Monday, April 06, 2009

Scary, and I think true to some extent

This past week was a horrible week for people killing other people in horrific and frightening ways - first Binghamton, then Pittsburg. (And North Carolina before that).

I don't know what it is about April - but it does seem that often when these things happen (Columbine, Virgina Tech) they are in April. Is it something about the month? Or is it a school-year thing, for the school shooting? Or is there just something about April that brings out the evil?

I know the commentators and the pundits will be out soon about these. (And, I know this is horribly flip and I strain at saying it: but the guy in Pittsburg apparently went on his rampage in part because he was concerned that the Obama administration was going to impose more gun control - way to go, guy, give the gun-control folks even more grounds).

And I am bracing for another round of "oh, those EVIL loners! We must pressure everyone who spends time alone to join the herd so their minds don't turn!" Because **I** am a loner. I like spending time alone. I like the quiet. That doesn't make me evil or dangerous.

Or they'll find out that what these guys had in common was the Internet, and there will be people clamoring for Internet controls. (or even some nutbags, I suppose, who will suggest shutting it down).

Or they'll target video games. Or Marylin Manson music. Or goodness knows what other thing. ("Could it be.....they all ate HIGH FRUCTOSE CORN SYRUP!?!?!")

But Dr. Helen has a perspective that, while a scary thought, makes a lot of sense to me.

She is arguing that these sorts of people are narcissists - with a strong sense of entitlement and an equally strong streak of victimhood:

"I do wonder how much a sense of entitlement (these types of killers often display a sense of narcissism) combined with continued coverage of how bad America is played a part in contributing to this killer's distorted thinking process?"....

She also quotes someone who described Jiverly Wong (the Binghamton shooter) as someone with a strong sense of victimhood - how he felt "America sucks," how he was upset at being picked on for his difficulties learning English.

Later, the good Doctor quotes an article about narcissism, and how it's becoming dangerously pervasive:

"Freud explained narcissism as a failure to grow up. All infants are narcissists, he pointed out, but as we grow, we ought to learn that other people have lives independent of our own. It's not their job to please us, applaud for us or even notice us--let alone die because we're unhappy...

A generation ago, the social critic Christopher Lasch diagnosed narcissism as the signal disorder of contemporary American culture. The cult of celebrity, the marketing of instant gratification, skepticism toward moral codes and the politics of victimhood were signs of a society regressing toward the infant stage."

In a personal observation: there have only been two or three people in my life that I have been genuinely afraid of. As in, afraid enough that if they hadn't gotten out of my life when they did, I would have contemplated something like a restraining order. All of these people had that combination of traits - they felt very self-important, that the world "owed" them in some vague way. And yet, at the same time, NOTHING bad that ever happened to them was in any way their fault or their doing - that there were "people" (again vague) out to get them, and that their happiness was continually being thwarted, and it was NOT FAIR.

The one time I was afraid for my dad's life when he was on campus was when there was a student like that running through the building where he taught - the student had failed chemistry for the second time. He went into the chem office and told them that they were wrong for failing him, they were just trying to prevent him getting ahead in life. Then he threatened the life of his chem prof (and pretty specifically, too, from what I heard). As the campus police were escorting him off, he put his fist through a plate-glass display case. (Fortunately, the campus was smart enough to have him declared an "unwelcome individual" after he got out of lock-up).

I do worry about the things that Christopher Lasch listed - every day, I see people who consider themselves to be victims in all the things that go wrong in their lives. Or people who feel like they're owed special treatment because they've been told they're a "special" person. Or people who are unwilling to work and follow the rules to get what they want.

I don't know what causes that combination of factors - narcissism, entitlement, and victimhood. I do know things that work against them - having achieved through hard work. Having overcome difficulties. A recognition that others are important. Being able to stop and "see the person" - to listen to someone, to what they are saying, to put yourself in their shoes for a moment.

In many cases, I think religious faith of some kind helps to work against that deadly combination - I know in my life my faith helps to keep me humble (works against narcissism), grateful (works against sense-of-entitlement), and cognizant of the fact that often the things I do that are wrong come with consequences AND that there are others suffering more than I ever have (works against the sense of victimhood). I'm certainly not saying faith is ESSENTIAL to avoiding those problems, but I do think it helps.

I think in some respects a strong upbringing may help. My parents (especially my father) taught me that I was NEVER a victim - that even in bad circumstances I could do something to make things better. And they taught me to "see the other person," as I said above - to be compassionate.

I do also think having some success in your life helps. I've been pretty successful, at least by my own definitions: to work at an interesting career that has the potential to help other people, and while doing so, to make enough money to support myself in reasonable comfort. And to make an effort to do something that helps someone in some way every day. And to have enough time for things outside of work.

I suppose I don't know what motivates the violent shooter type because their reality is so different from my own. But I do wonder if perhaps Dr. Helen hasn't figured out a common factor between many of those.

And if she's right, we probably need to begin teaching people to avoid victimhood, and a sense of entitlement. And to do what we can to instill compassion in our kids.

Perhaps even that's not enough. Perhaps there are some people who are either just broken or evil, I don't know. But I know that I once knew someone who was one of those victimized narcissists - and how much that person scared me; it was almost a visceral thing, like the hair standing up on the back of my neck when I was around that person. And so I wonder if my own sense of "something is not right here" would be true in a more general sense.

1 comment:

nightfly said...

Excellent post, Ricki. It's a short step from "they all owe me" to "they will pay for not giving me my due." Not that it happens all the time; it's also a short step to complete self-pity and immobilization. I think it's that third factor you mentioned is the narcissism that makes the mix of aggrievement and entitlement so volatile. And even then it can just sit there, toxic but not explosive. It's hard to tell what finally lights it off, or even if it's the same flame each time.

One thought on faith - I've seen unfortunate examples (to put it mildly) of people who applied their narcissism to belief instead of the other way around. They can't possibly realize a humble God who emptied Himself for us, and who loves us despite our general brokenness. Sadly there are plenty of people who thus imagine that God is rather enamored of them, and will see that they DO get theirs - and you get a cult like the Phelpsians, or some murder-suicide cuckoo-klatch.

I pray that even that slight slivered crack in the armor can admit enough light to shake such people free. It can be a scary world out there.

(w/v - "aftic" - ask about it at work!)