We're all looking for answers regarding the tragedy in Connecticut. I've heard some interesting ones: "Develop a test to see who's going to be violent and institutionalize them." "Have armed guards in all the schools." "People can hunt, but they rent the gun for the day and return it when they're finished." These were responses within the first two days. Many more will come.
Experts are wading in with all kinds of theories. The only one most people agree on so far is that we will never completely eliminate senseless violence. We'll never know what inner turmoil people are going through nor will we ever have a checklist of traits that make these deeply troubled people identifiable "up front."
Certainly there are treatments available for anger and even violent people that reeducate them so they fit reasonable standards of society. There are medications that can ease symptoms so people get to a place where they can confront and even triumph over difficult issues. But for every person that seeks such treatment and even adding the people who are mandated for such treatment, I wonder how many people go un-helped? Is it a 1:100 ratio? 1:1000? My gut feeling is the odds of a person who needs treatment getting the right help at the right time are even longer than that.
If we want to address this problem, and by "we" I mean each and every one of us, there is most certainly something we can do, something each one of us can do, and it's something each of us can do starting today. In a word, it's "engagement."
One of the common elements of troubled people is isolation. They self-isolate for any number of reasons and at the first sign of being "different," they are further isolated by the withdrawal of others. Another issue that troubles me is the celebration of bad behavior. Things that used to be negative are now heroic. "Gangster" (now often referred to as "gangsta"), "gang member," "redneck," all used to have negative connotations. Now they're badges of honor and people wear them proudly. Strange, isn't it, that nastiness is so acceptable now? It's to the point where compassion is viewed with contempt. It's safer to look the other way when someone is in trouble. A kid helping a victim of bullying is likely to be the next victim.
But back to engaging. I'm suggesting that we take every opportunity to engage people that we can. I'm suggesting that we engage individuals who are "different" at every casual chance and then go out of our way to find those people. Obviously, forcing ourselves on someone isn't the point. It's more creating a positive atmosphere around ourselves. You all know people who engage at casual levels, right? People you run into once in a while on the street or the grocery store. You know, those folks who always smile and take 30 seconds or a minute for a little small talk. Again, these aren't people we even know, just people who are pleasant to be around. Are you one? I'm saying we all should be.
These engagements work because they are little bits of pleasantry we all appreciate. Since we know this works, the next step is to do it purposefully. Get in the habit of making eye contact and having some stock statements that elicit replies. "Is it just me or does this store seem extra busy to you?" "Do you remember many Decembers when it was this warm?" "So, have you had to mow your lawn yet?" (Save that one for spring.) Or comment on something the person is doing, or wearing, or just looking at.
This sounds superficial and I guess it is, but doesn't every relationship start out pretty flimsy? And what would happen if all day, every day, people were engaging each other that way? I think it would be especially powerful for people who tend to be those "loners." Even if they are reluctant engagers, this type of atmosphere could make them more comfortable in doing so. I'll bet everyone experiences some of this at this time of year - it's "the Christmas Spirit." Why not expand it to cover the whole year?
I'm thinking we need to educate ourselves by purposefully engaging people who are "different." There's that word again. Because if we engage them, we will find similarities. Visit a nursing home or Bollinger Enterprises, or a Senior Center, or Don Mills Achievement Center; or become a volunteer for Hospice, the Red Cross, Warren General, Warren State Hospital, a nursing home, or New Hope Assistance Dogs, or any other helping organization and see the smiles that come from all the "different" people. Check on volunteer opportunities at schools, too. And get your kids involved in engagement of others, even if it's just meeting that "different" kid in the school hallway at the same place every day with a ready smile and a casual, friendly, comment.
Do these interventions guarantee that there will never be another one of those "different" people who go on a rampage? Of course not. But we can only do what we can do. And one thing we can do is be the best thing that happens to someone each and every day. Who knows, we might just pick up on the depths of someone's despair and we might be able to help somehow.
John Prine said it best in his song "Hello." He was writing about the elderly, but I think it applies to anyone who is "different"
"So if you're walking down the street sometime
And spot some hollow ancient eyes
Please don't just pass 'em by and stare
As if you didn't care, say: "Hello in there, hello."
Gary Lester, M.S., R.T.C., is the executive director of Family Services of Warren County, a charitable agency the helps people with counseling, substance abuse services, and support groups.