Matthew T. Rippeyoung, M.A., C. Psych. -
No Secrets Here

Connecting dots.

There really isn’t much that is hopeful or uplifting to say about the recent shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School.  This is a terrible tragedy.  I think about the thousands of people whose lives were impacted directly and who will be forever changed by this loss.  I think about the rest of us who are watching from a distance and who are upset and grieving and worried and thrown into a state of panic about this shooting.    

I’ve noticed that following a horrific event such as this, there’s a real impulse to understand the “why” behind it all.  This is a very natural human response.  Our brains are wired to look for patterns, to connect the dots, or to fill in gaps where things don’t make sense to us.  And so in the quest to answer the question, “why did this happen?” many of us park in front of our computer screens or television sets watching hours of news footage that essentially tells us very little.  And yet, even though we may have a better understanding of the “whys” behind other mass murders like Columbine or Virginia Tech, we face another fresh set of losses.  At times like this, I often wonder if there will ever be an answer that’s good enough.    

Part of why we search so hard for the reasons behind an event like this is so we can make sure that it never happens again.  This is another natural human tendency.  Who would want to relive something like this?  The thought of having to relive it is intensely anxiety provoking.  It was an elementary school—grades K through 4.  Shootings aren’t really supposed to happen anywhere, but typically, we assume that a school where the oldest kid tops out at 10 or 11, the safety issues we worry about involve the play structures in the yard.  And given that shooter apparently had no connection to these children makes it more anxiety provoking, because this horror was even less predictable.  If it had been a disgruntled parent upset about custody issues, it would at least make a little bit more sense.  NOTHING ABOUT THIS MAKES ANY SENSE.   

My heart goes out to the families in Newtown.  It isn’t difficult to have compassion for parents, siblings, extended family members and friends of the children and adults who were murdered.  It’s also pretty easy to have compassion for the people in the surrounding areas.  These losses are life changing and are difficult to move on from because they were so unnecessary and so unpredictable.     But I also find myself having compassion and concern for the family of the shooter.  Given the level of planning, I can’t imagine that inside his head was a very nice place to live.  And I think about his family—not only his mother—who more than likely have experienced a great amount of heartache over the years watching him struggle.  Somehow, his struggles became great enough that killing his mother, killing strangers including very young children, and killing himself became a viable solution.  It’s difficult to imagine what kind of world you would be living in if that sounded like your best option.    

I make the point of highlighting the need for compassion for the shooter because in our search for the reason behind the shooting, it’s easy to label the him a monster and focus our energies on being angry at him or his family, and seeing the problem as being a very individual one.  This eases our anxiety—we have a target, now, and can funnel all of our confusion and upset into this target.  It often feels nice to have someone to blame.  But because the shooter was a real person, who has his own set of experiences, placing the blame squarely on him or on his family doesn’t  really help us move on with our grief, because the situation is much more complicated than, “he played a lot of violent video games and has mental illness.”  Mental illness rarely makes people violent, but usually makes people fearful.  Asperger’s Syndrome, which is what the shooter is purported to be diagnosed with, is not a disorder in which violence or murder is a defining feature.   

Whatever the reasons behind this shooting, I find bombarding ourselves with media coverage about the shooting to be counterproductive to processing grief.  Because shootings like this evoke so much anxiety in us, we need to be talking to one another more, connecting more, and processing our grief together.  I wonder how connected to others the shooter felt, and assume that he felt quite removed from others.  The importance of connecting and being inclusive may be the only hopeful thing to take from this tragedy—that through connecting and trying to stay connected to others, we reduce the social isolation we all experience and that very rarely but significantly gets magnified to murderous proportions for a very small number of us.  Us.  There is no them, if we focus on connecting.

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