I learned of the Sandy Hook School shootings soon after they occurred. I was standing in a public place, in front of a large TV screen that was set on mute. The lack of sound seemed wildly inconsistent with the caption that read, “Twenty-seven killed in mass shooting”. As a human being I suffered the same painful thoughts, feelings, and images that troubled many. As a psychologist, I sought to better understand this tragedy from the perspective of my professional training and experience, particularly what I know about hopelessness and hope. After a week of reflection, three themes came to mind: lightning, red herrings, and Aristotle. I remain hopeful that this event will bring change but I also fear that we may not heed the lessons of Newtown.
When Lightning Strikes
When lightning strikes, it appears as a sudden flash. It seems to come out of nowhere. But meteorologists tell us that the atmosphere is highly resistant to the flow of electricity. A massive electrical charge must build up, and overwhelm the insulating atmosphere. Only then does lightning strike.
To commit murder is not natural, and rarely is it a spontaneous act, without premeditation or a cascade of causes. I continue to believe that human nature offers some insulation against killing another human being. Multiple unfortunate events accrue over time, and then the “unfathomable” occurs. We are blinded by a different kind of flash.
The shooting in Newtown, Connecticut was not random, not inexplicable, and not completely unforeseeable. As a psychologist, it is frustrating, even maddening, to hear the media beg the same questions: “why?”, “authorities search for answers”, or “experts hunt for a motive”. We, meaning not just those of us with degrees in psychology or psychiatry, but all who look close and deep, know that complexity typical precedes chaos, that the passage of time can be a friend or foe, that nature rarely cooperates with denial, and that many small events can come together and precipitate a huge crisis.
In 1807, it was a journalist (ironically) by the name of William Cobbett who claimed to use the pungent smelling red herring fish to train hunting dogs by laying down a false trail. Thus was born the idiom, a “red herring” to refer to anything which intentionally or unintentionally misleads or distracts from the truth.
Over the course of the past week, many “experts” have offered their pet hypotheses. Some were plausible while others bordered on the absurd. It was, as we learn in the closing lines from Casablanca, time to round up “the usual suspects”. There was the biological argument. They need to do an autopsy. The brains of killers are different. There was the Freudian-mother hypothesis. He wanted to free himself of her suffocating presence. There was the excess guns hypothesis: It wouldn’t have happened if there were fewer guns. There was the lack of guns hypothesis. Arm every school. That will stop the violence. There was the dangerous hobby hypothesis. He must have played violent videogames. There was the actuarial hypothesis. He was 20. Twenty is a dangerous time. Offered in isolation, as the solitary necessary and sufficient cause, as the one and only “motive”, each is a red herring.
Rarely is there a single cause for any human behavior. When you try to reduce the “cause” of any complex act to one gene, one word, one law, one parent, one child, you are going to err. In psychological research, a single variable typically accounts for less than ten percent of the variance in a behavior. As a case in point, not long ago, a media observer calculated the “batting average” of political and economic pundits who appear on the major networks. It was roughly .333, meaning they were wrong about two-thirds of the time. More to the point, this same observer found that those pundits who projected the most confidence and focused on singular causes had the worst batting averages. Unfortunately, those who identify multiple causes, and who, in the long run, hit for a much higher average, are infrequent guests; they offer good science but make for bad TV.
Why did Newtown happen? Perhaps we should consult Aristotle rather than the networks. Aristotle described four causes in nature. We are most familiar with his efficient cause. A sets in motion B, like one billiard ball hitting another. Adam Lanza pulled the trigger. A material cause exerts an effect through its composition as when a piece of falling metal causes damage because it is dense and heavy. Adam Lanza, by virtue of his Asperger’s syndrome, was burdened with an altered nervous system. A formal cause is attributable to the shape or style of an object. Wheels can cause your bike or auto to roll forward because of their round shape. From my perspective, Adam’s past and recent behaviors are suggestive of multiple forms of hopelessness (more on this below). A final cause underlies a process that is aimed towards some ultimate end or goal. On January 2nd, many will join a gym with the intention of losing weight. Adam’s final actions may have been directed towards liberating himself from a profound sense of hopeless entrapment.
Adam Lanza: A Portrait in Hopelessness
In Hope in the age of Anxiety, I described nine kinds of hopelessness. Hope derives from four basic human needs; attachment (trust and connection), mastery (empowerment and purpose), survival (self-regulation and liberation), and spirituality (faith and meaning). Sometimes there is a singular breakdown in one of these three needs resulting in a pure form of hopelessness. Alternatively, there can be a primary breakdown in one area (e.g., attachment) as well as a secondary breakdown in another (e.g., mastery or survival), resulting in a blended form of hopelessness.
Adam Lanza appears to have suffered from at least five kinds of hopelessness. He apparently felt alienated, powerless, and doomed; all three are forms of pure hopelessness resulting from challenges to his needs for attachment, mastery, and survival, respectively. Adam was bright but socially awkward. He had virtually no friends and few outlets to cultivate a sense of empowerment. His mother volunteered at Sandy Hook School where she was friends with the principal and school psychologist. This could have made Adam feel forsaken (primarily a disruption of attachment but also survival needs). He spent much of his time in his room and had to be escorted everywhere by his mother. There are reports that she was searching for places to have him committed. This would probably make Adam feel captive (primarily a disruption of survival but also attachment needs).
In my view, three forms of hopelessness are particular likely to increase the odds of harming others: alienation, captivity, and oppression (primarily a mastery disruption, then attachment). I suspect that Adam felt at least two of the three shades of hopelessness. Note that all three involve disrupted attachment.
Three Reasons for Fear: Desensitization; Short Attention Spans, Individualism
The philosopher, Baruch Spinoza noted that you cannot experience hope without also knowing fear. While I have great hope that this event will be a transforming, that it will be a watershed moment in our history, I am also fearful. We have had four mass shooting in the past four years. Leukemia, the most common form of childhood cancer claims one child a day between the ages of five and nine. In one day in Newtown, Connecticut, twenty children in that same age bracket were lost. I fear Desensitization.
Columbine happened and we moved on. Virginia tech happened and we moved on. Gabby Gifford happened and we moved on. Aurora happened and we moved on. And each time, we seem to move on at a faster and faster rate. I fear our short national attention span.
America promotes the myth of individualism more than any other nation. It is a myth for many reasons, too many to discuss here. Suffice it to note that humans require the most lengthy and complex form nurturing of any animal. In failing to acknowledge the many forces that shape a human being, we also limit our ability to appreciate the many corrections needed when either the institutional supports are inadequate or an individual, family, or community needs more assistance. We know that beyond flawed genetics, a major cause of human violence is the environment. When mass shooting such as the one in Newtown occur, all of a sudden “a community gathers”, strangers leave flowers, athletes from miles away offer tributes, a president appears, and of course, the media, ready with their clichés and packaged emotions, descend in droves. Where was the concern and support before this happened? Where was the investment in mental health programs, research, family and community support systems, etc.? Social dysfunction and alienation is the common denominator that unites Columbine, Aurora, Virginia Tech, and now Newtown. The signs were there, the trouble was brewing, and many were on edge. I continue to fear our culture of individualism.
Three Reasons for Hope: Carl Jung, Schools as a Safe Haven, the Perfect Storm
It is my hope that this event will be different. I am not optimistic. But I do hope. I hope that because the murdered were young children that the urgency will cut deeper. I recall the famous chapter by Dostoevsky in The Brothers Karamazov, translated in some editions as “The sufferings of little children”, and in other versions simply as “Rebellion”. The intellectual Ivan confronts his pious brother Aloysha with a simple but profound question, “If there is a God, how can he permit the suffering of innocent children”? I also recall that Carl Jung, the great psychologist of archetypes, noted that the child is the symbol of hope. This helps in part to explain why the loss of a child trumps virtually any other kind of human tragedy. The loss of a child represents the death of hope. If such a catastrophic assault on our collective unconscious does not spur us to action, what hope is left?
Schools are supposed to be safe havens. School busses are equipped with extra sets of flashing lights, and stop signs that fan out as each child is picked up or dropped off. There are neon-clad guards to assure the children a safe passage across busy streets. Teachers act as surrogate parents. There is a school nurse to cover a scrape or stop a bloody nose. Older children are enlisted as lunch or hall monitors for their younger counterparts. There is a principal to keep order over this magical place.
Hope is about trust, openness and connection. Schools have long nurtured these building blocks of hope. More poignantly for me as psychologist of hope, I envision the first few years of school as a time for children to develop what I call “institutionalized hope” and what Ana Maria Rizzuto labeled the “second birth of God”. The six year old is learning about socially valued goals, how to draw on community support, and ways of absorbing culture to manage terror. The first days of school are scary for many children. It requires no small amount of courage to allow yourself, still small and vulnerable, to place trust and hope in people and places beyond your family, to trust that Dr. Seuss was right when he offered his classic sendoff: “Oh the places you will go!” How sad and tragic to learn that these children, all between the ages of 6 and 7, were cut down just as they were embracing that hope. If the assault on a first grade class does not commit us to act, to restore these safe havens, what hope is left?
Newtown was a perfect storm. The worst combination of factors came together. A child is born with Asperger’s syndrome. There is a divorce and a single mother. The mother is a gun collector. Attempting to bond with her increasingly isolated son, she teaches him to shoot and perhaps unwittingly, to learn that when the chips are down you can use these same guns to liberate yourself. The mother is diagnosed with a crippling illness and fears she may no longer be able to care for her son. If we look closely, the events of Newtown mirror the various fault lines in our society that need to be addressed; The shortage of funding for mental illness research and treatment, the disproportionate emphasis on intellect over social and emotional competence, the lack of resources for stressed families and communities, the blind eye turned to understaffed schools. If the events of Newtown do not bring an end to simplistic proposals and superficial fixes, what hope is left?