How do we respond constructively to the terrible carnage in Newtown, CT?
Many voices have already been heard on this vexing question. But only a few commentators have recognized that such rare and tragic events are but a small part of the widespread violence in this country.
A mass shooting may be likened to the sudden eruption of a volcano on a slowly sinking island — the volcano gets the attention and publicity, and few stop to ask why the island is sinking.
To be sure, we must reduce the easy availability of lethal weapons and ammunition in this country; improve access to mental health services for severely disturbed persons; and enhance our coordination with school personnel, so that we can prevent alienated and disaffected youth from acting on their violent impulses. No other considerations should distract us from these goals, or be used as an excuse for inaction on any front — particularly with respect to firearms control.
And yet, more fundamentally, we must also address what I call “the romancing of rage” in our society — the many ways in which American culture fosters and even valorizes angry, aggressive behavior.
In their 2004 study of angry and violent youth, Sandra P. Thomas, PhD and Helen Smith, PhD cited data showing that among U.S. teenagers, 75 percent of boys and more than 60 percent of girls had hit someone in the past 12 months “because they were angry.” Thomas and Smith opined that, “Out-of-control anger behavior appears to be rampant among youth, perhaps echoing the behavior modeled by adults who engage in road rage, air rage, and desk rage.”
I believe that poor role models for our children are more likely than violent movies or video games to foster violence — though grotesque, video depictions of casual killing may sometimes “tip the balance” toward violence, in susceptible young people.
Along with widespread anger and aggressive behavior in our society is “…the relentless rise of narcissism in our culture,” as Jean M. Twenge, Ph.D and W. Keith Campbell, Ph.D described in their book, The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement. All too often, our adolescent children are encouraged to believe that there is nothing more vital than meeting their own immediate needs, regardless of how others are affected. When this excessive focus on one’s own wishes merges with surging anger and resentment — often in the context of bullying by peers — violence may follow. Add to this mix the millions of readily-available, lethal weapons in the country, and we have the proverbial recipe for disaster.
There are no quick or easy solutions to these deep-seated societal problems. But on the level of parent-child relations, I believe we must teach our children how to self-monitor and modulate their anger, so that when they are provoked or bullied, they have the appropriate skills to restrain their natural inclination to retaliate.
The great spiritual traditions have emphasized the need to control anger in all its pathological forms. In Judaism, anger is compared to idolatry — for when we are consumed with rage, we engage in a kind of self-worship. In the Buddhist tradition, anger is considered one of the “three poisons,” along with greed and ignorance. And in the philosophy of the ancient Stoics, intense anger is considered “… the most hideous and frenzied of all the emotions,” to cite Seneca’s words. All these traditions teach methods for reducing anger, and our secular culture can learn a great deal from these ancient sources.
We will never eliminate anger or violence, nor will any single remedy prevent more Newtowns. We will need a multi-faceted effort at all levels of school, government, and family, over the course of many years. But right now, all of us can help by counteracting our culture’s “romance of rage” — and by inculcating the importance of self-restraint.
For further reading and reference:
Thomas, S.P., & Smith, H. (2004). School connectedness, anger behaviors, and relationships of violent and nonviolent youth. Perspectives in Psychiatric Care, 40, 135-148
Stuart H: Violence and mental illness: an overview. World Psychiatry. 2003 June; 2(2): 121–124.
Vossekuil B, Fein RA, Reddy M et al: The final report and findings of the safe School Initiative. U.S. Secrete Service and U.S. Department of Education, Washington DC, 2002. Accessed at: http://www.secretservice.gov/ntac/ssi_final_report.pdf (PDF)
Ash P: Violent children and adolescents. In: The American Psychiatric Publishing Textbook of Violence Assessment and Management, pp. 359-380. Edited by Simon, R.I. and Tardiff, K., Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Pub., 2008
Reddy M, Borum R, Berglund J et al: Evaluating risk for targeted violence in schools: comparing risk assessment, threat assessment, and other approaches. Psychology in the Schools, 2001; 38:157-72
A Call for More Effective Prevention of Violence. Interdisciplinary Group on Preventing School and Community Violence Accessed 12/20/12: http://curry.virginia.edu/articles/sandyhookshooting]
Friedman RA: In Gun Debate, a Misguided Focus on Mental Illness. New York Times, Dec. 17, 2012.
Davis SD, Young EL, Hardman S, Winters R: Screening for Emotional and Behavioral Disorders
Batchelor S: Buddhism Without Beliefs: A Contemporary Guide to Awakening, Riverhead Trade, 1998
Chagdud Tulku: Gates to Buddhist Practice: Essential Teachings of a Tibetan Master. Padma Publishing, 2001
Ellis A, Harper R: A Guide to Rational Living, Melvin Powers/Wilshire Book Co., 1961
Telushkin J: The Book of Jewish Values, Harmony Books, 2000.
Pies R: Everything Has Two Handles: The Stoic’s Guide to the Art of Living. Hamilton Books, 2008
Pies R: Becoming a Mensch: Timeless Talmudic Ethics for Everyone. Hamilton Books, 2011
Seneca: Letters from a Stoic. Transl. by Robin Campbell, Penguin Books, 1969