Thursday, April 3, 2014

Mass Shootings, Work Conflict and Love

I was talking with a colleague today about the shootings at Ft. Hood and her response was that we need better security on military bases. Then we moved on to talking about an issue at work between two colleagues that she was anxious about. I talked with another colleagues about the work issue later and she was upset about it too. To both of them I commented that it seems part of the problem is that we don't have solid relationships amongst all the different people in our department. We are so busy working that we don't spend much time getting to know each other. Then when problems come up we aren't working from a place of mutual trust and respect. Instead we end up viewing the other person as an antagonist, someone who is motivated to harm us or at least make our lives harder. I think everyone ends up feeling unappreciated and not valued.

I was thinking about this again as I read more of the coverage on the Ft. Hood shooting. Beyond the sick, sinking feeling of "again? another mass shooting? what is wrong with us?" and the frustration with all the expected and unhelpful responses (we need more gun control! no, we need to arm everyone! he was mentally ill and the military doesn't do enough to help! it's unfair to stigmatize mental illness!) it came to me that maybe, fundamentally, these problems are the same. That the answer to mass shootings isn't more security and the answer to work problems isn't more rules. Instead, the answer to both problems lies in how we approach each other.

On a fundamental level, in our society, we (speaking broadly here) don't see or treat other people as people. We see them as objects that either fulfill our wishes or frustrate them. Our friends are our friends because they tell us we are right, allowing us to prop up our shaky sense of self with a sense of belonging. Our enemies are people who oppose us, which challenges our sense of self. So we respond by demonizing them to shore ourselves up. We might have one or two people we see as individuals, maybe more if we're both lucky and mature. But in general we fail to treat other people as we would wish to be treated ourselves.

I'm not trying to throw stones here. I confess I've done this myself. I've attributed malice to colleagues at work instead of recognizing a difference in perspective and acknowledging that we are all under a lot of stress. I've chosen to associate with people whose views I knew were similar to mine rather than seeking broader perspectives. I've seen other people less as distinct, precious, infinitely valuable individuals and more as objects that are either helping me or frustrating me in achieving my own ends. I've done this, and I certainly have enough training and experience to know that it is both unhealthy and morally wrong. I have less excuse than many other people. So I'm not trying to be accusatory. I'm just trying to describe how I see the problem, what perhaps may be the underlying cause of a disease that's infecting our whole society, not just the military. A disease that takes on a thousand different forms. A disease that in extreme, late stages tells people that it's okay to take a gun and open fire on an unsuspecting crowd of other people.

I've been reading a book lately entitled "Disunity in Christ" by Christina Cleveland. She is a social psychologist and the book is an analysis of the ways people use groups to feel good about themselves and how that creates in-groups, out-groups, and a lack of cohesiveness within the Christian church. I haven't finished the book yet but so far I find her observations and her psychological science to be spot on. Much of what she is saying reminds me of another book, "Searching for God Knows What" by Donald Miller. In this book Donald Miller writes about what he calls the "lifeboat" phenomenon; the idea that we are all trying to assert our significance and prove our worth. Specifically we behave as if we are attempting to prove that we are worthy of a seat in the lifeboat and shouldn't be thrown overboard.

I am not sure yet where Christina Cleveland is going to take her book. Donald Miller concludes in his that G-D is standing outside the lifeboat, telling us that we are all worthy and that we are all significant. We don't need to compete for popularity or shore up our self esteem or try to feel good about ourselves, because G-D is there, loving us. He is even telling us we don't need the lifeboat. He is calling us to walk on water, to live in his infinite love.

I regularly tell my daughter that she is precious, that she is my treasure, that she is a blessing to me and that I love her so much, and that G-D loves her even more. I tell her that G-D made her exactly who and how she is and that G-D never makes junk. I pray for her to experience G-D's love. I want her to live her life in the beauty and confidence of that love, to be secure enough to be brave, to face her challenges, to admit her wrongs, to grow without fear. I want her to not need to demonize those who oppose her but to be able to love, to love both the people she likes and the people who really challenge her because she has been so filled up with love that she truly, genuinely loves herself.

I don't have any easy answers, not to the problems at my work and not to the problems of mass shootings. I'm talking about love, but love is not an easy answer because love isn't some squishy sentimental thing. I don't think it's a noun at all. It's a verb. Love is a tough, committed discipline. It's an action and a choice. It's something you have to wake up and choose every day. It's something that you get wrong and try again and get wrong again and keep trying. It's recognizing other people as truly other, as precious for themselves and not for what they give you. It's persistently, patiently, uncompromisingly seeking the good of each one of us messed up and frightened individuals. It's remembering, as C.S. Lewis said, that each human soul has the potential for unimaginable glory - just because she is born. Just because he exists.

I read somewhere that people love themselves quite naturally but as a psychiatrist I don't see that as true. Most people don't love themselves very much at all. They might go easy on themselves, or spoil themselves, or indulge themselves, or hide themselves in any number of ways, but it's really rare for me to meet someone who genuinely seems to love him or herself. And I think if you don't love yourself it's really hard to love anyone else. And if you don't feel loved by others it's hard to love yourself and then once again hard to anyone else. It's hard to bring that tough, committed discipline into your life if you feel empty and small and unloved.

In the end, what I would want to say to my colleagues, both those in conflict and those who were stressed about it, is that they are valued, precious, and worthy. That they are loved, although we don't talk about love at work because it's unprofessional. So, I don't say it. Instead my goal is to live it, to demonstrate it what I do that I believe G-D loves them and therefore I love them too. I think the Christian faith was supposed to bring that kind of love the world. I think our good news is supposed to be that each of us is loved deeply and passionately and infinitely by G-D. We've royally screwed up that mission, but it's still good news and a true statement. I think the world really needs to hear it, to know it, to start living it. I don't think we're going to be able to stop killing each other until we start living in that love. So that's what I want to say to you too. You are precious. You are valued. You are completely, totally, infinitely, irrevocably, forever loved.

Related Posts:
Redeeming A Symbol
Choosing Hope: A Response to the Navy Yard Shootings
The Christmas Story for Three-Year-Olds and Adults