Updated: Jul 15
I was raised in the ghetto. Today we call it the “inner-city,” “the urban core,” “neighborhoods of concentrated disadvantage,” “post industrial urban spaces.” The name doesn’t take the edge off of it. We called it the ghetto before the euphemisms and Newspeak. The city council renamed South Central Los Angeles- South Los Angeles, but it was the same slum on the wrong side of the tracks.
“I think the naming makes them feel better,” said a councilwoman representing Watts.
The city council doled out more bellyfeel-good names. We lived in Florence, not far from Canterbury Knolls. Call it Elysian Fields, it was still a ghetto. Walls were still tattooed with graffiti. Prostitutes still tricked on the main avenue. Dealers still sold drugs out of the blue house next to the alley where the cop was shot. From the outside, this was America’s Dark Side, the gang capital of the nation, a pistol half-cocked neighborhood.
South L.A. could’ve been a nice place to live. The neighborhood sat on the outskirts of one of the world’s most glamorous cities. Streets were dotted with Spanish-styled bungalows, Craftsmans, and once grand Victorian homes. Palm trees with frazzled fronds stretched their long necks to the sun. Wild parrots roosted in the trees. Gulls rode the offshore currents. The Mediterranean climate was mild and pleasant year-round. Mountains stood behind skyscrapers to the north. To the east, Joshua Trees stood vigil with their arms outstretched. To the west, the Pacific Ocean met the California coastline. Hollywood, Malibu, Venice Beach, Beverly Hills, and downtown Los Angeles were minutes from home.
South L.A. might’ve been a decent working class neighborhood. But in the early 80s and 90s this was Gangland! From her pustulous womb, the city spawned Bloods, Crips, 18th Street, 38th Street, the Rollin 60’s, Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13), Pirus, the Mexican Mafia, Yakuza, Wah Ching, Wo Hop To, the Aryan Brotherhood, et al. The names were Legion; they were many.
Weekly, police helicopters circled over rooftops; squad cars patrolled the streets. Sirens wailed, mothers wailed. Several times a year, news vans parked near crime scenes close to home to report the sins of mankind.
From the outside, South L.A. was paradise lost. A single mother pushed a stroller past flowering jacaranda trees. Unemployed twenty somethings played basketball on the courts in the parking lot of the church where my father preached. California poppies flowered along the freeway off ramp next to the milk crate where the beggar sat. Along the wall where the bougainvillea grew, a gangster with tattooed head marked his territory; he was a foot soldier in a drug distribution chain that stretched across borders. The Mediterranean climate warmed the drunk who sat on the porch next to the alley where the cop was shot.
From the outside, South L.A. was the bottommost rung, the sum of a hundred thousand bad ideas, a self-inflicted wound, a liability, a Jim Crow scar, a minor chord. From the inside, South L.A. was home. Behind decorative, wrought iron bars, we lived and learned and loved and laughed.
I had enough street smarts to navigate the dangers. I developed what military tacticians call situational awareness- the ability to assess one's environment, detect threats, read social dynamics, and make predictions- pivoting when necessary and remaining calm in a clutch. Like many others living below the poverty line, I developed a resilient brain that could buffer the impact of seemingly stressful events.
When I moved out of the ghetto, I thought I could relax my guard. It was naive to think this. Violence has become epidemic. To borrow a line from Erin Aubry Kaplan, "We're all in the ghetto now."
A few years ago, we began practicing active shooter drills at the private school where I taught. The school sat on a 65 acre campus in a quiet New England suburb. Most of the parents were well-to-do (i.e., lawyers, doctors, CEOs). Many families enjoyed generational wealth. We had one lockdown this year and saw increased police presence after a nationwide threat on Tik Tok went viral. All schools were on alert. We installed security doors and cameras. We tightened campus security, introduced safety protocols, and implemented active shooter training after one mass school shooting- I don't remember exactly which one of the 950 since the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings a decade ago- around the time I started working at the private school.
27 have taken place this year alone (and it's only May).
Six days ago, a teenager with a military assault styled rifle killed 19 children and 2 adults at an elementary school in Texas. 10 days before that, another 18 year old opened fire on shoppers at a grocery store in New York, killing 10. The following day, a man injured 5 people and killed one at a church in California. There was a mass shooting today; there will be more tomorrow.
In some respects, I felt safer in the ghetto. The violence was somewhat predictable. An innocent bystander waiting at a bus stop might get shot by a stray bullet intended for a rival, but the Crips weren't going to storm the neighborhood elementary school, the local hospital, or the corner market and kill indiscriminately. The Bloods weren't going to raid a club just to kill gays. Cholos weren't going to massacre a bar full of people who liked country music. And the Pirus weren't going to spray a synagogue because they hated Jews. They were too busy hating and killing each other.
I owned guns. I spent a lot of time outdoors. On the first day of a 30 day bike ride across the country, I pedaled to Buckhorn campground in the San Gabriel Mountains, a climb of 7,000 feet. Around midnight, I tossed in my sleeping bag and turned to see the silhouette of a black bear outlined against the tent. The bear was rummaging through my bike trailer five feet away. The experience shook me. I was defenseless, trapped inside of my tent.
When I returned to the city, I bought a handgun and brought it with me on subsequent trips.
A few years later, circumnavigating Catalina Island with a girlfriend, I paddled past a cove and turned to see a large dorsal fin rise from the surface of the sea. The creature made straight for my kayak, torpedo-like. It got closer. It was a tiger shark as long as the kayak. There was a smaller shark alongside it. I froze as these magnificent killers of the sea circled the kayak. They descended back into the depths of the sea and we hastened to shore. Once again, I was defenseless. I had gotten rid of my first gun after moving abroad. After that scare, I decided to buy another one.
The objective was never to harm the animals, but to startle them if they got too close. Mostly, the gun provided reassurance. At the time, I didn't have many experiences with bears, sharks, coyotes or other wild animals. I spent days, weeks and months at a time in the wilderness and slept easier with my gun under the pillow.
Outdoors, I would practice target shooting for fun. I enjoyed testing my aim and improving my marksmanship- steadying the breath, quieting my mind, focusing, adjusting my sights, and calculating ballistic factors like wind direction, sheer, distance, and atmospheric conditions. Competitive shooting could easily have been a hobby.
I got married. My then wife insisted I get rid of the gun after getting pregnant. I acquiesced. We were still living in South L.A..
According to a Harvard study, less than 1% of cases involving guns were in home-defense. My guns weren't for home defense anyway, as I never felt seriously threatened. Gang violence was predictable and largely confined to that sub-culture. Rival gangs mostly targeted one another. Burglaries were almost always drug related. Addicts were desperate for a fix; they weren't looking to hurt anyone but themselves. The drug dealers were misguided human beings with limited opportunities desperate for a way out of poverty.
My gun posed more of a threat to me and my family. According to the CDC, firearms were the leading cause of death for children and teens.
At the time, I could buy a gun no questions asked. It didn't matter if I was psychotic, emotionally unhinged, insecure, volatile, or depressed.
Statistically, a depressed homeowner with a gun is much more of a threat to him or herself than an armed intruder. According to a Pew Research study, of the 40,000 Americans involved in gun-related fatalities, 54% of gun deaths were suicides.
Every 22 minutes, someone kills him or herself with a gun.
But these fatalities do not make the headlines. Mass shootings do. Yet mass shootings account for less than 1% of the 40,000 Americans killed by guns annually. 43% were murders. And murders are often committed by emotionally dysregulated and immature young men.
Most violent firearm offenses are committed by teenagers and young men 18-21. The male brain does not fully mature until about 24. Empirical evidence links neuromaturation to maturity of judgment (Johnson, 2010). The neural circuitry underlying “executive functions” such as planning, working memory, and impulse control, are among the last areas of the brain to mature (Sowell, 1999).
Public policy is not informed by neuroscience or logic, however, but by emotions, traditions, and ideology. The gunman who stormed the elementary school last week purchased 2 military assault styled rifles, ammo, and a tactical vest a week prior on his 18th birthday. The argument that “gun control doesn’t work because criminals don’t follow the law” falls apart. He had no criminal record. He was exercising his 2nd Amendment rights and exploiting vulnerabilities in the law. Championing irrational laws that allow insane teens to purchase assault rifles is insanity.
Most gun owners are sensible and law-abiding. 77% of gun owners favor background checks. 89% favor excluding the mentally ill from purchasing guns. Age restrictions would be sensible as well.
Rather than pausing to reassess our gun laws, however, some politicians call for arming teachers. This is myopic and does nothing to address root causes. I was a soldier and a sharpshooter. I trained with assault weapons. I'm for arming teachers with common sense.
A gun is a responsibility. Would I be required to holster one during morning meetings, recess, dismissal? Would I be strapped on field trips or on trips to the restroom? When it wasn't on my person, the gun would need to be secured. There could be no lapses in vigilance. Weariness, forgetfulness, brain fog, medication, alcohol, or illness could compromise safety. I've misplaced my wallet, rings and keys. Imagine misplacing a firearm at an elementary school.
Would tactical training be added to my teacher training? Would I be required to learn how to assess threat levels, clear or breach a room, cover and conceal, or approach targets?
What kind of weapon would I be expected to carry? The Texas shooter used an AR-15 assault styled rifle. He wore tactical gear. Could I stand my ground in a suit and tie armed only with a pistol? Would I be expected to engage the shooter if I was outgunned? Dozens of trained officers with high powered weapons and body armor established a perimeter outside of the elementary school in Uvalde, Texas holding their positions until a tactical unit arrived. They received criticism for that. I imagine public outrage if a teacher with a six shooter failed to engage a gunman firing hollow points from an AR-15.
Tightening campus security is another proposed solution. Turning schools into impregnable fortresses is ironic as defending freedom is a central tenet for many gun rights advocates. Would investing limited resources to make schools impenetrable keep our children safe? People have been targeted at grocery stores, supermarkets, movie theaters, concerts, fairs, restaurants, cemeteries, places of worship, post offices, hospitals, clubs, funeral homes, parade routes, even military bases and installations. There've been 950 school shootings since 2012 out of 1900 mass shootings. Many victims were children. Following this logic would require additional security measures and armed personnel at youth centers, preschools and day care centers, parks, and other places where people gather. The thought of living in such a security-like state does not evoke feelings of safety.
Because we lack insight, we create more unnecessary stress and suffering for ourselves and others. We must look more deeply.
Working with the inner city poor, I taught many children who were growing up in horrific conditions. One of the saddest cases of abuse was a 9 year old boy whom I will call William. He had been expelled from several schools before coming to us. I had a reputation for "reforming" so-called incorrigible boys. When the principal asked me if I'd take him, she added that he would be sent to a reformatory school for juvenile offenders if I couldn't. She briefed me on his history and said she'd understand if I did not accept him. She assigned the most difficult boys to me. But my hands were full.
William was raised in a crack house where he had been sexually molested by a cousin. His father was dead or incarcerated (I can't remember which). His mother was an addict. Family services took custody of the boy. An aunt raised him, but she clearly resented the burden. She cared for him as best she could and provided him the services he needed. William was troubled and illiterate when he came to her. He had been with her for about 2 years. Her efforts were heroic, but she was exhausted and at her wits end.
The teachers who worked with him could not manage his rage or violent behavior. He was expelled several times. He had internalized a profound self hatred and mistrust of adults. He needed love, acceptance, understanding, and compassion. Instead, he was often met with irritation, anger, frustration, judgments, and rejection by overworked and overwhelmed adults trying to manage chaos.
I welcomed William with some reluctance (I had an obligation to teach 30 other children). But I had faith in the power of compassion, of love, and of light to reach any child. He might challenge me to stretch myself and grow my heart out a size bigger. He might connect me to the best version of myself.
Love informed discipline. I was stern, clear, and firm when I needed to be. I watered his heart with kind words, positive affirmations, genuine approbation, and respect. It didn't take much. The boy hungered for approval, to be seen, to be understood, to feel like he mattered.
I admired his strength and resilience. His trust in me was a gift that made me a better man. Once a month, I'd take him out camping, kayaking, hiking, or on other trips as I would with my nephews or sons. It didn't take government funding, a policy change, a generous donation from a philanthropist, or an NGO to do the simple work that needed doing. With just a little love, he flourished and became one of my top pupils. Because he felt loved and safe, he could attend to the cognitive demands of schoolwork. For me, he affirmed the power of love to transform.
My life served a greater purpose and had more meaning because he was in it.
The following year, I left to teach in Japan. I received reports that he was not doing well with his 5th grade teacher and had reverted to his conditioned, habitual behaviors. I knew he would respond to the fear the way a caged puppy would respond to a brute wielding a stick- fight or flight. I followed up with him when I returned two years later. He was showing signs of serious mental illness.
I moved across the country to New England. A decade passed. I was heart broken, but not surprised, to learn that he had been arrested for armed robbery and charged with domestic terrorism. Criminologists point out that children who do not form trusting bonds with adults during their formative years are more likely to commit violent crime.
I was facilitating a course on mindfulness for police officers and wanted to humanize the people they might be called upon to arrest. Police officers often encounter suffering human beings in their darkest, most vulnerable, and confused states.
It is natural to have compassion for victims, but challenging to extend compassion for the those who commit crimes. Yet, it is those who most suffer who cause others to suffer most. Those who hurt others are often themselves hurting- themselves victims of anger, craving, abuse, a deep self-hatred, shame, guilt, self-disgust, neglect, ignorance, depression, or mental illness. William was clearly scarred by the traumas he suffered as I would have been- as you would have been.
His was the profile of a mass shooter. "Early childhood trauma seems to be the foundation, whether violence in the home, sexual assault, parental suicides, extreme bullying," explains Jillian Peterson, an associate professor of criminology at Hamline University. "Then you see the build toward hopelessness, despair, isolation, self-loathing, oftentimes rejection from peers. That turns into a really identifiable crisis point where they’re acting differently. Sometimes they have previous suicide attempts.
What’s different from traditional suicide is that the self-hate turns against a group. They start asking themselves, “Whose fault is this?” Is it a racial group or women or a religious group, or is it my classmates? The hate turns outward."
Statistically, I knew it was highly probable that the traumatized little boy who grew up in a crack house would grow up to inflict pain on a society that had never shown him much mercy, respect, compassion or kindness. There is an Ethiopian proverb that speaks to this: "The child who is not embraced by the village will burn it down to feel its warmth." Punishment was meted out before he was cast into the world. Many of my most troubled students were born with brains disfigured by alcohol and drugs while they were being formed in the womb. Some, like William, were born prematurely. Most were raised by single mothers, grandparents, or foster parents. All of them experienced episodes of neglect, violence, or trauma in early childhood. These constant stresses, according to research, could cause metabolic changes at the cellular level that compromised cognitive function, emotional well-being, and social health. We could blame the parents, but how did they get that way?
He needed help. One solution? "We need to build teams to investigate when kids are in crisis and then link those kids to mental health services," Professor Peterson explained. "The problem is that in a lot of places, those services are not there. There’s no community mental health and no school-based mental health. Schools are the ideal setting because it doesn’t require a parent to take you there. A lot of perpetrators are from families where the parents are not particularly proactive about mental health appointments."
William was motherless and fatherless. According to research, boys without fathers were 5 times more likely to end up incarcerated themselves. I saw in these boys what I could have been. Without my father, I would have been at greater risk for failure. Where fathers are absent, children are 5 times more likely to be poor, twice as likely to repeat a grade, 4 times more likely to have an affective disorder, twice as likely to drop out of school, at greater risk of being physically abused, significantly more likely to become obese, and significantly more likely to abuse alcohol and drugs.
In the classroom, I stood in loco parentis, a surrogate father to kids who were being raised by the state. Like my father, a minister who ran a group home out of our brownstone in Brooklyn, I wanted to protect my students from the darkness and injustices of this world. Children with severe behavioral problems would often end up in my class. These were children, almost invariably boys, who didn’t respond to nonverbal cuing, contracts, timeouts, behavior charts, reverse psychology, support plans, modeling, assertive I-messages, environmental controls, low-profile interventions, classroom management plans, counseling, suspensions, or “opportunity transfers” (expulsions in Newspeak).
Although they only made up 1-5% of the population, these high-risk students sabotaged the best of lessons. These were the ones who cursed their teachers, who’d walk out of class, who’d punch, kick, bite, or spit at any child or adult when they exploded. They were expensive to teach in terms of energy, time, and resources. It often required support teams made up of teachers, administrators, school psychologists, and caseworkers to handle them. It took a village of government do-gooders to raise a boy in the ghetto. Yet, many of these boys would end up in state penitentiaries when they grew out of childhood, traveling the well-worn path from slum to cell.
In 1971, the year I was born, there were roughly 300,000 people in prison. Presently, more than 2.3 million people sit behind bars. According to author Silja Talvi, one quarter of the entire world’s inmates are incarcerated in the United States. The International Centre for Prison Studies in Great Britain, tracks prison populations worldwide. We’re ranked first. There are almost a million more people serving sentences than are serving in all of the branches of the U.S. armed forces combined. Add 7 million parolees and ex-cons and that’s 9.2 million people found guilty at some time of some offense. New York, America’s largest city, has a population of 8 million.
These numbers represent lives. These sentences not only affect the 9.2 million who serve them and the millions who were wronged, but families and communities and the national interest also. The pain and fear translates into barbed wire and security guards and alarm systems and handguns and restraining orders and increased caseloads and prisons and three strikes laws and huge court dockets. Pain and fear assume physical form, becoming structures of brick and mortar and stone walls with guard towers. We invest in fear. It costs thousands annually to house one inmate and billions to jail the lot. There are hidden costs: lost tax revenue, the costs to raise an army of police officers (and their wages, healthcare, and pension costs), the costs for prosecutors and judges (and their wages, healthcare, and pension costs), the costs for wardens and prison guards (and their wages, healthcare, and pension costs). There are other hidden costs: depreciated property values, capital flight, higher costs to do business in “neighborhoods of concentrated disadvantage,” inflated prices for basic commodities like bread and eggs at the corner market, higher insurance premiums, brain drains, and the costs to feed, house, educate, and otherwise provide for the dependents of the incarcerated (and the wages, healthcare, and pension costs of the government employees who oversee the bureaucracies).
Then there are the costs of wasted human capital. We have more prisons than universities. The state of New Jersey spends more to keep a man incarcerated than to send him to Princeton. The incarcerated get an "education" of sorts in prison where racial division runs deep. Some learn new and better ways to commit crimes from their fellow convicts. Some network and become more deeply involved in the criminal world. Are these investments the path to safety and community and freedom?
The government allocates $68 billion for education and $80 billion for “corrections.” We need a correction. In a global, knowledge-based economy, where human capital is valuable, 2.3 million people in prison represents a terrible loss and liability.
The ultimate hidden costs are psychological: the hardening of hearts, the hatred, the blame, the anger, the deadening of empathy and compassion for one another, and the fraying of the social fabric. We submit to fear, imagining ourselves as separate, co-creating hellish realms with thought, imprisoning ourselves in structures of fear that keep the illusions of our little selves safe. Brick by brick, ballot by ballot, bullet by bullet, we build a culture of anger, of hatred, of fear. Law by law, sentence by sentence, gun by gun, jail by jail we invest blindly in a society increasingly devoid of compassion, of love, of peace. We see the prisons, but we cannot see the thought forms that imprison us. Thought by thought, link by link, we chain our hearts to darkness. Shackled to fear, the collective "I" mis-creates a world of suffering generation after generation.
"People think that fear keeps us safe," affirmed Anita Mooritani, "but that's actually not true. Love keeps you safe! When you love yourself and you love other people, you make sure you keep yourself safe and you keep others out of danger."
In South Central, compassion and kindness were operant principles that kept me safer than fear. Compassionate seeing allowed me to navigate the mean streets of L.A.
I knew my neighbors, among them ex-cons and thugs. I could see the God spark in the tired eyes of the prostitute or beauty in the dirty face of a homeless man pushing his shopping cart. They were suffering human beings who, like me, wanted some relief from the pain. Some of their choices may have been unwise, their responses maladaptive, and their decisions counter-productive, but I could empathize with the pain. I stood in solidarity with those who were beaten down by the streets.
To outsiders, the people were predators, animals, monsters, "bad guys," the untermensch. And fear of them was one of the main reason millions owned guns. Many are stockpiling military styled rifles and weapons of war to kill other Americans in a race war. If enough people believe this, we can bring it into being, co-creating more hell on earth and more unnecessary suffering.
My father ministered to the suffering of the broken and dispossessed and I attended to the children, especially the boys- generations of hyper-males unsure of how manhood should act, talk, or think. They took their cues from others playing roles. The muscles, the tattoos, the guns, the gangs, the bottles of 100 proof liquor, the drugs, the womanizing, and the posturing affirmed fear. Behind the masks, I saw longings for safety, for respect, for fairness, for validation, for acceptance, for dignity- a deep need to be seen, and a desperate call for love.
Former USC professor Leo Buscaglia put it this way: "We continue to scoff at love. And the result? More loneliness, more aspirins, more high blood pressure, more psychotherapists, more ulcers, more headaches, more frigidity, more impotence, more insomnia, more laxatives, more anorexia, more overeating, more weariness, more boredom, more despair, more suspicion, more drugs, more intoxication, more mistakes, more frustration, more fear, more suicides, more hate, more prejudice, more killing, more prisons, more divorces, more failures, more sadness, more envy, more pain, more violence, more ignorance, more bigotry, more stupidity, more apathy, more tears, more death."
And more guns, more mass shootings, more knee-jerk legislation, more public outrage, more political discord, more fear and hard-heartedness, more senseless killings, more division.
I was heart-broken to see William's mug shot. I knew most would see the face of a criminal, a bad guy, a monster who deserved the harshest sentence. When we label, we explain away what we don't understand. I saw a 9 year old boy who taught me more about patience, understanding, empathy, and compassion than I ever learned in any graduate class on teaching. I saw a boy who taught me to how to love more perfectly, not a monster.
Many imagine themselves morally superior and look on broken boys like him with contempt. We pathologize and may blame the parents, but do not look any farther. We absolve the collective self of any responsibility for the seeds of thought that became things like guns and jails or intangible things like redlining, voter suppression, and job discrimination that contribute to injustice, feelings of hopelessness, and human suffering.
If, in our way of life, we allow fear and violence to fester, are we in any way complicit when we imagine ourselves "better than," separate and innocent?
White nationalists, gangs, incels and other so-called monsters are more effective at recruiting broken people than the so-called good, law-abiding citizens who pay their taxes, clock in to work everyday, and mind their business. Gangs, hate groups, and other extremists are good at messaging: "We care! It's not your fault. We have your back!" ...until they don't.
I withdrew from law school and became a teacher because I thought I could intervene in the lives of the children who needed a strong advocate. True knowledge of self- not the trivia peddling that passes for education- could provide a hedge. I positioned myself in the early elementary grades (2nd-5th grade), where I hoped I could make a difference for those who were most vulnerable, but I often found myself frustrated with the system itself. Change could not be achieved without the resolve, commitment, and good will of the collective-I. The lone crusaders depicted in bellyfeel-good Hollywood movies that simplify or ignore systemic problems would never effect true, systemic change any more than a gun-slinging teacher would.
My former student had committed a crime. He was judged and sentenced. But hadn't he already been judged and sentenced as a child by faceless adults quick to punish and expel, quick to invest in policing and penitentiaries, quick to suggest arming "good guys" with more guns, but reluctant to support good policies that might help a boy rise above his circumstances? What possibilities might have flowered if, instead of mis-creating from fear, we created out of compassion? What if we shared a little more of our time, resources, connections, health, or sound mind to bless those desperate for a listening ear, a little compassion, some understanding, a second or third chance to get it right, or just a hand?
Many of us blessed with advantages often judge and look down on the Williams of the world with indifferent self-righteousness, when it would be more compassionate to extend a hand and promote conditions that would improve the lives of our neighbors and fellow citizens. Because we don't think systemically, we keep assigning blame to individuals and ignoring conditions. There is a medical school axiom that speaks to this: if 100 people drink from a well and 90 get diarrhea, you can treat the symptoms or treat the water. Now, imagine the ten who didn't get sick faulting the 90 who did and preventing others from treating the well water.
Our culture is toxic. 50% of Americans suffer some form of chronic illness whether physical- heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, cancer, autoimmune diseases- or psychological. 50% of adolescents are set to meet diagnostic criteria for one or another mental condition, according to research conducted by Dr. Gabor Mate. 3.5 million children are receiving psychotropic medications for ADHD. Antidepressants, anxiolytics, and antipsychotics are among the top drugs prescribed in America. The statistics for addiction (street drugs, alcohol) are also alarming. But most remain numb to it all. It's been normalized.
Many websites, video games, TV programs, films, magazines, books, podcasts, and social media algorithms promote violence, aggression, and division. “When we watch television and movies we consume, when we browse the internet we consume, when we listen to music or a conversation, we consume," Thich Nhất Hạnh said. "And what we consume every day may be highly toxic. It may contain violence, craving, fear, anger, and despair." Our children drink from this toxic well.
As a child, I watched thousands of TV shows and movies where the hero used force and violence to stop a "bad guy." Heroes did not disarm villains with words or with acts of compassion. (Aikido master Terry Dobson recounts an experience that speaks to the power of compassion).
Writers are creative people. Some screenwriters and directors, like John Lasseter or Hayao Miyazaki, produce great films without the violence. It can be done profitably. The stories we tell ourselves leave imprints on the brain that provide cues for how to respond to events we perceive as threatening.
Compassion filters how we perceive others. Compassion is one of the qualities of mind that contributes to our sense of well-being and to the well-being of others. By developing good will for others and cultivating compassion, we increase prosocial motivation. We step up and show up, assuming more responsibility for our well-being and extending this to those in our immediate circle, our neighbors, and those we come in contact with.
Compassion is more than fleeting, "feel good" sentimentality. Compassion is not soft. Compassion is a mindset. It is "I feel your pain" resonance coupled with the desire to help. The desire to help affirms our solidarity, our oneness, our commonality as human beings. It's the recognition that just like me, we all suffer; we all experience loss; we did not choose our circumstances at birth; we all want to feel safe, to be loved, to be respected, to be validated, to be understood, to be happy, to know real peace, real happiness.
Compassion promotes this. On wellness “the main things are to commit to some simple behaviors- meditating, exercising, getting enough sleep, altruism… and nurture your social connections,” asserts Harvard professor Dan Gilbert. Indeed, a meta-analysis found that those with more social support and intimate relationships had lower death rates overall and lower rates of cancer (Pinquart, 2010).
The quality of our social relationships has been linked to morbidity and mortality (J Holt Lunstad, 2010). A Duke University Medical Center study found that “Those who lacked a spouse or close confidant were three times more likely to die within five years of the diagnosis of heart disease as those who were married or had a close friend." In The Art of Happiness, Howard Cutler, M.D. asserts: “So much evidence has mounted about the harmful effects of hostility that it is now considered a major risk factor in heart disease, at least equal to, or perhaps greater than, the traditionally recognized factors such as high cholesterol or high blood pressure." Studies by Robert Saplosky's lab at Stanford University confirmed that toxic emotions like anger, rage, and hostility damage the cardiovascular system.
Compassion signals a robust and resilient nervous system. A regulated nervous system provides a neural platform for pro-social behavior- engagement, empathy, patience, safety, hope, goodwill. A regulated nervous system down-regulates aggressive, defensive reactions, and buffers the impacts of stressful events. People who are chronically stressed, by contrast, exhibit aggressive, defensive behaviors which may express as blame, attack, withdrawal, avoidance, anger, shame, escape, disconnection, hopelessness, or depression.
Now arm the dysregulated with guns.
Most gun owners are integrated and responsible. If they were not, there would be more carnage. But this is not the root cause for the violence and disintegration. The old saw that guns don't kill people, people kill people has a kernel of truth, but misses the point. Swords kill people. But gun assaults have a higher fatality rate, kill at greater range, and from positions of better concealment (Zimring, 1990). They also permit attacks by physically weaker and psychologically dysregulated people. The more powerful the weapon, like the semi-automatic AR-15 the greater the carnage (Note: machine gun converter kits can turn semi-automatic rifles into fully automatic weapons). Researchers have found a strong positive association between death rate and caliber (Braga, 2018).
This is not an anti-gun screed. I would buy a gun if my lifestyle necessitated one. If I changed my diet and started eating meat again, for example, I would rather fish, husband, or hunt my own food. But this misses the point.
We turn to the heart of human nature. Are we fundamentally violent, fundamentally good, or do we fall along some gradient? I would assert that we are fundamentally good and that conditions cause deviations away from this goodness.
Let's zero in on those at the extremes of the spectrum, the psychopaths. A recent neuroimaging study found that those with psychopathy have a 10% larger striatum than non-psychopaths. Psychopathy is a personality disorder characterized by deficits in emotional, interpersonal and behavioral functioning. It seems to have a biological basis. This current conceptualization of the disorder includes traits such as callousness, deceitfulness, fearlessness and nonconformity (Portman, 2016). Researchers say the increased size of the striatum, a brain area associated with cognitive and social functions, may account for a higher likelihood of impulsive behaviors and increased need for stimulation often associated with psychopathy. Additionally, researchers suggest there may be an element of heredity in the neural anatomy, adding support to the neurodevelopmental perspective of psychopathy (Choy, 2022).
However, not all individuals with psychopathic traits end up breaking the law and not all criminals meet the criteria for psychopathy. Environmental triggers can suppress or encourage expression of these traits in positive or negative ways. For example, a boy with a 10% larger striatum raised in an environment where psychopathic traits like fearlessness and nonconformity were celebrated, could be guided to a life where his strengths were leveraged: an extreme acrobatic pilot, a fearless Formula 1 driver, a mixed martial artist, etc. He might find a career where his strengths could offset the negative tendencies associated with psychopathy like callousness or egocentrism. Firefighting, for example, demands a degree of fearlessness. It is also a highly altruistic calling. Firefighters risk their lives to save others. Engaging in such work might offer balance.
Compassion can be trained, moreover. In one study, increased altruistic behavior after compassion training was associated with altered activation in brain regions implicated in social cognition and emotion regulation. These results suggest that compassion can be cultivated with training and that greater altruistic behavior may emerge from increased engagement of neural systems implicated in understanding the suffering of other people, executive and emotional control, and reward processing (Weng et al., 2013).
By contrast, a boy born with a 10% larger striatum raised in an environment where psychopathic traits like fearlessness or nonconformity were met with ridicule or violence, might go on to commit violent acts. In Iceman: Confessions of a Mafia Contract Killer, Richard Kuklinsky describes a childhood of neglect and physical, emotional, and sexual abuse. He exhibited almost every core trait associated with the worst of psychopathy (Portman, 2016).
While I can imagine a more compassionate and connected world, I recognize that the world we live in does not provide relief for children with neurodiverse profiles, counseling for the alienated, compassion for the poor.
But I choose compassion over despair as pollyannaish as this may be. There is a deeper recognition of our interdependence which influences how we live, how we interact with others, how we consume. Indeed, we are interdependent for better or for worse. While we are not responsible for what others do, many of us have the power and ability to make a difference and relieve the suffering of others... or compound it. Doing regular volunteer work and interacting with others in a warm and compassionate way, dramatically increase life expectancy and overall vitality, according to a University of Michigan study.
Rather than wait for public policy to change, government funding, or an NGO to spearhead an initiative or program, we can start with ourselves and commit to live more mindfully. "There is hope in people, not in society, not in systems, but in you and me," asserted Jiddu Krishnamurti.
Crafting sensible legislation or rethinking policy is a start, but it is outside of my circle of influence. I can do more working within my circle. I am still serving at-risk youth. I started a juku at the Boys and Girls Club of America. Maybe some good will come of it.
I can imagine a safer, more compassionate nation. The seeds are there. Until we treat the water, however, there will be more alienation, more self-hatred, more illness, and more death. I would like to conclude this on a more hopeful note, but this is not the contemplative way. Reality is as it is. Conditions shape causes. As senseless as the violence seems to be, it has an etiology, a trajectory, a progression, and a terminus. What will be will be.
There is work to be done. “The harvest is great, but the workers are few." (Matthew 9:37)
May all beings know true peace, true love, and true happiness... beginning with you and me.
Sadly, three days after posting this, a family of 5 was killed by an escaped convict presumably with guns stolen from their cabin. "He was armed with an AR-15 and a pistol," Jason Clark with the Texas Department of Criminal Justice said, adding that investigators believe the firearms were likely stolen from the grandfather's home in Centerville where the family was killed. The convict murdered 66-year-old Mark Collins and his grandchildren: brothers Waylon, 18, Carson, 16, and Hudson, 11, and their cousin, Bryson Collins, 11.
Four days after the murder, a Florida woman was charged with manslaughter after her 2-year-old boy found a gun in their home and accidentally shot his father in the back, killing him.
One month after posting this, my home was burglarized while my children and I slept. I wrote of the experience here. The intruder entered my room, but I thought he was my son, so I returned to sleep. The thief grabbed my laptop and snuck out of the room.
A gun would not have protected us. He was already in the room when I opened my eyes. Had I known he was an intruder, a gun would have had to be loaded and within reach. If he had intended harm, I would have to be quicker on the draw. To be effective, the weapon would have to be on me or close by at all times. As explained, this would put my children at greater risk of harm.
Had I pulled the trigger, I would likely have killed a teenager for attempting to steal a laptop and a bicycle. Not worth a life. Had it indeed been my son, I might have killed him.
A gun would not have kept my family safer, an alarm system (which I later had installed) was a better deterrent.