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The Ravages of Nature: Human and Otherwise

Reflections and attitudes that allow steadiness and calm during troubled times.

Nature is awesome—in its magnificence and in its fury.

Daily one can reflect on the tranquility in nature, or recall its ravaging impacts.

Dr. Debbie Joffe Ellis
Source: Dr. Debbie Joffe Ellis

Today, a crisp autumn day in New York City, I watched a pigeon sleep on my window sill, its feathers puffed up, cozy in its body warmth. I looked out the window and gazed at changing colors of the leaves on nearby trees. Beautiful. I reminded myself of all that I am grateful for in my life.

Was this in denial of the tragic events in our recent times, the most recent being the shootings of people in a church in Texas? Not at all. I felt grief, I have shed tears.

Nature can be fierce.

Violence and destruction—whether caused by tornadoes, fires, hurricanes, or by a human who is damaged—apparently have always been part of the activity in this world.

Is a person who commits unfathomable and inhumane cruelty any less a part of the destructive, yet inevitable, forces in nature than the tornadoes are?

Many might think that is the case, especially if they believe that the person had a choice in his actions.

I pose to you the following question: Did he?

How much choice did he have?

Please do not think for one moment that I am in any way defending or rationalizing the horror of what occurred.

I am not.

If you judge me as doing so, then your perception is inaccurate, and frankly indicates less about me and more about a tendency to reach conclusions, inaccurate ones, based on insufficient data.

I am simply making an effort to, as much as is humanly possible, view the tragedy through realistic eyes.

If we are able and willing to see the person who committed the atrocious murders as a human who was severely damaged, and if we take the time to try to understand how his disturbance accelerated and strengthened to the point of his committing the acts of such massive brutality, then perhaps we may be better able to prevent others from succumbing to similar depths of depraved behavior.

To what extent was there biochemical imbalance in his brain?

We may never know.

How much were his actions fueled by thoughts full of rage about people in his life, and, or, insane prejudice and hatred, which developed and increased over years through the perpetuation of his distorted and crazy thinking?

Was there a time early on in his life in which he learned to disregard the feelings of others: when a callous disregard for life, for the well-being of others and for his own life, developed?

How? Why?

Was his perverted view of life influenced by his observing prejudicial, hateful, and ugly attitudes in others who were around him—attitudes either directed towards him or towards people they disapproved of or despised? Consequently, did such attitudes enter his psyche? Research by social cognitive psychologist Albert Bandura, who is known for his social learning theory and the concept of self-efficacy, demonstrates the influence and power of modeled behavior on others, particularly children. Bandura writes about children’s behavior being largely learned from the environment through the process of observational learning.

If not for the factors above, and if the shooter had had healthy behavior modeled for him by those around him if any chemical imbalance in his brain had been attended to appropriately, and if he had had the capability to think in more sane and compassionate ways, might the horrendous actions have been prevented?

I believe that it is probable that they indeed might have been prevented.

If any one of us had some combination of similar brain chemistry, sickness of the soul and spirit and similar upbringing—leading to similar beliefs as those held by the man who murdered and maimed—couldn't any one of us have been candidates for committing similar horrific actions?

I think it is likely that would be so.

If we, who were not the victims of this event, create and hold onto bitterness and rage, we only hurt ourselves.

Healthy anger that fuels productive and preventative actions—yes, that could be appropriate and useful.

Forgiveness, NOT of the sordid actions, but of the perpetrator of that crime and of tormented people in general, is greatly beneficial and is possible—if we choose to adopt that emotion and attitude. It is well worth striving for.

During and following dire situations we have seen exemplary humans achieve forgiveness. They include the families and friends of the slaughtered parishioners and their Pastor in North Carolina a couple of years ago; Nelson Mandela; the Dalai Lama with regard to the people who act against the interests of Tibetans; and countless others.

Forgiveness is a choice.

It does not mean inaction, it does not mean being apathetic, and it does not mean hiding one's head in the sand.

It can enhance our seeking for justice after immoral and brutal events by allowing us to think more clearly, and can help us make decisions that are more rational, productive and not based on rage and the blind seeking of vengeance.

It can include doing the best one can—when the intensity of pain, incredulousness, and rawness of shock has lessened—to feel compassion for disturbed individuals, to pay more attention to troubled souls around us, and to consider if and how we might help bring greater stability and equanimity into their lives.

It can be supplemented by teaching children tolerance and acceptance of those with different viewpoints and of different religions, races and cultures.

It is enhanced by remembering, each day, to focus on what is good, and to feel grateful—despite and including the fact that throughout our lives the forces of nature (human and non-human) can devastate and destroy.

There still is good in this world, and if we are alive, able to think, and are not suffering from debilitating pain around the clock, there is hope that things can improve.

We will all die. The people who have been tragically slaughtered met their ends too soon, no doubt about that.

Nonetheless, those of us who are here can make the effort to be forces for good in this crazy world, and can choose to savor the good that life does include. We can keep our internal lives tranquil and stable by adopting sane and humanistic attitudes, by striving to develop greater understanding, and by making the effort to adopt greater acceptance of the reality that suffering is a part of life. We can choose to make time in our lives to help other people, animals and other parts of nature—in any way we can.

That's my intention.

I reach out to see if I can help those who are suffering. Doing so after 9/11 of 2001 was one of the most humbling and great privileges in my life. I do my best to teach my students and clients principles that they can apply to prevent hatred and rage.

I do my best to practice what I preach.

And I take time daily to enjoy the birds, trees and nature around me, to enjoy kindness from others, and to be grateful that I am still here and able to do so.

Dr. Debbie Joffe Ellis
Source: Dr. Debbie Joffe Ellis
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