Uvalde. Buffalo. Tulsa. Sacramento. Indianapolis. Boulder. Charleston. Orlando. Aurora. Columbine. These are just a select few of an ever-increasing list of places we have come to associate with mass shootings in the United States. Each time, we ask ourselves, “Why?” Why does this continue to happen more in the U.S. than in any other country on earth? According to National Public Radio, there have been 246 mass shootings in the first 22 weeks of 2022. That adds up to more than 11 shootings per week. Meanwhile, the New York Times identifies a “disturbing new pattern” of shooters who are under the age of 21.
They point to such causes as online bullying, aggressive marketing of guns to boys, and a “worsening adolescent mental health crisis” that has only been exacerbated by the pandemic. Frank T. McAndrew, a Knox College psychology professor, describes the young men typically involved in such shootings as people who “feel like losers, and they have an overwhelming drive to show everybody they are not on the bottom.”
We might be tempted to quickly conclude that such assailants are “mentally ill” and leave it at that. But those of us who have struggled with depression, anxiety, or other conditions cringe at the lumping of never violent people into the same category as those who would pick up arms to kill. While trying to understand the mental state of shooters is valid, other justice-oriented people voice concerns over the number of guns in the U.S. and seek a legislative solution to keep guns out of the hands of those who would use them to murder.
Yet rather than just arguing about whether the problem stems from the individuals or the guns, I’d like to suggest that the roots may lie even deeper. And until we are willing to follow the threads all the way down, we will never find a way out of the crisis of mass shootings. I strongly believe that the roots of this problem are cultural fragmentation, an epidemic of trauma, and widespread demoralization. In other words, we are living in a sick society that is producing mass shootings out of its sickness.
We are a fragmented people – societally, interpersonally, and intrapersonally. We can see it in our politics, in our lingering racism, in our lack of close relationships and the resulting loneliness and social isolation. We can see it in skyrocketing increases in depression and drug use. We even see it in our addictive use of technology that, while promising to connect us, often leaves us even more isolated.
The dominant understandings of reality that lie unquestioned at the bedrock of Western culture are at least a part of that fragmentation. The Western worldview is dualistic in its separation of mind from body, and humans from nature. It’s also still stubbornly mechanistic – seeing reality as made up of “dead” matter, billiard balls that are pushed around by external forces – even as we learn from biological and ecological sciences and quantum physics that nothing in the natural world behaves as a machine. Such dualistic and mechanistic worldviews pull us apart and deny the validity of our experience. They see humans and the world as objects to be exploited rather than sacred subjects with which we might be in cooperative and respectful relationship.
In the late 1990s, Vincent Felitti of the Kaiser Permanente health system in San Diego and Robert Anda of the Centers for Disease Control conducted a ground-breaking study on the effects of adverse childhood experience (ACE) on adult health and behavior. Known as the ACEs study, it explored the early life experience of 17,000 participants. Ten categories of adverse childhood experience were ultimately identified that included physical/emotional/sexual abuse, having an alcoholic or drug abuser in the household, physical/emotional neglect, and divorce or an incarcerated parent. Based on their responses, everyone was given an ACE score that represented the numerical total of each category experienced.
The findings were stunning. Only one third of participants had an ACE score of zero, one in six had a score of four or more, and one in nine had a score of five or more. The researchers found an alarmingly strong relationship between a higher ACE score and the leading causes of morbidity, mortality, chronic disease, and risky behavior.
We are a traumatized people.
When mass shootings happen, we want to know why. We desperately grasp for explanations by understanding the shooters’ motives. But in a recent article in ACEs Too High News, Jane Ellen Stevens argues that dwelling on motive just gets us a “useless answer to the wrong question.” The right questions to ask about, for example, Payton Gendron, who targeted the Tops grocery store in Buffalo, might include: “What happened to this person? What happened to a beautiful baby boy to turn him into an 18-year-old killer spouting racist screed?” Stevens draws from the work of Jillian Peterson and James Delaney who studied every mass shooting since 1966 and found that “the vast majority of mass shooters in our study experienced early childhood trauma and exposure to violence at a young age. The nature of their exposure included parental suicide, physical or sexual abuse, neglect, domestic violence, and/or severe bullying.” Stevens goes on to tell us that
The effects of ACEs begin showing up in childhood. Kids experiencing trauma act out. They can’t focus. They can’t sit still. Or they withdraw. Fight, flight or freeze—that’s a normal and expected response to trauma. So, they have difficulty learning. The schools that respond by suspending or expelling them just further traumatize them. When they get older, if they have no positive intervention from a caring adult at home or in school, in a clinic or other organization who is trained to understand trauma, they find unhealthy ways to cope. They turn to addictions of all types—alcohol and other drugs, violence, stealing, lying, overeating, gambling, thrill sports, etc.—to soothe themselves to endure their trauma and the effects of their trauma, such as depression or violence.
She goes on to recommend that communities establish a forensic ACE review team to investigate the childhood experiences of each mass shooter and analyze every step in that person’s life when an intervention could have changed the course and, possibly, the outcome. How much healthier might our communities be if we took seriously the prevention of trauma?
It’s also critical to remember that people can heal from trauma. In my own life, deep inner work and spiritual practices like dream work have helped. Wounded people wound. But is this the end of the story? According to writer and theologian Henri Nouwen,
Nobody escapes being wounded. We are all wounded people, whether physically, emotionally, mentally, or spiritually. The main question is not, ‘How can we hide our wounds?’ so we don’t have to be embarrassed, but ‘How can we put our woundedness in the service of others?’ When our wounds cease to be a source of shame, and become a source of healing, we have become wounded healers.
It’s not just fragmentation and trauma that are making American culture sick. According to John F. Schumaker, a retired psychology academic and author of “The Demoralized Mind,” “Western consumer culture is creating a psycho-spiritual crisis that leave us disoriented and bereft of purpose.” He argues that many people who are identified as depressed are actually suffering from an “existential disorder.” He writes,
Rather than a depressive disorder, demoralization is a type of existential disorder associated with the breakdown of a person’s ‘cognitive map’. It is an overarching psycho-spiritual crisis in which victims feel generally disoriented and unable to locate meaning, purpose or sources of need fulfilment. The world loses its credibility, and former beliefs and convictions dissolve into doubt, uncertainty and loss of direction. Frustration, anger and bitterness are usual accompaniments, as well as an underlying sense of being part of a lost cause or losing battle. The label ‘existential depression’ is not appropriate since, unlike most forms of depression, demoralization is a realistic response to the circumstances impinging on the person’s life.
Demoralization is the realistic response. Let’s let that sink in for a moment.
Schumaker points out that the core characteristics of consumer culture, including individualism, overwork, hurriedness, debt, and hyper-competition, all affect us negatively and the typical sources of “wisdom, social and community support, spiritual comfort, intellectual growth and life education have dried up.” Schumaker notes that, unlike in the past, people no longer have guiding principles or philosophies of life to give them an “existential compass.”
In the absence of such a compass, we gravitate toward what Noam Chomsky called a “philosophy of futility” in which people feel powerless and insignificant. Schumaker also points to the lack of what Raoul Naroll called a “moral net” or cultural infrastructure that meets “the key psycho-social-spiritual needs of its members, including a sense of identity and belonging, co-operative activities that weave people into a community, and shared rituals and beliefs that offer a convincing existential orientation.”
We are a demoralized people.
People who are dehumanized, demoralized, and dispirited by these forces see the whole world as disappointing and life itself loses its credibility. Though we may be tempted to demand that people just “suck it up,” we’d be wise to listen to Jiddu Krishnamurti, who said, “It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.”
If we are a sick society, what might make us well?
I believe that broader adoption of a process-relational worldview would certainly help, by showing us that at all levels of reality, we are interconnected, dynamically in process, and creatively empowered to actualize value in a world that we belong to. In a relational world, we are never alone, we matter, and we can experience positive change, no matter how fragmented, traumatized, or demoralized we may be today.
Can I say for sure that such a change would stop mass shootings? No. But surely a healthier society, with healthier people who aren’t fragmented, traumatized, and demoralized would enjoy more creativity, peace, harmony, and beauty. That is the world I want to create.