The solution to systemic violence starts at home
It feels like we’re surrounded by violence. And the violence we’ve been experiencing (mostly, I hope, as bystanders) in our nation and world is tragic.
Those who commit these violent acts are, in most cases, individuals. Solitary men. (Sorry, dudes, but not so many chicks are involved in mass shootings and terrorist acts.) Men who make a series of decisions that lead them to end the lives of others.
While I truly believe that we are seeing the fruit of a civil rights movement that fizzled out too soon, the overreaching of police unions, under-checked access to firearms, a society desensitized to violence, stigma around and lack of care for mental health, and the existential threat of terrorism, each and every mass killing and police shooting involved one or a few men who simply made a decision.
I would love to tackle the massive social problems listed above, but really I want to know what I can do today to make a difference.
A couple times a week, something happens that makes me want to hurt my child.
Maybe she’s cranky or tired or just being a two year old. I’m for sure tired, probably hungry, and have hit my limit for irrational screaming, her constant refusal to eat, and purposeful mess-making.
It would be so easy to smack her upside the face or throw her against the wall.
But in those moments I take a deep breath, use my low, calm voice and respond to the little imp in a healthy way.
I make a decision to respond to my mounting frustration and, yes, rage, with at worst resigned patience and at best compassion and love.
My child deserves a measured response and so does our world.
I remember how it felt to be spanked (and I mean really hit, with a switch or a hand) and that I used to flinch if my dad moved too quickly around me. We laugh about it now, but I’ve had hours and hours of therapy and life coaching, read a ton of books, found Jesus and yoga and meditation, and am lucky to have a healthy relationship with my dad.
So the desire to hit my adorable, bright, precious baby on occasion takes me completely by surprise.
Whether it’s primal instinct or my failing as a human being, I also know with my rational mind that I must hold myself to a higher standard. Regardless of the reason for these seemingly uncontrollable urges, hitting her is not an option.
When my husband and I fight, I don’t want to hit him. (He never raises his voice. Thank God I married a British man.) But sometimes I want to hit someTHING. That scary beast of anger is back and demands release. Fortunately pillows are the main victims in our house, but it’s still so frightening to feel that level of anger engulf me, an otherwise healthy, functioning adult.
Then I imagine the lives of moms and dads and children who haven't had access to the therapy, the catharsis of healing, and the tools and support to choose different actions in the wake of intense emotions.
No wonder humans have suffered generations of abuse, neglect, mental illness, addictions, and violence.
Terrorists, mass murderers, and racist cops don't exist in a vacuum. They didn’t decide in one moment to shoot 54 people or make a bomb or that people who have a different skin tone or who wear uniforms aren’t really people.
It took years to get to the events we’ve all seen documented on the news.
These men let their anger drive them; they abandoned love long ago. They made that decision.
But it’s not entirely their fault. You see, they are clinging to a me-versus-them dualistic paradigm that can’t exist in the face of true inclusion, empathy, and love.
But clearly no one close to them showed them what inclusion, empathy, and love look and feel like.
And lest you think I’m trying to blame the parents of perpetrators of violence, don’t get indignant just yet.
What I am saying is that if we want to see our world change for the better, then we must take responsibility in our own families (and/or families of choice) to model and teach compassion and empathy for those who are different from us, emotional resilience, and healthy communication and conflict resolution skills.
So it’s with great humility that I offer a suggestion to all of those who want to know what to do in the face of the senseless violence, hurt, and anger that are engulfing our country.
I believe that the solution to this systemic violence starts at home.
Learn to channel your anger. Be a healthier adult. Teach your children how to solve problems with others calmly, respectfully, and with empathy.
This is what healthy conflict resolution looks like, and it can improve the way we all interact with each other. Healthy conflict resolution must begin in the home, yet it’s often the last place we think about it.
The cliché “we hurt most the ones we love the most” is quite apt because we often behave badly within our primary relationships, with our parents or children, siblings, spouse, best friend.
Physical wounds heal, but the psychological and emotional wounds of abuse and neglect are what linger. I'm going to stop short of saying there's a direct road from childhood abuse to terrorist or from corporal punishment to twitchy cop. But I'd be very curious to know more about the perpetrators’ primary relationships.
How did they become the people they are? What factors contributed to their desensitization, fear, poor judgment, or violent tendencies? Surely someone taught them to tie their shoes. Did that someone also teach them that people of other races are different and less than human? That violence solves conflicts? That violence is, in fact, normal?
Of course we feel outrage and sadness when we tally the bloodshed of the past few years.
And I do want our country to unite to address the larger institutionalized problems that make this violence all too common.
But we cannot as a country deny our own personal racism and inherent violence. We must begin with the individual.
So, how can we make the world a safer place by having healthier arguments with our teenager/mom/brother/spouse?
1. Take responsibility for how you handle anger, arguments, misplaced trust, and fear.
2. Cultivate empathy by imagining what it might feel like to be someone else for a day, an hour, a minute.
3. Apologize sincerely and ask for forgiveness when you've done something wrong.
4. Look at the plight of those less fortunate instead of turning away or ignoring them completely.
5. Notice when you resort to all/nothing statements with your friends and family like, “You always do this, Mom!”
6. Catch yourself out in blaming language like, “How could you do this again?"
7. Be proactive and seek out what you don’t know. If you don’t know how to handle your emotions, look for tools to help you. If you don’t know how to have difficult conversations, create a script. If you don’t know what healthy boundaries look like, study some examples.
Every single one of the perpetrators of these heinous acts is someone’s family. So start there, in your own family. Cultivate compassion and fight fair.
People with empathy and healthy conflict resolution skills don’t shoot men in the street or in front of four-year-olds.
I hope that if we all begin to cultivate these skills as a society, we’ll have far fewer violent events to mourn in the future and a culture that grows tired of the behaviors and beliefs that give rise to them in the first place.