It’s been another frustrating week in the United States as we suffer through another mass shooting. As I write this, investigators are still seeking out the causes for the recent events in San Bernardino. Current evidence is pointing towards a couple with sympathies towards extremist Islamic groups. President Obama went on national TV Sunday night and said the married couple who committed the violence “had gone down the dark path of radicalization”. At the moment, there is no evidence yet that they were part of a larger terrorist organization, but no doubt this tragic event will lead us towards stepping up antiterrorist security measures and the tendency of some to blame the Muslim faith.

Yet, in this sad moment I am called to step back and ask a more fundamental question – why are we killing each other at all — and what can we do to stop it?

It’s one thing to assign blame towards the perpetrators of a particular heinous crime, but does that really get at the root cause and move us closer to a long-term solution? Yes, we need to hold those who commit such acts responsible. But will that alone stop the next tragic event? And the next one after that?

Most of us are becoming very frustrated with the degree of violence in this country. Earlier this week in speaking about San Bernardino, Obama expressed frustration over our starting to see these tragedies as “routine”. The news coverage becomes routine, the President’s response becomes routine, the media pundits make the same statements over and over – and we all become a little more numb to the killing and a little bit more fearful about our world.

A report in the Washington Post stated that we were averaging over one mass shooting per day during the year 2015. The New York Times and others disputed those figures. A close read of this “labeling” debate shows that the difference “is in the details” – it’s all in how you define what is a “mass shooting”. In reality, the debate is a distraction from discussing any meaningful solutions.

The inescapable fact is this: our world is filled with way too many occurrences of humans killing other humans. From violence and war around the world – to extremist terrorist groups – to senseless mass killings which appeared to be random – to many other instances of human anger and fear which push us into striking out, we are all affected in some way by the stories of violence in our world.

One can make the case, as Steven Pinker did in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature, that we humans are actually becoming less violent. I hope that he is right. However, our conscious awareness of what is happening globally has expanded to the degree that we feel more directly impacted by events around the world than in the past. Hence, the number of total acts of violence globally may be going down as described by Pinker, but we are feeling more and more connected to the ones that do occur. San Bernardino, Paris and the Middle East now seem much closer to home they used to be.

Exploring the Reasons for Our Violence

Again, I am calling us to step back and consider that bigger question of why we actually kill one another? What leads one person to strike out in violence against another person?

We all have thoughts on the matter. In times of global tragedies, we often hear discussion of some standard reasons for violence and some typical suggested fixes. Here’s a quick laundry list of some of the rationales that I frequently hear in my circles, you can probably add more to the list:

  • Too many guns, the strong gun lobby, our inability to put in place adequate gun restrictions.
  • Not enough guns and security to deter people from acting violently
  • Mentally ill individuals, an inadequate mental health system, inadequate restrictions towards the mentally ill obtaining guns.
  • Fundamentalist religious beliefs taken to violent extremes (Islamic jihadists, abortion clinic bombers, etc.)
  • Cultural frustration over a historical period of feeling persecuted as a people (based on race, religion, country of origin etc.)
  • Desire for wealth, power and control over people and capital.
  • Frustration over a lack of wealth, power and control over one’s destiny (either as an individual or as a group).
  • Revenge for perceived violent acts directed towards you or your group.
  • Violence induced by some kind of mind control by others with sinister motives.
  • A corporate “military-industrial complex” driven by profits that works to maintain fear and war.

To be clear, I’m not debating here the validity of any of these so-called reasons for violence, I’m just calling them to our attention as these are the reasons we usually discuss. There is probably a degree of truth to most of these reasons, but ultimately it is my belief that these are all just symptoms and human expressions related to an even bigger and deeper root cause.

The Bigger Question – Going Deeper

A quick Google search of the terms “reasons for violence” or “root causes of violence” or something similar will find you a lot of information. This question has been studied, debated and reported upon by many individuals. However in my opinion, much of what you find there – as well as my list above – doesn’t really get down to the basic root cause.

And what it that cause? It is that we humans have evolved through a physical, animalistic past where we have normalized violence as a necessary means to our survival and enhanced reproductive success. In other words, somewhere within us is an evolutionary hardwiring that ultimately convinces us we are living in a “dog eat dog world”. And this evolutionary past has led us to believing a fundamental underlying story about life and its meaning.

Our central story is one that says we are individuals separate and apart from everyone else, that we are struggling with one another for limited resources and power, that we are all in some way either “winners or losers” in this worldly competition. Our story can push us into a mental position of feeling like a cornered animal who either has to strike out at others or die. Or, our story can push us into being the aggressor who is cornering others before they can corner us.

If you go back and look at the reasons for violence I listed in the previous section, you can see that behind every reason is an individual or group who is motivated by the belief in our old animalistic story of survival of the fittest. They are rooted in the story of kill or be killed.

Almost 3 years ago, I published here on Conscious Bridge a five-part series on violence in America. It’s as relevant today as it was then. Here are links to all five parts:

Although I certainly encourage you to read those articles, I will summarize here that in that series I stated that the root of our real problem is our sense of feeling disconnected to one another.  I still believe that is true. The suggested solutions described were a shift in our personal consciousness towards realizing our interconnectedness and using our social systems to ensure that every person has their basic needs met so that they can be free to focus upon higher human needs.

In other words, the less we feel like a cornered animal or an animal who needs to corner others in a preventative strike, the less violence we will perpetrate towards one another. The fact is, we can overcome our evolutionary past and create for ourselves a new basic story.

A New Story?

Yes, one other way we could view our necessary solution to the problem of our killing one another is to consider that we need a new underlying story to guide us into the future. David Korten in his recent book Change the Story, Change the Future, says that at the root of our economic problems are beliefs in old outmoded stories about life. He outlines three basic stories which he believes guide the values and actions of most people on the planet:

  • “The distant patriarch” – viewing the world is created by a distant God who still continues to rule his creation in a separate, sacred dimension.
  • “The grand machine” – viewing the world much like a mechanical clock where everything is governed by a combination of physical mechanism and chance and there is no larger meaning or purpose to our existence.
  • “The mystical unity” – viewing the world out there as an illusion created by the human ego that separates us from the reality of an eternal oneness.

Students of Spiral Dynamics will see similarity between these stories and the levels of existence that developmental model describes. One can also see in Korten’s “stories” similarities with the three basic worldviews I frequently write about here on Conscious Bridge – the traditional, materialistic and cultural creative viewpoints.

Korten describes problems with each of these stories and calls us to view life through a new lens he calls the “living universe”. In this new story, we see the earth as “a wondrous, resilient, adaptive living being to which we must adapt – or die”. When we take on this story, he says we will each recognize that we are “an intelligent, self directing participant in a conscious, interconnected self organizing cosmos on a journey of self-discovery toward ever greater complexity, beauty, awareness and possibility”.

Although much of Korten’s book is devoted to how this new story can create what he calls “a living economy”, we can apply the same ideas to how such a new story can reduce human violence. When we see ourselves as part of a larger living whole, we begin to realize how our violence against ourselves equates to a type of cancer causing harm to its greater life form — in this case, the Earth. Living life from such a living universe story calls us to reframe our motivations towards being less selfish and being more in service to the higher life of which we are a part.  Such self-less thoughts and actions would directly lead to less violence.

This idea is much like the concept that I wrote about in my book Our Spiritual Evolution. There, I pointed out that we have evolved through this animalistic past and that our future evolution calls us to our spiritual future. At this point in our history, we are living simultaneously in two worlds – one driven by our animal needs and the other driven by our higher spiritual needs. Our violence towards one another is rooted in our past, our expanded care and concern for one another is rooted in our future.  The numerous problems we face on Earth are all guideposts calling us to the possibilities of a higher and better future.  Our experience of violence is asking us to find a new route towards the world we want to live in.

It’s often said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. Our recent debates and efforts to curtail human violence seem to fall into this definition. Maybe it’s time to do something differently?

A new story can lead to new insights and new actions that can take us to new places.  This solution may sound like it is not grounded in “reality” at first, but this new viewpoint can actually guide us towards making decisions that serve the Earth and everyone on it. Yes, we can and should address the symptoms of our killing each other.  But at the same, time I would urge us to find ways to shift our underlying perception of the Earth and our place on it.  Eventually, these unacceptable acts of violence are calling us to:

  • Recognize the underlying story (beliefs) that guides our values and actions — and to let go of old stories that no longer serve us.
  • Develop a new story about this living universe and begin to realize that the Earth and everything and everyone on it is connected.
  • Realize that it serves our individual self interest to ensure that everyone has their basic human needs met and that everyone, with no exceptions, is treated with dignity and respect.
  • Expand our circle of care and concern to encompass more and more people on this planet.
  • Put an end to the violence against ourselves.

Mark Gilbert


For more writings by Mark Gilbert, check out his four books available on Amazon.

Photo credit: Barbara Müller-Walter / / CC BY-ND