Tom Atlee: Sandy Hook Reflections on Social Madness & Healing

Cultural Intelligence
Tom Atlee
Tom Atlee

Dear friends,

My friend and colleague Miki Kashtan has written a compelling article exploring the interconnectedness of personal, community and social dimensions of the Sandy Hook crisis,  “Adam Lanza and All of Us.”  I highly recommend the whole article, but for the purposes of this commentary, I want to highlight this excerpt:

“I see violence, and the specific problem of mass shootings, as a form of horrific and tragic feedback to society that we are not providing the conditions that allow people to thrive. I am troubled by what I see as medicalizing and individualizing a social problem, because I want the issue to be addressed on a societal level, and I worry that the individual lens will distract us away from the issues I want us to focus on…. I want to keep asking: what is happening on a larger scale that is affecting more and more children? What are we doing, collectively, that is resulting in so many children having so little capacity to manage their inner and outer lives? How can we take societal responsibility for the conditions we have created that affect many more than those who engage in overt violence?”

Another intriguing article on the social dimensions of mental illness is “Sanity in a Culture of Mass Murder” which chronicles a mutual self-help network of activists with mental health issues, who seem quite articulate describing the harsh edge between personal and social dysfunction:

“Mainstream shrinks love to say, ‘Your symptoms interfere with your functionality’… You wake up in the morning and can’t get out of bed. You can’t make yourself go to work. So, you take yourself to a therapist. The therapist says, ‘Well, obviously you have depression. Here, take these pills.’ But maybe you just need a job you wanna wake up for.” … “When I got locked up, when I was 18 years old, it was because I was having these visions that my friends and I were just going to totally change the world”…. In a world where widespread poverty, exploitation and war are the norm, dreaming of peace, justice and equality might seem insane. In a country where shootings in public places are becoming an ever more common occurrence, there is ever more temptation to isolate both ourselves and the perpetrators. ““There’s something about madness that’s very lonely… But somehow my madness has helped birth something that has brought people together.”

And here’s a mailing by another good friend and colleague, Rosa Zubizarreta, who worked with me on my book The Tao of Democracy and is a main force in bringing the gifts of Dynamic Facilitation to the world.  Recently she’s been doing pioneering explorations of the connections between – and the power of combining – inner work and group work in transformational efforts.  In this mailing she explores the power of listening in moving beyond trauma, blame and shame.  “Listening to the Wake of Tragedy”  Her essay includes this articulation of listening into transformation:

“How do we help people listen effectively to one another? How do we listen together, for shared ways to move forward, for what we want to learn, for how we want to do things differently? The word “policy” can sound so uninspiring… yet what the conversation is really about, is how to create a shared social reality that works well for all of us.”

Finally, there is the effort by another friend and colleague, Ben Roberts, who happens to live in Newtown.  Recently he has been dedicating his pioneering work weaving online, conference call, and in-person conversations to the question “How do we respond to this tragedy in ways that serve life?”

I found these insightful exploratory efforts provided me with a loom upon which I could weave many dimensions of the emerging Sandy Hook / Newtown dialogue into an adaptable fabric of inquiry that may be of use to those of you promoting conversation for individual, group, or community healing and social change.  Here are the questions that came to me – first two clusters of inquiries around the two main topics we hear in the mainstream media, and then a series of other questions that are being debated around the edges:

*  How might we improve gun culture in our society?
–  To what extent are guns, per se, the problem here?
–  How should we manage the sale and ownership of weapons and ammunition designed for mass killing?
–  How can we improve gun owners’ competence – especially in crises where they expect to use their guns?
–  How can we help ensure the mental, emotional, and moral fitness of those who own guns?
–  What is the proper role of guns in promoting the safety of people, homes and public institutions?
–  What should be done about the level of paranoia and hatred in many parts of America’s gun culture?
–  To what extent does violence in games and entertainment feed or ameliorate real-life gun violence?
–  To what extent do certain social and economic conditions and public policies exacerbate or ameliorate gun violence?

*  How might we improve the condition, responsibility, ethics and effectiveness of our mental health systems?
–  How can we improve care for those with mental illnesses?
–  What is the proper role of corporate profit in mental health care systems – especially pharmaceuticals?
–  What has been the historic relationship between variouis psychoactive drugs – both prescription and recreational – and gun violence?
–  What is wise or foolish about cutting back mental health care resources?
–  Are mental illnesses more an individual disability or a symptom of cultural sickness and damaging social policy?
–  How much “mental illness” is real illness and how much a fiction to nurture conformity, social control, and profits?
–  How can we make a society where “mental illness” is rarely an issue?
–  How can we increase the responsiveness of officials and care systems when someone alerts them to potential violence?

And how might we improve…

*  The capacity of people and institutions to protect themselves and those in their care
*  Peoples capacity for empathy, for mutual respect, for caring, and for resolving conflict without violence
*  Defense of our Constitutionally guaranteed rights
*  The role of our media in our understanding and dealing with the big events and trends happening around us
*  The moral fitness of our whole culture
*  The creative, wise responsiveness of our governments
*  All children’s well-being and future prospects
*  The ability of every person and community to thrive
*  Our capacity to say what needs to be said and to truly hear others saying what they need to say

In closing, I want to share (below) a comment someone wrote in response to Miki Kashtan’s article mentioned above.  It tells a very interesting story about the power of listening in ways that allow people to feel they matter.

May our new year bring us more of that – in our lives, our communities, our countries, and our world.

Coheartedly,
Tom

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As someone who studies and teaches nonviolent communication (NVC) skills, I couldn’t have been more pleased to see Marshall Rosenberg cited in this article. I would urge everyone to read his book “Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life”. It completely changed my outlook on the nature of violence and helped me to understand feelings, needs, understanding, acknowledging and empathy. I agree with the points expressed in this article.

I worked as a Para-professional – a teaching assistant – in the New York City Public School system for a couple of years. Paras are usually assigned to help a teacher with an entire class but they can also be assigned to work with one particular student in a class who has been determined to have emotional and/or behavioral problems. My first assignment as a Para was as the latter. I was told that the 13 year old student I was to work with would probably insult me, curse me out, or try to fight me…when not totally ignoring me. The school system expects Paras to just make sure students behave: yell at them or physically restrain them if need be. These Special Ed students receive no help from teachers or supervisors at all. They’re considered problems and so they’re treated as such.

Having had no training or experience with special ed students, I relied solely on my NVC skills. When I was introduced to my student, he was sitting at his desk with his head on his hands, eyes closed, completely ignoring the teacher and the lesson. The administrator who accompanied me shook the student and introduced me. He lifted his hand limply to shake mine and then flopped it right back down on the desk. I was told this is what I would be dealing with. The bell rang for the next class and as everyone else left the room, my student walked into a corner of the room, refusing to go to the next class. He was then surrounded by the teacher from the class that just ended, the teacher for the next class, the head of the Special Ed department, the administrator and me. They were all trying to get him to move to the next class, scolding him, insulting him, pulling at him, trying to get him to budge. They managed to get him across the hall to the classroom but he refused to go in. The teachers went back to their rooms and the others said they couldn’t spend any more time with him and since I was now his Para it was up to me to get him into class. They asked me what I wanted to do. I told them “Leave. He doesn’t need all of you here.”

One of the most important techniques taught in NVC is to be honest, open and express your feelings and needs with the other person about the “conflict” that you’re in. You need to let that other person know that you’re willing to show some vulnerability in order to provide some empathy. Instead of telling him he had to get to class or threatening him with a phone call to his mother, I said to him “You know, this my first day as a Para. I’m a little scared to go into the classroom myself because I’ve never done this before. I was hoping that you might be able to show me around the school later, let me know who’s who, and where things are, and such. I’m going to need your help. I’ll bet you’re feeling a little embarrassed right now because none of the other kids in your class has a Para. What I need for you to know, though, is I’m here for you and to help you. I really need for you to go into class but I’ll tell you what: you walk in first and go to your regular seat. I’ll walk in a couple of minutes after and I’ll find a seat in the back of the room. I won’t sit down next to you. I won’t even look at you when I walk in. But I’ll be in back if you need me for anything. Would you be willing to try that?” He walked into class, sat down at his desk. I walked in a couple of minutes later just like I’d told him and went to the back of the room. About 10 minutes into class he called me over to help him with the math problem the teacher just assigned. He was actually talking to me, asking questions, and trying to do the assignment. I gave him some advice on how to solve the problem but, of course, didn’t give him the answer. He figured it out, raised his hand when the teacher asked who solved the problem, and gave her the correct answer. The teacher called me over and said he had never done that before and asked if I had given him the answer. I assured her that he figured it out himself. All I’d done was given him a way to look at the problem differently.

The same thing happened a few times during the course of the school day. By the end of the day he was talking a blue streak to me, telling me what music he liked, and that he wished his grandmother would get him a dog. When it was time for him to get his bus, the woman who monitored the students asked me what I did to him. She said she never saw him so enthusiastic and talk so much. Usually he was just sulking and not paying attention to instructions. I told her all I did was talk to him, listen to him when he spoke and showed him some respect.

I was with that student for the entire term. There were incidents that came up but because he trusted me and knew that I would listen to him, they were resolved quickly, much to everyone’s relief. All his teachers told me he would fail most of his subjects and not graduate because he wouldn’t finish his assignments or pay attention in class. He did graduate. I’d like to say it was a storybook ending and that he aced everything. He didn’t. But he made a solid effort once he knew that someone was in his corner. I’m proud to say that student still calls me on a regular basis. He’s 18 now and looking for work. It’s been tough on him but he’s optimistic. He didn’t fall through the cracks.

I had similar results with other students to whom I was assigned. Any one of them had the potential to be an Adam Lanza. We need our teachers armed with NVC training not guns.

Carl Lundgren
Chair, Bronx County Green Party
GP Candidate for NYC Council, CC18 (Bronx)

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