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Beyond Blame

A Therapist and Educator Speaks Out About the Isla Vista Shootings


Another male is responsible for a mass shooting. He took extreme measures to express his hatred and exact his imagined revenge in response to rejection, alienation, and failing to find a woman who wanted to have sex with him. This could only happen in a context of disconnection and severely misguided expectations of relationships. This is unacceptable, and it is preventable. It does us no good to run the gamut of who is to blame. It is, however, essential that we think about how to stop this from happening again.

We can no longer imagine that an academic education will be enough to give our youth what they need to thrive in an increasingly fractured, complex, and frantically competitive world. We cannot afford to have any more young people — rich or poor, straight or gay, white or nonwhite — raised without a social and emotional education that requires empathy as a social competency. We can do better. We should do better.

The shooter’s video demonstrates a complete lack of empathy and no skills for dealing with his immense personal pain. These are “soft skills,” a set of competencies required for social connectedness and emotional health. Soft skills include learning to read social cues, manage difficult emotions, and delay gratification; reframing disappointments into learning opportunities; reflective listening; resolving conflicts peacefully; and learning to self-soothe — and they should not be “electives.” They are fundamental to personal happiness and societal well-being. These skills can be learned, and they must be practiced throughout life by those who want a true shot at fulfillment and at being a contributing member of community. We can do better. We cannot wait.

Right this moment, thousands of Elliot Rodgers (and not all of them are male) are stewing in private pits of despair. Many harbor trumped-up defensive attitudes of superiority because they have been at the bottom of the social heap for far too long — a heap where position is designated by meaningless, superficially constructed markers of worthiness. This is the place from which they strike out to hurt others.

Young men who posture attitudes of profound sexism do so because they themselves are constantly being measured by oppressive standards of “masculinity.” These youth do not need access to weapons; they need access to a sense of belonging to community: a community not based on scoring, status, or popularity ranking, but one organized around contribution, acceptance, and the intrinsic need to be valued and connected.

We can do better. We can.

Here at Santa Barbara’s AHA! (Academy of Healing Arts), one of hundreds of social-emotional education programs around the U.S., we have seen young men and women bullied and rejected to the point of blind and random rage, and yet, we have seen them come back to their heart and humanity. How? Through a slow and constant mentoring by caring, charismatic adults and a community of understanding and supportive peers, all of whom are committed to not only hearing the pain and anger but to then seeing through it to the desperate longing to belong. “Joe” told me last week how, through AHA!, he learned how to love again; before, he said, his heart had held nothing but hate. His is one of many stories that have a happy ending, where those who have felt excluded are brought into the fold of a loving community. Those stories don’t make headlines that often, but they should.

It takes an investment of considerable time and energy to realign our youth with values of connection over impersonal competition and material achievement. When we make that investment, however, the results are lifelong and strong. The alternative is to ignore the mounting number of vicious attacks on innocents as anomalies created by individual tortured souls, and to press on without a moral vector.

It’s too late for Rodger and his victims. It is not too late for the rest of us to do better for our youth by giving them the tools they really need to survive: a way and means to matter, and to be known for who they are and who they care about and how they belong, not for what they have won, conquered or owned. We cannot accept mass shootings as the “new normal casualty” of a society that runs on the emotional steroids of achievement and power.

Educating the hearts of our youth during the prime development period between ages 12 and 24 is not just a “touchy feely” gesture. It is a critical necessity for the creation of a safe and sustainable emotional culture of caring and contribution.

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