Nobody knows why Adam Lanza shot 20 small children and six adults many times. How a human being becomes a monster is something complex. The consensus is that he was a psycho who went off. Dismissing him as a violent nut-job, however, is too convenient for a nation where mass shootings are becoming common. None of us, though, could have contemplated 20 six- and seven-year-olds shot many times.
TRUTHâ€ˆREGARDLESSâ€ˆOFâ€ˆCONSEQUENCESThe United States is becoming an angrier place, with more people, especially men, feeling disenfranchised, lonely, broken, and in despair. When that anger turns to rage, it is downright dangerous. Yes, guns make it easier for that rage to become deadly – and only cowards would refuse to hold a national conversation now about gun laws, wherever that leads – but it is also undeniable that if there were not so many twisted, furious, and incensed people in our country, there would not be people pulling the trigger.
The Torah reading last week spoke of the ordeal of Joseph. After being sold into slavery, by his own brothers, he rises to a position of great power through his God-given gift of interpreting dreams. When those same brothers are forced to come down to Egypt from Canaan to buy food amid a regional famine, the Bible says tellingly: “And Joseph recognized his brothers, but they did not recognize him.”
Really? He was their brother. Yes, he was older now. Yes, he was in a much more powerful social position. But who does not recognize a brother?
The deeper meaning of the verse, however, is that they never recognized him, even as a child. Consumed by jealousy, they had stripped him of his humanity. A victim always remembers his tormentors, but the tormentors rarely recognize their victim, even when its their own flesh and blood. The process of murdering someone involves first degrading them in one’s mind, denying their personhood, and transforming them into a focus of rage. Joseph’s brothers could not see a brother who was always invisible to them.
Before Lanza committed mass murder against children, he murdered his mother. Rage does not recognize flesh and blood. Anger knows nothing of family or loved ones.
Controlling anger may not control monsters such as Lanza. From my experience, people become enraged when they do not feel valued. They become angry when they feel overlooked. We have to create a culture that celebrates the individual gifts of individual citizens and makes people feel like they belong.
Lanza partially fits that profile. At 20, he may not have been old enough to experience the many disappointments that would make him hate the world, but media reports have him as a lifelong oddball. He would often be seen around his Connecticut town standing on street corners staring at people. People walked by him to avoid him because he was so weird. He may have been a nut and he may have been dangerous, but he also epitomized the disenfranchised, the disaffected, and perhaps also the insane.
Of course, it is a fools’ game to try and discern what precisely motivated his diabolical evil.
Anger in America, however, must be addressed.
In my 20-year career as a marriage and relationships counselor, I have never seen so many brothers and sisters fighting over money, with jealousy and envy ripping apart families, or men who are unemployed or underemployed feeling so desperately worthless.
We in the United States so narrowly define success in material terms that there is little room left for soulfulness. Failure to climb the material ladder results in feelings of inferiority. Ever more these days men are feeling like failures and losers. Fuming and indignant at a society that they feel belittles them, they want to punish that society.
Right now in our country we have four principal categories of success: wealth, fame, power, and beauty. We read constantly about the man who is in the Forbes 400, the movie star who dates other movie stars, the political figure who is on the rise, and the supermodel who has the world at her feet. What we need to read more about are ordinary men and women who are fantastic because they are good husbands, who are special because they are loving wives, who are remembered because they are super moms, who are appreciated because they are great dads.
Simply put, the money-and-success culture in which we are immersed is making too many men feel like failures. This is especially true in a time of high unemployment and a bad economy. Men need to feel like a million dollars – not when they make a million dollars, but when they read their children bedtime stories. Men need to feel like they are winners – not when they win the football pool, but when they sit with their children to watch the game. We need to ensure that we give people our respect and attention not for who they are, but for what they are -decent and kind and caring.
We also need to fix families. As a culture, we cannot just obsess over gay marriage; we need to obsess about fixing broken marriages. Lanza was a child of divorce – a fact not much focused on in the media – and divorce brings in its wake its own kind of rage. We have to bring brothers and sisters closer together, and end family feuds that rob people of relationships with those who love them most, leaving them more isolated and alone.
Ultimately, there are no easy solutions to the epidemic-in-the-making of mass shootings in the United States. There is an easy way, however, to make people feel more cherished and less alien. We can start with a simple teaching of the Talmud that I have always found profound. “Greet every person with a warm demeanor.” The Talmud then says of the great mishnaic sage Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai, “no man ever gave him greeting first, even a non-Jew in the street.”
A small hello on a street corner, even to someone who seems like an unsociable oddity, might sometimes be enough to remind that person that he or she is part of a larger human family.