The Shooter I Could Have Been

The Shooter I Could Have Been

Here’s the thing that disturbs me about the whole conversation about whether students being “nicer” to outcasts would help prevent them from turning into shooters: The people taking that position are mostly ignoring the relevance of actual gun regulation, and the people calling it “victim blaming” are ignoring the traumatic impact of toxic school environments. This meme encapsulates it perfectly:


Fucked up, emotionally abusive social environments in schools (often compounding fucked up, emotionally abusive conditions at home) DO drive people to self harm and/or externalized violence, every day.

I can tell you that as a high school student, I experienced daily abuse that made me contemplate suicide frequently, because I didn’t know how I could bear going back to a school setting where I was constantly tormented, and I wasn’t aware of any other way out.

I was also full of rage, rage that came from feeling utterly powerless to stop the emotional abuse. Teachers and parents told me there was no problem happening and there was no help available, while other kids would be throwing stuff at me, loudly laughing about how ugly I was, and holding me up as a public example of someone no one would ever like.

So yeah, I acted out in pointless and ineffective ways. I once got in trouble with a teacher I respected greatly for whipping the middle finger at a random car going by. Yeah – it was dumb and seemingly unjustified, and I got thoroughly chewed out. But in retrospect, it’s so easy for me to see that I had literally no way (that I was aware of) to PRODUCTIVELY express my fury at being constantly targeted for verbal abuse, so I was trying to repress it all – which led to profound depression with suicidal thoughts, behavior problems and lashing out at uninvolved strangers, and eventually alcoholism, a self-destruction technique from which I eventually did almost succeed in dying.

It was only a few years ago that I realized that what I had experienced in school was definitionally trauma, and that it chemically impacted the development of my brain and my personality, not to mention my physical body, in ways that I am only now beginning to fully understand. Trauma SHUTS DOWN some of our rational abilities and puts us in a constant state of fight, flight or freeze – which is what I did throughout those years, pinballing between the three, feeling increasingly like a failure who didn’t deserve to live, yet also knowing deep down that what I was experiencing was not right. Long story short: the social climate in which I existed, and the constant presence of bullying, really did create in me an extremely toxic and dangerous mix of unacknowledged rage and powerful self hate.

I can so easily see myself in the profile of these kids who shoot up their schools and themselves. It’s not at all hard for me to imagine an alternative past in which I became one of them. What prevented me from becoming a shooter myself? My family didn’t have guns. My family had mental illness and addiction, so I did that instead. (Also, I was a girl. And girls are more often trained to keep shit inside and act nice, while boys are given more leeway to take their anger out on others. So more girls turn to self harm, while more boys become shooters.)

I think the evidence is clear that gun regulation would indeed prevent many people from dying in shootings, in much the same way that sensible regulation of motor vehicles prevents many unnecessary deaths in car accidents. And I also think that smart gun regulation is more than a Band-Aid – but less than a cure.

I didn’t get help until long after high school – after COLLEGE, even, when I finally moved away from the economically devastated rural area where I grew up, and finally had access to decent mental health services, where the providers didn’t tell me to just grow up and get over it, there’s nothing wrong with my life (like the therapist I sought out in my hometown when intensifying feelings of unworthiness to exist threatened to drive me over the real edge). (And some people wonder why I don’t come back.)

So when I see commentators scoffing at the idea that students in a school have some responsibility for “creating” a shooter by ostracizing and bullying them until they snap – well, I call BS on that. We really ARE all part of one ecosystem, and our actions do have impacts on those around us. Sorry (not sorry) to tell you, but when kids emotionally abuse a target outcast day after day and year after year, and when teachers turn a blind eye, it DOES have an impact on that kid’s psychology and mental state, and if they experience it as trauma – which is not a choice they can make – it will cause their brain to actually turn off the long-term reasoning faculties and focus on survival in the moment. Which, I can say from personal experience, can easily start to feel like a no-win situation in which escape is not possible, but revenge just might be.

And I can also see how one of those kids could hope that the excruciating pain of being could possibly be alleviated, just for a moment, by inflicting harm on someone else. Even if the someone who ends up getting harmed is a random bystander (like the driver of the car at whom I flipped the bird – he had nothing to do with anything, but he was there in a moment when I snapped and couldn’t hold back my rage and distress, emotions for which I had no safe outlet).

But –

When someone patronizingly tells kids who are organizing walkouts to stay put, and to just be NICER to each other, and shootings won’t happen? God, so infuriating.

One, just because the social environment is a factor, doesn’t make it the only factor. Who seriously believes that there is one single, straightforward solution to the national crisis of children massacring other children in schools? Regulation is proven to help – and is needed (not least as a declaration of national values, that we really do prioritize our children’s lives over money, which is sadly not very clear right now).

Two, with what skills??? Bullies are often THEMSELVES victims of trauma and emotional abuse who ALSO don’t have the coping skills they need to stop themselves from causing harm, or to even be aware that they’re doing it. Leaving overt bullying aside, the harmful impact of the ostracism that happens as a supposedly “natural” byproduct of teen jockeying for social status is pretty much invisible to the people who are creating it by simply going about the “business as usual” of the game of popularity. Kids are not conscious that they are causing harm, that they are traumatizing each other in ways that can have lifelong consequences, or even result in tragedy.

And if some of them suddenly “got woke,” as it were, to the toxicity of this game, and tried to befriend someone who had been targeted for years – would they have any tools or understanding of how to actually build trust where it had been destroyed? Would they have the commitment to keep working on building trust, even if it took months? Even if the person they were trying to befriend acted out angrily and antisocially due to the pain they were carrying inside? Even if the person didn’t seem “fun” or didn’t have any of the same interests or came from a restrictive home environment and wasn’t allowed to hang out?

(These are all characteristics of ME as a teen, by the way. And I could list other barriers to friending the young me – like my being queer, and not remotely fashionable, and cripplingly shy, and if you hung out with me, people would pick on you too.)

In my view, so many of our national problems stem from a refusal to accept the interdependence of human existence. Mental health happens in a context. In addition to regulating the tools of destruction, it’s imperative that we address the environment in which the desire to murder one’s peers takes root. That’s a lot more damn complicated than just telling kids to be NICE to the outcast. A real change here would need intensive support from adults, consciousness raising for kids, and a recognition that different people need different things in order to feel safe.

Do we, as a society, really care about the physical, emotional, mental and spiritual wellbeing of all? Do we prioritize it?

Of course not. Our economy is built, to a very large degree, on perpetuating violence and sickness and self loathing.

And we wonder why children are slaughtering each other.

Smh.

acs_0028

Something about America

It’s crazy, like
this country my country
that I am a part of, that is a part of me

I see my small personal dysfunction
in your big wide panic
I see your desperation to live up
to what you say about yourself
in the pages of my own journal
And that fear
of being suddenly without comfort
lives in a closet
I don’t like to open
but I know
is down there

So I can’t help but feel
your wound

Your shadow is my shadow
I carry a scrap of that
disowned dark
here in my own heart

For you after all are nothing
but my heart and theirs and theirs and theirs
You are nothing
but us

Each of us in all our complexity
each of us ourselves and also you
each of us ourselves
and somehow one

And I
with my thimble
of memory
becoming an ocean
as I sip
I can’t
look out
on those waves
and say
I don’t see
the water

American flag over liquor store

Not My President? Well… 

Ok, I wrote this after the Women’s March and didn’t post it then because, well, buzzkill. But now it’s Presidents’ Day and it feels… still relevant, so I’m going to share my possibly unpopular (what’s new) viewpoint.  

~~~~~~

So I attended the Women’s March in Denver. It was amazing. 200,000 people in attendance was what I heard. And such an uplifting energy! I’m a shy introvert who doesn’t much strike up conversations with random strangers, but even I found it utterly delightful to connect with the people I found myself next to throughout the day. The speakers were so powerful, and delivered inspiring and energizing messages about the work that’s needed to build a nation in which everyone’s needs are cared for, and all truly have access to the resources they need to reach their best human potential. Yes!

I chanted, This is what democracy looks like! I hollered, My body, my choice! I sang, Ain’t gonna let nobody turn me around… and This land is your land… 

But you know what I didn’t say?

“Can’t build a wall with hands too small.”
I didn’t say,
“Not my president!”
And I couldn’t make myself yell,
“Hey hey, ho ho, Donald Trump has got to go!”

And it’s not necessarily because I do prefer to be FOR something than AGAINST something.

It’s because I am very invested in America recognizing that this IS our president. 

He got enough votes to win. Whether you agree with the methods of counting that are used in presidential elections or not – he had the energy that carried the day. 

Because the energy was THERE. It’s been there for a long, long time. I’d venture to guess it’s been there since the first Europeans stuck a flag on this continent in 1492. Trump is just the first person in recent memory who’s been willing to be seen publicly tapping into that energy and using it to fuel a very successful campaign. He’s not particularly ashamed of how he got where he got, from what I can see – unlike most politicians, who don’t want to be seen as pandering to hate (even if that’s what they’re knowingly doing). Indeed, most Americans do not even want to acknowledge that this energy exists. 

Understandably. 

Because it’s our shadow. 

And what’s a shadow if not those things about ourselves that we repress and disown because we can’t bear to face them?

I’m talking about our nation’s shadow. 

Our nation that was founded on genocide and funded by chattel slavery. 

Until it got well enough established to keep rollin’ forward without those tactics being explicitly part of its day to day practice. 

These methods are not accepted in what you could call polite international company, so we finally let them go. But not until they had gotten the nation to a position of economic and military strength. 

And even then, we made certain practices illegal – without touching the underlying values that had produced those practices in the first place. Chiefly, the value of “coming in first by hoarding as much as possible” – as much money, land, cheap labor, minerals, munitions, or whatever is seen as most valuable in a given context. 

It’s the main unspoken principle on which our country is based. 

And here we still are, folks. 

Donald Trump made that shadow visible. Because, well, I guess he doesn’t give a shit what people think of him when it comes to morality – and in that way, yes, he differs from most establishment politicians. 

Do I think his policies are good? Fuck no. You bet I’ll be taking a stand issue by issue. 

Do I think he’s THE problem? I do not. 

I think he’s part of our healing. 

Kind of like how a tooth can be infected and dumping diseased cells into the bloodstream for a long time before it suddenly starts to hurt enough to make you go to the dentist. At which point, you get a root canal – but you better change your habits, too, unless you want to be back in exactly the same seat next year, cringing under the drill, going “I hate dentists.”

Is the dentist really the problem here? Is it the tooth? Or is it the years of haphazard self-care that led to this moment? 

To be clear: I’m not saying the nice revolutionary women wearing pussy hats and chanting “Not My President” are secretly racists in denial. 

I’m saying that if we want a different nation, we need to own up to this powerful underground current of energy that flows under everything we do as a collective entity. 

Donald Trump IS my president in the sense that I am an American and this is a truth about my country. He represents something that’s really part of this nation. A pretty strong part, too, seemingly. Is denying that it exists going to help us change it? I don’t think so. 

Luckily, it’s only part of who we are. We have other values, too: faith in a better future; respect for individual freedom; appreciation for invention and creativity. It’s also written into our national consciousness that humans are creatures who can find better ways. 

That, too, is who we are and what we do. 

At church today I heard the minister say that acceptance defines our map through any challenging territory. 

If we are unwilling to acknowledge that something exists (even if there are reasonable reasons for that unwillingness), we’ll be mightily hampered in our ability to change it or to navigate through it. 

This Precious Present Moment

Yes, I too cast my vote for four more years of stability, of moving certain good policies forward step by incremental step while tabling other concerns as too complicated, too intractable, too much a part of the fabric of who we are to really engage with right now. I voted for the status quo. I voted for Clinton. But that’s not who we got (or so, at least, it seems, though I know some out there are working to overturn this outcome at the electoral college and other levels).

We got Trump. I didn’t want Trump – I REALLY didn’t want Trump – but we got ‘im.

And it feels to me like we’re now in a new era. The Trump era. The era in which Trump has been elected president. Maybe it will be over before the inauguration in 2017. Maybe it will go for eight years. We don’t know. All we know is that we are in it now.

In this now, in this present moment, which is the only moment there ever is, a large enough number of Americans have come together to successfully elect Trump as president to be. 

And I’m like,

Ok. 

This is where we are. 

What now?

And I’m drawing on my faith, and my education (I have a PhD in American Studies, though I’ve chosen to live outside of academia), and the power of creative vision to try and discern – 

What to do NOW? 

Now that here is where we are?

And my answer is the same as James Baldwin’s answer was in The Fire Next Time: Practice radical, transformative, revolutionary love. 

And I’m going to be offering, here in this space, and in every other platform that’s mine, and in every instance in which my opinion is asked for (or even just allowed), my ideas about what that radical, transformative, revolutionary love might or could look like in action.  

And I think that what I will have to offer may be challenging for some. It probably won’t be conventional. It may or may not be what you want to hear or what you’re ready for. And that is totally ok. I know we are all in different places on this. You be where you are. Be there fully, authentically, so you can speak the words you need to speak and ask for the care and support you need. I ask you to honor your rage, pain, hurt, grief, anger, fear, despondency, disappointment, alarm, and anything else you’re justifiably feeling, and let it move through you. Let the free flow of emotion clean you out from the inside. 

And if and when you wish to begin (or get back to) the work of healing this nation, may we find ourselves standing together. 

Because healing is what needs to happen here. Not reconquering. Not showing those so-and-so’s what’s what. Not smashing the “bad” people with our “good” “right” “truth.” 
(Challenging yet?) 

Not winning. Healing. 

I know I’ve said a lot already, but it has all been a lead-up to this, the “first thing” I want to say. 

I live mostly in a liberal bubble between Denver and Boulder, Colorado. But right now I just happen to be back in the area where I grew up, an extremely impoverished region of rural southwest Pennsylvania, visiting my mom, who is seriously ill. It goes almost without saying that this is deep Trump territory. When the results came in, I was wishing desperately that I could be back in my home community, comforting and being comforted by my friends, expressing my solidarity by standing together, singing together, praying together. 

But I that’s not where I was. So I stood, sang, prayed here – alone but connected. Together in spirit with not just my friends, but ALL the people. 

And then I went out. Into the world. Among the people. The people who are here. The ones that some of my liberal friends might consciously or unconsciously think of as hicks, rednecks, uneducated poor white trash. Racist, bigoted, homophobic, misogynist or simply duped and misled Trump supporters. My family. My relatives. The people I grew up with. The people I came from. Who shaped the course of my early life. 

And I saw

Their hearts. 

I saw their hearts. 

I FELT their hearts. 

And I recognized 

what I felt

because I have felt it 

in me. 

The opening in the chest when the fear, pain, hurt, anger that have been pent up inside, get to finally be spoken. 

The sudden shaky lightness of having been delivered of a weight of feeling that was crushing the soul with its heaviness, strangling the spirit with frustration, suffocating the life force with the despair of never being allowed to be spoken. 

And I see, above these hearts that have this sudden shaky lightness about them, jaws that are still clenched, facial muscles tense and twitching, necks stiff and unbending: People determined and ready to fight to keep from being forced back into silence. 

And what came to me was Marshall Rosenberg’s work on nonviolent communication, in which we recognize that people who are lashing out are doing so be they have needs that aren’t being met, and they’ve lost faith in peaceful means of getting their needs met, and they’re resorting to aggression out of desperation and hopelessness. 

And so you witness. 

You let them speak. You let them know you hear. You ask, Is there more?

You welcome them to speak until enough pressure has been released to make space to talk about other solutions. Effective solutions. Sustainable solutions. Solutions in which another person does not have to be harmed for the needs of the first to be met. 

Really met. Fully met. Lovingly met. 

So in the face of this group of people collectively waving their fists and shouting, I’M ANGRY! I’M UPSET! I’M SUFFERING AND I BLAME, I BLAME, I BLAME!

I’m going to say, Wow. I see that you are angry. 

I hear your words. 

I hear you when you say you’re frustrated. 

And I feel the fear and pain you’re in, underneath that anger. 

It must feel really bad. 

I’m really sorry you’re feeling that way. 

I hear you. 

I see you. 

I feel you. 

I love you. 

And I am committed with every cell and holy atom of my being to building a nation, a world where you, and you, and you, and I, and ALL of us, EVERY ONE of us, can have our needs met. 

In solidarity. 

I Pledge 

They tell us
Don’t focus on the negative
Look for the good
Share THAT
Talk about THAT
Promote what’s going RIGHT
Yes
Yes
What we give attention to, grows
Yes
Yes
But
When black men are being shot
Lying down on the ground
With their hands up
Surrendered
And EVERY SINGLE PERSON DOESN’T KNOW ABOUT IT
How can I not
Use my tiny platform
To say
PLEASE
LOOK AT THIS
PLEASE STOP
PLEASE STOP
PLEASE
STOP
PLEASE

If I’m telling the truth
It seems so pointless
To write about
How racial minorities are targeted
And killed
In the US
In a thousand fast and slow ways.

If I’m being honest
I actually doubt
Whether anyone’s mind
Ever was or ever will be changed
By anything I say.

But
This is my channel
And I get to say
What I want
And
I
Will
Use
It

If nothing
If nothing
If nothing else

I am saying
To someone else out there
Who is finding it hard to stand up
Under the weight
Of all this grief

You’re not alone
I see you

It’s breaking my heart, too
And because I can’t stand
To be represented
By my country
In this way

I’ll rise
With you
I’ll carry
Some of the load
If you’ll let me

I have energy
And strength
And will
And heart
And I
Am at your service

Some people look around
At oppression in other countries
And say,
We have it so good here.

I
I am grateful
For all the innumerable blessings in my life.

And
I know
That although we appear to be separate
We are one being.
And what we think we’re doing
To someone else
We’re doing to ourselves.

I know a lot of you
Don’t feel it
When another vulnerable human being
Is killed
By the state
At home
In front of their neighbors
In the Middle East
Or anywhere.
Yes
We’re numb,
And that’s no accident.
Unbelievable resources
Go into keeping us from feeling
The grief
And shame
And rage
And frustration
We would certainly feel
If we weren’t carefully shielded
And distracted
From the pain
That some groups
Must carry
All of,
So that the rest of us
Can
Keep
Working
And
Paying
Our
Bills
Like
We’re
Supposed
To.

Well
I don’t know
If I can do anything
To change it.
But
I’m looking
Hard
For ways
To try.
I know
Other people
Are out there trying too.
And I know
That there are good things happening.
And I’ll celebrate them.
And I hope
I’ll be a part
Of something
That helps.

And if
Until it’s better
I feel
Some waves
Of grief
At what
This country
Does
To itself
I won’t deny them.
I’ll cry out.
It’s what I was made to do.
I’ll cry out
Just because
I need to say it
Or my heart
Will
Explode:

AMERICA
WE
CAN
WE
CAN
WE
HAVE
TO
DO
BETTER.