How do you prevent an atrocity? One person at a time. The answer isnt law enforcement or even mental health. Its spiritual. Read on. Ill elaborate.
The Virginia Tech tragedy might have been preventedbut I see NOTHING in the media about the necessary ingredient. Mental health and law enforcement approaches to prevention didnt work. Whats missing is a spiritual paradigm. Im talking about something other than organized religion.
But first, I believe we must prevent a social catastrophe. Michael Welner, M.D., a forensic psychiatrist on Good Morning America said we should not cover the attacker. Even posthumously, we shouldnt grant the person who murdered 32 people his wish to become infamous as an anti-hero. Notice: Im not even mentioning his name! We need to dissuade those who would copy his behavior by not broadcasting his message. Lets focus on the victims and survivors and ways of preventing such violence by others.
We need to unpack the deeper message from this person, a boy who must have felt powerless for years.
He was isolated. He had been teased and bullied. He rebuffed attempts to make contact. His behavior frightened people. It pointed to a sense of impotence, powerlessness and pain. One professor worked with him individually and alerted mental health and law enforcement of the danger. She empathized with others, and worked with him alone to protect others. But what about the boy? Mental health and law enforcement paradigms could not prevent this violence.
The spiritual approach that might have changed everything is called Nonviolent Communication, developed by Marshall Rosenberg, Ph.d. Hes the man who, 36 years ago, advised the Welsh Teacher Development Center here in Rockford, turning it into a school that was featured in Life magazine! (See www.cnvc.org and his book The Heart of Social Change.)
What would have prevented this tragedy? Connection. I call it heart connection. No one developed a deep connection with this boy. Not that it would have been easy. Some people tried. But as we learn practicing every week in the Compassionate Communication Practice Group, it is possible to develop a heart connection with virtually any person.
Think about it. Who has influenced and moved YOUespecially when you felt alone, desolate, suspicious, helpless, isolated, hopeless? Invariably, it was a person who empathized with you profoundly enough so a connection could be madea heart connection. Compassion in action. You felt heard. The person was not judging you: you were accepted as you were.
Diagnosing him didnt workit alienates. Our group practices Nonviolent Communication. We practice talking and listening, replacing ALL moralistic judgment with a different way of saying or hearing thingsconnecting with NEEDS and FEELINGS, our own and the other persons. Its a power-with approach rather than power over.
We learn, among other things, how to give empathyto really listen to the other person. Its not just a technique. Sure, at first we learn empathic techniques, but like training wheels you remove once you ride a bike with ease, eventually you can carry deep within yourself a quality of listening from the heartreally caringand connecting with another person, hearing that persons deepest feelings and needs.
The cries of that boycoming out in many forms: silence, violent creative writing, fantasy, stalking, might have been decoded if one were able to tune into his soul. He turned the pejorative name question mark into a badge he carried. Like the acting out child who cant get recognition by behaving properly, he acted out his need for connection, paradoxically blocking most peoples attempts to connect.
Connecting with him may have been impossiblebut I wonder if anyone who had developed the capacity for deep empathy ever even met him. Carl Rodgers, the great psychologist, has inspired many to recognize the power of empathy, but many in the mental health field have never been inspired to develop this gift, rather learning about diagnoses, treatment planning, medications, etc. to help a mental defective (Thats the label that would have kept him from getting the guns). Talk about judgment! Mental defective! Whew!
Nonviolent Communication is anything but passive. It includes the protective use of force, as a necessary option to prevent violence. And yet its greatest power is helping people get off their high horse, learning to say things that are not judgmental, focusing on feelings and needs. It fosters a heart connection. When theres a heart connection, violence doesnt happen!
The Compassionate Communication Practice Group meets every Wednesday, 5 to 6:30 in the Benson Room of Emmanuel Lutheran, Sixth Street and Third Avenue (park and enter from rear). Its free. All are welcome. As we grow, we hope to start additional groups.
Harlan Johnson is a Rockford resident.
from the April 25-May 1, 2007, issue