The slow burn of the psyche...

When human beings perpetrate unthinkable acts, such as those we've witnessed in Darfur, Iraq, and in the massacres of Nickel Mines and Virginia Tech, a shock-wave sweeps out at light-speed in all directions from the epicenter of the event.  All of us caught in the wave are awash in horror, anger, and confusion.  We mourn bitterly for the victims.  We seethe with rage against the murderers.  And we avoid the question, "What's wrong with humanity?" by posing the much safer, "Why did this happen?" that often actually veils, "What can we blame for this other than ourselves?"

I'd like to address the former question, though, since I think it strikes at the heart of the matter.  My answer is first to assert that there isn't anything "wrong" with humanity, but, given the way things are, we shouldn't be surprised that tragic events like these happen.  However, nor can we hope to correct them unless we claim some responsibility for them.

To understand the fragility of the human psyche, consider the stars.  Stars emerge from the dynamic of two opposing forces.  One force in generated by the explosions of the fusion reactions going on in the heart of the star.  This force is always at work trying to blow the star to bits.  The other force is gravity generated by the mass of the material that's fusing into ever-heavier elements.  This force is always trying to crush the star into oblivion.  The laws of physics allow these two forces to balance out over the course of billions of years.  When the nuclear fuel begins to run out, one force or the other might then win the cosmic wrestling match.  If gravity weakens, the star might nova.  If the fusion reactions weaken, the star might be crushed, even into a black hole if the star started out massive enough.

The human psyche is likewise balanced between opposing forces.  Our wills push out against the world while our social connections push in upon us.  A healthy individual experiences a balance between these forces.  They don't seem to be at odds with one another at all, but, rather, they work together in a harmonious way.  As you can imagine, though, it's relatively easy for such a delicate balance to be upset.  Some trauma leads to paranoia which leads to a person feeling as though the interplay between self and other is more like a battle than a dance.  The trauma can be small, subtle, even something that wouldn't have traumatized the same person on any other day.  The thing that triggers volatility cannot always be detected, much less prevented. But, in the case of the psyche, the slide to explosion or collapse can often be reversed.

So the real question becomes why is it often not? Well, because who wants to be near a star just before it blows up? Who wants to be parked next to a black hole just as it's ripping through the very fabric of space? Treating paranoid people is dangerous work, and it usually falls on non-professionals to do it because the subject is, after all, too paranoid to seek help.  So it's little wonder that stricken people often become more and more isolated, more and more paranoid, until they eventually buckle into suicide and/or ignite into a rampage that hurts a large number of people.

Obviously, the stigma attached to mental illness is a huge barrier to it being adequately addressed.  Perhaps this wall can be torn down if only we can all remember that, "There but for the grace of God go I."  After all, we're all lonely stars hurtling through the universe, trying to contain the roiling passions of our hearts while not crumbling under the crippling weight of society's demands.  We're all prone to the strains that make one snap.

And we're all capable of offering warmth and light to a chilled and shadowed soul.

Making connections

I like the way this editorial by Jesse Singal connects the background of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab (the man whose attempt to blow up a plane on Christmas, 2009 was thwarted by passengers) and Dylan Klebold because it looks past ideology or religious difference both of which have become ways to demonize and disconnect those who commit acts of terrorism.

Probing the minds of our frustrated young men

The shooting at the Holocaust Museum: history, nature, lunacy

This editorial by James Carroll reminded me of the GC's post here--and then rereading I realized that this self/other divide is pretty much the same thing I've been calling the inner/outer illusion and Carroll's thoughts about the importance of history are I think one way to counter that illusion/divide.

Carroll looks at Von Brunn's attack on the Holocaust Museum in the context of history--particularly because of Von Brunn's ideology of denying history.  One connection he makes, which I hadn't really thought of before, is the roots of racism in the West with anti-Semitism: "What we call “racism’’ can be traced to the 15th-century Iberian idea of “blood impurity,’’ a biological fault that set Jews apart from Christians. Jewish unworthiness was no longer in their religion, but in their physical makeup - an inherited inferiority."

It's this kind of classification which makes the other inhuman, denies connection and then helps us rationalize violence.  And we do the same thing by looking for something that sets us apart from the murderer.  Or, as Carroll says here, by blaming some kind of inherent trait of agression in human beings.

"Aggression of one group toward others is built into the human condition, but we are speaking of something more deadly than that - an effervescent lethality that is peculiar to the culture that comes from Europe...

If we humans were condemned to such homicidal impulses by the mere fact of our human condition, then the denial of history would be tolerable, moral amnesia inevitable. But anti-Semitism and racism come from particular times and places, choices and consequences - from culture created by humans. Therefore such culture can be changed by humans - but only if we reckon with its past. It was to history, memory, and the possibility of a better future that Officer Stephen Johns opened the door. May he rest in peace."

More than mere lunacy

Yes...

... points our culture is in desperate need to understand.

Guns & Mental Illness

I agree with the description given in the opening sentence of this editorial detailing a shooting rampage in Washington State: "too many guns and too little mental healthcare."

More needless carnage

distancing oneself from unthinkable acts

I completely agree with the need to take responsibility for these acts while seeing why people try to distance themselves--as if to deny our connection to those we judge as "monsters" would somehow make us safe. But of course it does exactly the opposite--for then we refuse to examine ourselves and learn anything from what has happened. Additionally, how can we judge anyone unless we acknowledge our likeness to that person?

re: distancing

So right jaz. Unfortunately now it takes a tragedy to even come to terms and recognize the consequences people can have on others. By then it's too late.

Re: Re: distancing

And by then the event is so traumatic that it's hard for people to sensibly see what role they played.

Re: distancing

Precisely.

Close to home

This is a tragic ending for a kid that hits very close to home for me.

I hesitated linking this.. but I guess it's up to you if you see this fit for this particular article.

 It's really hard to understand people sometimes.

Re: Close to home

Actually that's a very fitting link, Kat.

So tragic.