a personality disorder.

One way of managing disappointment and frustration is to think you’re in a thriller, to assume that setbacks are obstacles put before the hero by nefarious forces. This way of managing setbacks is called paranoia. It has some serious drawbacks. It distances you from other people because, like the hero of a thriller, it’s an outlook that turns all your friends into suspects. It makes you want to hole up and arm yourself either literally or with anger, and this drives other people away. It’s also exhausting and, exhausted, you stop questioning your assumptions. Paranoia also has some advantages. It focuses the mind wonderfully, making you alert and hyper-rational. It gives your situation a sense of purpose, makes the universe seem meaningful rather than random, and energizes you to set things right (because what is wrong is not just misfortune, but injustice).

When people get paranoid, they feel like you feel if you are engrossed in a really good action movie, which usually begins with a series of injustices perpetrated on the main character or innocent people. You hope for, relish, and cheer a burst of violence in the name of justice. Paranoid people differ from you in what they consider an injustice, who they think is to blame, and what steps they think are needed to rectify the situation—but the feelings are the same, even down to the point of not thinking that objects of one’s anger (movie characters for you, other people for the paranoid) are fully human. In the same way that a good thriller often ends in violence, a paranoid method of managing setbacks also often ends in an outburst of anger, or even violence.

Michael Karson, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at the University of Denver.

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