With news of recent events out of Roanoke, Virginia, regarding a seeming workplace issue became much more yesterday, I am stuck at the intersection of many roads. First, I am a daughter, and three sets of parents lost their children yesterday in a senseless crime. I cannot imagine the families’ collective grief of losing bright stars to something that did not need to happen. Second, I am a sister. I can now, unfortunately, count myself in the club of having lost a sibling, albeit to much different circumstances. But both of my younger siblings had a connection to Adam Ward, photojournalist at WDBJ, who was killed. My sister had a class with Adam while attending Virginia Tech, and both pursued a degree in communications/journalism. She did not know him well, but she knew who he was. My brother, who also attended Virginia Tech, happened to be roommates with him sophomore year. Despite not knowing him well, my brother has a great picture of he and his roommates attending a VT basketball game, one now that is a memory of someone gone too soon.
In being a sister, I also had to endure the uncertainty of April 16th, 2007. What’s the significance of that date, you ask? Anyone who is a Tech grad, has a Tech family member or friend, or lives in Virginia (and across the world) would know that that date was the day that 32 innocent people lost their lives to someone who struggled with mental illness, and the 33rd victim was reported to be a “monster”. You see, my sister was an RA on campus that year, and along with her RA community, lost people that were dear to them. What our nation lost, again, after having endured multiple school/workplace/community shootings, was its innocence. The struggle to know how my sister was, where she was, and if she and her residents and fellow students were safe was unbearable. I was in graduate school myself at William and Mary, and was glued to my friend’s TV to find out more details. I tried to remain in contact with my mom and sister as much as I could to determine wellness and safety, and to be so far from them was hard.
My third intersection is that I am a mental health counselor. I attended William and Mary to become a mental health counselor, and now stand before you as someone who helps treat those with mental health issues on a daily basis. I experience the losses that my clients have endured in their retelling of their own trauma histories, and can only respond in sharing brief moments of my own fears as it relates to my own experiences. To say that I have a connection to these tragedies is not one that I enjoy, especially knowing that my connection is removed a few degrees of separation, and is no comparison to those whose lives were directly touched. Yet, as a mental health counselor, I struggle with the issues of comparing people who suffer to “monsters”. Monsters, as we now know (but didn’t as kids), are not real. They do not hide under our beds or in our closets, and cannot “get” us because of something we did. But the fear that we have is real, and the perceived mistreatment that the gunman and damaged human has probably endured throughout his life, led to his unfortunate decision to right a wrong that was not his to correct in that manner in the first place. I choose not to name him, as his name is not important. What is important is his suffering, and the reported discrimination that may or may not have taken place.
What we as a mental health community of healers know, is that trauma, no matter in what form, can change a person. The younger age at which a trauma is sustained, the more changed a person can become. A majority of people demonstrate resilience in their experiences, and can sometimes spontaneously “get over” what occurred in their lives. Not everyone is as lucky, and the more trauma someone experiences, the worse their outcome in healing can be. As you all may know, a vast majority of those with mental health issues are HARMLESS, meaning that they would rather hurt themselves (suicide and/or self-harmful behavior) than hurt another person. But there are a novel few who feel it is their (delusional) duty to take justice into their own hands to correct something that may not have existed in the first place. This is not me saying that the accusations he made were untrue, but he had a lengthy history of discord in the workplace and had to be terminated and forcibly removed from several workplace environments due to this discord. His own perception appeared to be flawed, in that he felt he needed to make a statement with his actions that was one of finality – one that could not be corrected, justice could not be served, and in some ways could be considered cowardly. I repeat again…a vast MAJORITY of people with mental health issues are HARMLESS. But it only takes one person’s actions to become infamous, and that sticks in our minds as novel.
Who or what is to blame here? The short answer is that we are ALL to blame. Yes, that is a bold statement, and yes, I do believe it is true. For this person, and for the countless others that have acted out in violence related to a perceived wrong-doing, they all started this life out as infants. And as an infant, they needed to be cared for, loved on, and supported in learning how to make good decisions, respect others, and be provided empathy and compassion when necessary. But, as we know, not everyone receives that growing up. Despite the myriad circumstances that can exist to cause a person to harbor hate in their hearts, we know that hate is a learned emotion and behavior, and not one that exists from birth. We have to be taught how to hate, and this learning has to be reinforced in order to follow us to adolescence and adulthood. Normally, we take on our parents’ own “hates” like I have from mine: I “hate” the Redskins (but also the Cowboys), I “hate” tomatoes (from my mom), and cold weather is not for me. But my parents also massaged my desire to learn, and allowed me to be able to make my own decisions, somewhat to their dismay. I think I turned out okay, and hope they think so as well. But let’s say that I got other influences from my parents about whom or what to hate, like “hating” other races, sexual and gender minorities, religions, etc. That is something that is learned and reinforced. The hurting human reported that he was discriminated against because he was black and gay. I don’t doubt that at some point, and perhaps several throughout his life, he was discriminated and hated against for his identity, which is something he could not change. If he could, I’m sure he would have to avoid being hated and treated differently. But the point is, he, just like many others who have become so angry for the way that they have been mistreated, or perceived mistreatment, have experienced hate. Either from a parent or caregiver, from an abuser, from punk kids, from their house of worship, teachers, loved ones, or the community, these people have not learned how to manage their own stress and experiences to allow them to let things go and move forward.
We don’t teach empathy, respect, and compassion in this world anymore. We are too engrossed in our smart technology to pay attention to our loved ones, including kids, and we as a society have become so dependent on our work for the “stuff” that we can buy with our income, that we forget what life is all about. Our advertisements always appeal to keeping up with the Joneses, instead of being the best that you can be, for yourself and for your loved ones. We as a society are becoming more and more self-absorbed with our following of Kim Kardashian instead of following those who are trying to keep peace, like Malala Yousafzai, Desmond Tutu, Pope Francis, teachings of Buddha, Jimmy Carter, and so many more. We value looks over intellect, and stuff over clarity. But we are all to blame for how our society has changed, so we cannot blame anyone but ourselves. If we watch the news shows that focus on gossip, then we create an audience and advertising dollars for it to continue.
The education that we need to have begins in the home. We need to teach empathy to our children, and provide empathy to those who need it. If sympathy is what you offer someone when a loved one has passed (because you have also experienced a loss such as that), then empathy is that same sentiment, but offered to someone who is going through something you have not gone through, and wouldn’t know the first thing about going through. Just because we don’t understand the pain and suffering, doesn’t mean we should run away from the suffering, but run towards it instead. As a counselor, I embrace suffering because it is universal. If we could have turned back time for the hurting human to the point where his suffering began, something could have likely been done about it. We can no longer ignore people who are intent on hurting others as they have hurt, and we also need to realize that we cannot predict something as catastrophic as what has occurred. But the more we reach out in kindness, to offer our empathy and support to those who may not be able to offer it to themselves, and to teach our own young people that a life lost is a loss for us all, then maybe violence can become less of a headline grabber. In my mind, if everyone could experience the unconditional love that a cat or dog provides to their people, we could understand more about what empathy and compassion look like on a regular basis.
We can change access to weapons, call for reform, march in the streets, and demand change, but until we start giving each other respect, love, kindness, compassion, and empathy, we will not be able to make a difference. Any death is a loss, but if something could have been done to offer this hurting human a space to grieve his losses, he possibly may not have taken his hate out on others.
If you, or someone you know is contemplating suicide or taking your pain out on others, there is help. You can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 24/7/365 at 1-800-273-8255 (TALK) to speak with a knowledgeable person who can link you up to your community’s resources. You are not alone in your hurting, and there is hope.