An Antidote for Gun Violence: Choral Singing

There are lots of good thoughts circulating lately about loneliness in our society–particularly among our children, and particularly in our boys. Many of us are noticing that lonely boys with arrested emotional development are often the perpetrators of violent acts that splatter across our news feeds every week. So, what’s the next step?

Find some ways to effectively, practically combat that loneliness.

Here’s my first suggestion: support the arts.

children's choir clip art

Source: https://www.clipartpig.com/download/wBK8FVO

Arts are ALL ABOUT emotional development and expression. Teach a kid art, and you give him a tool to communicate deep truth about himself that doesn’t require words. For kids who have not been provided with the verbal toolkit to “feel and deal,” as the Yerkoviches would say, and are too old to respect the suggestion that developing a toolkit would be a good idea–art is a safe outlet. It could be the escape hatch they desperately need to channel their emotions into something constructive and away from harm.

Secondly, collaborative arts, like choral singing, could actually provide a long-term fix to the loneliness epidemic. Read this excerpt from an article detailing the benefits of singing in a choir:

“People who sing in a group report far higher well-being than those who sing solo,” [Pink] notes. It’s about synchronizing with others.

What can explain this? According to Pink, it’s due to the sense of belonging that synchronizing with others brings.

He cites the work of Roy Baumeister and Mark Leary, social psychologists who came up with the “belongingness hypothesis” in 1995, and claimed that the “need to belong is a fundamental human motivation… and that much of what human beings do is done in the service of belongingness.”

That last paragraph should give us a real lightbulb moment. If a kid doesn’t feel like he belongs, how can we expect him not to lash out? When that disassociation is severe enough, the results are going to be drastic, as we are shown time and time again. Another excerpt:

Emily Esfahani Smith, a psychology instructor at the University of Pennsylvania, furthered this point in a TED Talk last year, as CNBC Make It reported. “Meaning comes from belonging to and serving something beyond yourself and from developing the best within you,” she said.

She recommends forming “relationships where you’re valued for who you are intrinsically and where you value others as well.”

If a child is unable to form such relationships naturally, putting him in a context of non-verbal collaboration that focuses on creating something beautiful could provide an intense sense of worth, value, and belonging like little else. To physically experience his effort contributing to something he and others admire–which is MUCH easier when you’re in a collaborative environment–could be the incipient difference in self-perception and sense of community that an otherwise killer desperately needs.

To actually get the people who need it involved in the arts requires real effort, and at least a little money–but maybe not as much as you might think. Here are some of my ideas on what we could try:

  1. Provide transportation to arts programs
  2. Supply scholarships for private lessons
  3. Teach art/dance/music/etc. at community centers
  4. Sign ourselves or our kids up for lessons to support local arts teachers
  5. Befriend underprivileged adults and invite them to free or low-cost arts programs with us (reach the parents, reach the kids!)
  6. Host an art/music/dance day at our church, activity club, or out of our own homes
  7. Get the word out about free artistic programs and productions

What are yours?

And what are your experiences with the arts providing a sense of belonging and self-worth? Leave a comment and discuss!

We Can All Agree

So many opinions and perspectives have been shared over the latest rash of school shootings, particularly the one in Florida. I’ve spent some time over the last few days digging into the corners of all these thoughts, and I’ve come out of it with a handful of observations. Please note that I don’t necessarily agree with all the perspectives in everything I’ve linked; however, each link will lead you to a news source or personal testimony or academic report that I’ve found very helpful, and I’ve made a point of collecting information from a wide range of sources: NY Times, The IndyStar, The Daily Telegraph, Wikipedia, Vanderbilt University, etc. etc. Hopefully, my efforts to sift through the grit will prove useful to more than just me.

siliciume-mine-1363735-1279x980

I think we can all agree that nobody has to give up gun rights in order for security to tighten up in schools across the country.

It’s horrifying that there would ever be a NEED for security to tighten up, and it’ll take a terrific amount of money to do it right. Those are two reasons why it’s not happening as readily as it could or should: because, day-to-day, parents can’t stand to face the reality when we’ve not been forced to (“What do you mean, we shouldn’t have an all-glass walled, two-open-stories-tall, exposed-on-three-sides-to-the-outside-world art classroom? Shooters? In a suburban small town? But that’s so rare, and we hear enough depressing talk on the news! Why did you have to bring it up?!”)–and because most people think long and HARD before spending money on anything at all (let’s not jump straight to greed; it’s often also crippling indecision over how to be responsible with our resources when so many things NEED MONEY).

Until the majority of us feel viscerally threatened, I doubt efforts in this area will improve. But I think that time is coming, because the kids that grew up with Columbine will have kids of their own in school soon–and these moms and dads have already experienced the terror for themselves. They won’t mess around any longer.

I think we can all agree that we actually need far fewer firearms than we currently have populating America.

The best current estimates tell us that for every 100 American residents, we have about 101 guns in our possession. Note that’s “residents” without qualifiers–so kids under 18 and non-gun-owning families included. If we apply this stat to the average family with 2.4 kids, assuming one parent is a gun owner, that means at least 2 guns per household. But not every household has guns, so if we suppose only half of American households contain guns–a pretty generous estimate, I hope–that means each gun-owning household has four or five guns in it.

4-5+ guns per user really doesn’t seem necessary for either defense or leisure to me. Even if you feed your whole family on what you hunt each year–I know a guy who does just that using a bow. And if you feel the need to have an arsenal in order to form a militia when the corrupted government comes for your rights, that won’t get you more than dead when you face down the U.S. military, as my friend Wesley has astutely pointed out. If it comes to that, we’ve already lost. Final thought: when your home is invaded late at night and you have a legitimate need AND ability to protect yourself, you can still only sensibly wield one firearm at a time.

However, none of that is to say that the difference between one gun in a house and five guns is going to decrease a motivated killer’s opportunity to access a gun at all. If he (or she) wants a gun and can access to it, he will. Doesn’t matter if there are extras lying around. Which leads me to my third point:

I think we can all agree that legislation on who can get firearms will do us no good if we can’t enforce it.

I found this post very ironic: a multi-gun owner advocating for stricter gun laws partly because she witnessed so many illegal sales going down around gun shows. In her words, “People bring guns to sell to dealers at the show and end up selling them to buyers in the parking lot who are willing to pay cash. No background check, no bill of sale, no formal transfer of ownership.” If so many folks blatantly ignore the laws we already have on the books, how is writing more laws going to prevent anything? If we won’t even hold others accountable for the infractions we witness now–*cough*howmanyofthesedidYOUreportScaryMommy?*cough*–all we’re doing in calling for more legislation is looking for extra ways to pass the buck. And if we think, reasonably, that this is the job of law enforcement–they’re not omnipresent, people. They have a limited ability to catch everything they ought, especially without a truly staggering amount of extra funding. If we can’t or won’t put the money into them, we can’t expect additional laws to do us any good.

Relatedly, if we’re not completely effective in practicing gun safety at home by locking them away and keeping them out of the hands of those who would use them against other humans–even when we think we are–then no amount of extra rules on the home front will help us, either. Nikolas Cruz couldn’t use a microwave when he came to live with the Sneads, yet he got his hands on a key to their gun safe. They allowed him to own a gun despite the fact that he had a history of social and emotional problems, violence against animals, and self-harm: clearly they did not understand the serious need to separate the kid from firearms, period. When we cannot or will not enforce common sense gun usage and respect for deadly force in our own private domains, outside of the reach of the law, more legislation will not make a lick of difference. Instead, we ought to develop better emotional intelligence in order to correctly identify at-risk people who shouldn’t have gun access, because–

I think we can all agree that the people who commit mass shootings are psychologically, emotionally, or mentally unstable in some severe regard.

However, rather than looking at this as an opportunity to reach out in compassion AND wisdom to halt a future killer’s trajectory into violence–instead of that, we write troubled people off and shy away. Dang, mental illness, yo–what’d’we do with that?! Either we still don’t believe it’s a real thing we can actually treat, or we do think it’s real–and still have no idea how to interact with it. And psychological/emotional trauma? Psh, that’s just a synonym for sissiness. We don’t really treat that as any more significant than the color of the shirt the shooter wore that day–a part of his life, but totally irrelevant to his actions. After all, we have all kinds of emotional distress, and we never wanted to shoot anyone!

Well, great. Let’s speak for ourselves. If we’ve never experienced emotion that led us to truly want to kill someone, by definition, we don’t know how powerful and effective such an emotion would be, especially if supplied with other compounding factors: access to weaponry, ease of access to a target, and lack of social connection and accountability, just for starters. It’s irrational to suppose such an emotion doesn’t exist because you’ve not experienced it. And, for the record, it’s one I personally have experienced–thankfully, never compounded to the point where I chose to act upon it. But not everyone is so blessed.

Out of fear, ignorance, or disgust, we can neglect or bully those with mental or psychological trouble, giving rise to the stat that people with mental illnesses are far more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators of it. This same study reveals that “Fewer than 5 percent of the 120,000 gun-related killings in the United States between 2001 and 2010 were perpetrated by people diagnosed with mental illness.” That should dispel a lot of the fear we experience when engaging with the mentally ill and open our eyes to the fact that our own mistreatment of those already suffering may be part of what leads to the bloodbaths now splashed across our newsfeed every week. Nik Cruz, the gunman in the latest school shooting, more than likely suffers from Fetal Alcohol Syndrome and Reactive Attachment Disorder. If “the mentally ill are 60 to 120 percent more likely than the average person to be the victims of violent crime rather than the perpetrators” (ibid), what do you think are the chances that Nik is no stranger to receiving violence himself? If so, he’s in the majority of the mentally ill who are victims of aggression AND in the stark minority of gunman who grapple with mental/psychological trauma of some sort. To pull the Venn diagram together for you: he probably just paid forward the evil he learned from others somewhere along the line.

What does that say about the rest of us?

If the reasoning I’ve presented for you so far is too tenuous for your taste, I’ll also offer you the account of a man who would have opened fire on his peers were it not for an act of God: Daniel Riley almost shot his classmates when he was fourteen years old.

Daniel insists that he suffered from no mental illness, and given no other information, all we can reasonably do is believe him. At the same time, the situation he describes in detail makes it absolutely clear he was suffering from repeated physical violence AND acute emotional trauma–prompting survival instincts and emotional reactions strong enough to lead to murderous intent. We might readily blame Daniel’s parents for keeping guns in the house; but why do we stop there and refuse to think of how they might have taken greater care to provide their son with serious comfort, protection, and nurturing when he very obviously desperately needed it?

Morality doesn’t exist in a vacuum. If you feel you are the only one who has your back, your value for other people–your respect for their opinions, principles, and very existence–drops low indeed. You might start out not caring at all what happens to others–but if enough of them oppose or attack you enough times, resentment and animosity will root down in your gut. And once you feel completely cornered, helpless, and utterly vulnerable, on any access of your existence, it takes almost nothing for desperation to set in–and desperation, as Orson Scott Card illustrated for us so vividly in Ender’s Game, is deadly. Even for a child who can boast a shadow of a secure relationship from early development (his sister Valentine).

I think we can all agree that nobody should have to endure anything that would drive them to such violence–whether it was imposed upon them by others or generated from within.

And, absolutely, nobody else should have to endure the end result of such torment.

But if we truly want to avoid it, we are going to have to make enormous sacrifices in many other areas. We are going to have to face the RAD and FAS and scores of other serious mental/psych health issues head-on–no fear, no disgust, no judgment–and treat these kids and their families with the same zeal for compassion and preservation of humanity-in-ALL-forms that sends hundred thousands to Washington each year. We are going to have to teach our children, by obstinate, awkward, and continuous example, to befriend the outcasts, the abused, and the lost causes–and to do so with equally vast reserves of love and caution, reserves that allow us to get to know the deep-down disturbances these kids suffer and discern where and how to set boundaries for the very good of those we’re trying to help. This is the part of the equation that the Sneads tragically missed. We are going to have to weigh our paranoias and desire for control and sense of power against our disintegrating corporate ability to cope with anyone we don’t like in a non-violent manner–even if you wouldn’t turn a gun on a social adversary, how do you feel about your friends’ and family’s capacity not to? We are going to have to really start investigating the impact of the shrouded emotional stunting we’ve tolerated as completely normal for far too long. We are going to have to put our money where our mouths are and provide our public institutions and servants with heavy-duty protections and resources to reign in violent outbreaks and apprehend those plotting them.

And, dadgum, we’re going to have to give each other a break.

Nobody wanted this. Nobody has all the answers. Nobody will avoid every false lead. My perspective is as good as the next person’s. But we all want something better, and I’m willing to bet most of us are willing to put some effort into seeing it happen. We’re going to burn out. We’re going to get bewildered a quarter of the way through. We’re going to get sidetracked, sabotaged, and stalled. And if we can’t give each other grace through all the stops and starts and steps backward, our chances of making anything better grow much dimmer.

If we need to develop serious compassion and willingness to sacrifice for the people who need it most–both victims and offenders–let’s start with a simpler goal: patience, respect, and support for each other.