Take a moment and think about the individuals who were the shooters in events such as Sandy Hook Elementary, the Aurora movie theater, the Arizona shootings, Columbine and so on. What were some of the common characteristics that come to mind when you think of the individuals who perpetrated these violent acts?

Most likely you imagine individuals who felt alone and isolated. They lack a degree of bonding to other people. In many cases, they have been bullied. In their isolation, they retreated into fantasy worlds where violence was a key component. Violent video games fed their fantasy. They felt resentment towards their parents and others. Access to guns allowed their frustration to spillover into real violence.

Admittedly, not every one of these killers met everyone of these characteristics. There is no denying however that there was in every case some inner turmoil stirred by a lack of connectedness to other humans. This lack of connectedness allow these individuals to see those that they killed as objects, not people, not souls, not individuals like themselves with desires and aspirations.

This reminds me of the classic psychological study done by Harry Harlow in the 1950s. If you’ve ever taken a psychology class, you probably remember the pictures of chimpanzees who were taken away from their mothers and put in a cage with a cloth covered wire facsimile of their mother. The chimps held tightly to the wire “mother” in a desire for connection. Here’s a link to Harlow’s study. In retrospect, the study seems awfully cruel – yet the point is very clear: we have an innate need for love and affection and if withheld it can have detrimental psychological impacts.

No doubt withholding love to children can contribute to their inability to bond. But at the other extreme, some say that the excessive reinforcing of a child’s worth by doting parents can contribute to the child being overly self-centered. This was the point of a recent popular book The Narcissism Epidemic by Jean Twenge and Keith Campbell. Although I’m not sure I agree with all their findings, but anyone paying attention can’t deny the fact that there is good evidence that Americans are becoming selfish and disconnected. We care only for ourselves, and maybe a handful of others around us that are either our family or share our beliefs. We have difficulty extending our circle of care and concern to more people. People “out there” are at best non-entities or at worst competitive foes.

The bottom line: many Americans do not feel bonded to other people.

Why is this? Let’s consider for a moment the wisdom of Abraham Maslow and his hierarchy of needs. As most of us know, Maslow studied human motivation and was able to create a theory of what motivates us which has held up well through time. Simply stated, we humans must meet basic needs before we can turn our attention to higher needs. If at any time lower needs are not met, we regress to focusing only upon their being met. Moving from lower to higher needs, Maslow tracked them in this order: physiological needs (air, water, food); safety and security needs (shelter, access to health care, base level of income); love and belongingness needs (sense of connectedness to others); self-esteem needs (a feeling of being worthy, frequently associated with our accomplishments); self-actualization needs (becoming all we can be in this life).
Maslow later characterize the first four “needs levels” as being rooted in a sense of “deficiency”. We feel lack in our lives and we are trying to fill the hole. On the other hand, his highest identified need of self-actualization was rooted in a sense of “being”, a feeling that we have abundance in our lives from which we want to give. Deficiency needs are rooted in survival. Our being needs come from a sense of thriving.

As America faces within its population a greater split between the haves and the have-nots, this latter growing group is motivated by a sense of survival – trying to meet basic needs. Many in this group find themselves trying to ensure they maintain a basic standard of living – decent wages, health care, food on the table, a roof over the family. They are in competition with others for limited resources so as to survive.

Yet, even beyond that is a large group that may feel safe and secure but unloved and disconnected. There may be some degree of friends and family to whom they feel bonded, but yet they are disconnected to most people. When they look out at life, they feel more separate and apart from people “out there” and in competition with them than connected and supported by them.

Even if they have a degree of love and connectedness in their life, their efforts to meet their self-esteem needs get bogged down in competition with others. If they define their sense of self-worth in materialistic ways – “my degree of self-worth relates to my degree of financial worth” – then competition with others limits their connectedness.

Many social scientists have pointed out that children develop through common stages of expanding their care and concern as they grow up. Early on, they are focused only on their own needs – this is called being egocentric. A certain age, they are able to relate to their family and friends – this is called being ethnocentric. Most people stop here in their development although their circle may expand to include more people such as those who believe as they do, hold the same religious faith, be of the same ethnicity, live in the same country. There is a higher stage called world centric where we are able to expand our care and concern to the entire planet.

Most Americans are stuck in egocentric or some small range of ethnocentric behavior. The people they have care and concern for is all too often a very small circle. This lack of feeling bonded to others allows violent behavior to be a natural response to “those out there” whom we don’t care about. This is the root cause of America’s violence which we truly need to address!

So how did we get here?

We explore that issue next in part three of this five-part series.

Mark Gilbert

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Check out all of Mark Gilbert’s books—available at Amazon. Click here to visit his Author Page. This includes his recent one Our Spiritual Rights and Responsibilities. In this book, he offers what he suggests are the 5 basic rights we all possess by virtue of our being these spiritual beings on planet Earth — and our 2 responsibilities we all hold in relation to one another! Check it out!