Yesterday morning seemed like every other. The alarm went off followed by the hustle and bustle of coffee, getting the kids out of bed and ready for school, and myself out the door like any other day. I joined the masses of other working people who hit the road to begin my commute into downtown and turned on the radio to pass the time and catch up on current events.
The breaking news
Yet another high school shooting. This time at Saugus High School in Santa Clarita CA. The news story rang out and the sad reality is that most of us went on with our day without much thought to it.
Not because we are bad people. Not because we don’t care.
It’s worse than that.
It has become the “normal”
The stories of mass shootings are terrible, but no longer shocking. Reports of school shootings and student injuries, or worse death, were once the kind of story that would dominate the news for days and even weeks. Now, these stories are headline news only momentarily.
Yesterday was different for me though. The shooting that took place in Southern CA, 1,000 miles from my Seattle life, also struck me personally. As the story ran on the morning news, I quickly realized that I
had a family member in attendance at that school. Suddenly, the normalized acceptance of these school shootings became real.
The statistics are alarming. As of November 13, 2019, there have been 84 incidents of gun violence in America’s schools in 2019 (85 when we add yesterday’s tragedy to the list)
As a parent, I find my mind racing over the inevitable questions…
How could this happen… Again?
Is there no end to these senseless killings?
What can we do to stop the violence?
How do I keep my own children safe?
As a licensed marriage and family therapist, I know the answer at the root of all these questions lies in prevention and mental health care, but specifically in the humanistic need for connection. To be clear, I do not support the idea that mental illness is somehow to blame for these shootings.
Mental illness lies in diagnosis of a disease and this is not the case for many perpetrators of school shooting violence. There is, however, a theme in the mental and emotional state of the shooter that connects all of these people together…pain, social exclusion, and lack of connection.
Understanding the need for connection and belonging
The need for connection and belonging is humanistic. We’ve known this for years. Abraham Maslow outlined the human need for belonging and love in his 1943 paper “A Theory of Human Motivation”. His theory has been substantiated both in research and in real-life application consistently since then.
Each of us is wired for connection to other people. To belong is a primal desire and at the root of who we are. Without connection and belonging, we are lost.
Connection can be defined as having shared experiences, relatable feelings or similar ideas.
It’s hard to empathize with a person who does something so terrible, but the reality is that these are children. Children suffering from the pain of unstable home lives. Children who are often bullied and harassed in school (Safe School initiative, 2004). Children who don’t have a support system, with peers or adults. The children who carry out these terrible shootings are suffering; suffering mentally and emotionally from a devastating deficiency in connection.
If we want to reduce and eliminate school shootings, we must do a better job of genuinely connecting with one another. Especially with young people. All it takes is one person, who genuinely cares to save a life… or maybe even a dozen lives. We can each be that person.
Make a new connection
What would happen if each of us made a new connection today with just one person? How many people could be impacted? How many people could we save from feeling lonely, isolated, or unseen?
How many lives would we save in the ripple effect? The result would be immeasurable!
3 Steps to Make a Difference:
Put down the phone – In a world where it can be hard not to be attached to our phones. Turn it off and notice the world and people around you. Being connected to electronic devices is the
easiest, most socially acceptable way to avoid human contact we have. But our goal is to connect, not disconnect. So put down the cell phone and be that person who says hi to the person next to you.
Find common ground – Once you start to chat with someone it’s surprising how quickly you find commonalities. These commonalities are the building blocks of connection. So, comment on the coffee cup from your favorite roaster. Chat about the Seahawks game to the person wearing a jersey on blue Friday. It’s the little things we have in common that can spark great conversation.
Be genuine – People can tell when you aren’t truly engaged or don’t really care. So be present and take an interest in the conversation with the other person. You don’t have to form a lifelong friendship or have deep philosophical debate to make a genuine connection with someone.
All of life comes back to connecting with other people. From the woman who makes your latte, to the college student who rides the light rail with you on their way to class, we can make connections in the most everyday of circumstances. You never know what is going on in the personal life of the individuals you pass throughout the day and how important the connection you make with them will be.
I challenge everyone to make the effort today, to make one new connection. Let’s start saving lives and preventing tragedy, one person at a time!
-Colleen Hilton, MA, LMFT