Friday, August 07, 2009

Thoughts on the Pittsburgh shooting tragedy

Like everyone, I was shocked to read this week that a gunman opened fire at a health club in suburban Bridgeville, PA, killing three people and wounding many others before committing suicide. Perhaps even a little more so because I used to live in Bridgeville, and if there was ever a real-life version of Beaver Cleaver's neighborhood, this was it.

Before he committed his act, this seemingly intelligent, educated, and gainfully employed person left behind a blog about how rejected he felt by women - no girlfriend since 1984, and no intimate relationships for 19 years. As he put it, "Women just don't like me. There are 30 million desirable women in the US (my estimate) and I cannot find one. Not one of them finds me attractive." And yet his neighbors describe him as an anti-social loner who revealed little about himself.

Which got me to thinking how many people I've known personally who fit that description. Alone well into middle age, but not by choice. No meaningful relationships. Not happy with life. And perhaps more than a little mad at the world about their lot. Most of them would never hurt a flea, much less pick up a gun. But all of them are suffering. And there are lots of them out there.

Yet none of these people realize that they are the jailers of their own prison. I often refer to them as "seagulls" because they swoop in, dump all over my wife and I with their complaints and problems, and then fly off without so much as a word about us. They never ask how we are, rarely if ever share interesting observations about the world around them, and can't bring themselves to listen to us without immediately turning the conversation back onto themselves. And yet they universally blame their situation on bad luck, fate, or society itself - never the person in the mirror.

What is perhaps most sad is that, like the perpetrator of this shooting, these people are otherwise pretty intelligent. Often they have advanced degrees or good jobs. But they still come home alone every night, lack intimacy and meaningful friendships, and can't for the life of themselves figure out why. And it's not just a matter of the breaks in their lives. On their very best days they probably still won't be able to connect with people, while the ones who care will still be reaching out on their worst days.

Many people are going to dismiss this shooter as an isolated nutcase with a personality disorder. And they may have a point: most of us don't react to our problems by gunning down innocent people. But there is also a social lesson here.

We, as a society, don't value how to communicate authentically with other people. We don't teach it in schools. We don't measure or coach people's ability to do it. We don't reach out to our friends about it. And most of us can go through an entire career without having it evaluated as part of our performance: in fact, our bosses are often as likely as any of us to lack compassion, interest, or the ability to connect with people. But these are all procedural skills, in my view, not just good attitudes - things our parents, educators, and leaders should be worrying about every bit as much as our grades or productivity.

My heart and my prayers go out to the victims of this terrible tragedy. As we grieve their loss and honor their memory, I hope some of us can start envisioning a society where we start learning and cherishing the simple art of talking to one another. If we did, we might start creating meaning and intimacy in a lot of people's lives - and perhaps in some cases even prevent a tragedy.

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