I’m going to admit something that maybe I shouldn’t. It may be unwise, but my overarching point is: it shouldn’t be. Creating a society where we can admit how we feel – no matter how seemingly unflattering, no matter how suggestive of immaturity or self-centeredness or other traits that are deemed less-than-noble – may just be key.
So here it is: sometimes, when violent sprees happen, I identify ever so slightly with the killers. Not because I’m violent. I hate violence so much, I don’t even kill bugs unless they’re impinging directly on the safety or cleanliness of my surroundings. But, when there’s a close community rallying against an outsider, I wonder about the outsider. Sometimes, depending on the circumstances, I feel the outsider’s anger on a level that seems intuitive. I look at videos and photographs of a community rallying together, juxtaposed with the killer who never fit in, and, if I’m honest with myself, a piece of me feels much more like the proclaimed alien than like the broader community holding hands and supporting each other.
It’s not that I want to kill. I hate death as much as anyone could, and I’m open enough to mystical potential to fear bringing death on a spider; snuffing out a human life feels unimaginable, horrifying, beyond all possibility. All of existence may be entwined in a metaphysical web, and I want no part of adding an avoidable death to the mix. But, when I hear about the high school kid who never found his niche, who was banished from a community or school and then lost his way further and further until the world seemed inhospitable and worthy of deep, festering resentment… should I say it? I’m in this far, and I tend to finish what I start. I hear that kid. On some level, I relate to him.
I never found my niche in high school either. As an adult, I still haven’t found it. I feel like time is moving much faster than I can handle, and I’m not at all ready to be where I am. I can’t tell that glorious story of the high school outlier who matured and came into her own, with a grand piece of earth and life that feels welcoming and affirming. Instead, I feel confused, and, at times, I worry that my highest dreams are hopeless.
I still struggle… and – do you want to know this? – sometimes it makes me angry. Not violently angry, certainly not murderously angry. But, nonetheless, a real kind of angry. I ask why I was thrown into a world that just doesn’t seem in sync with my needs. Why haven’t I found a way to learn what I need to learn or achieve what I’ve always hoped to achieve? Why, when others claim to feel much more comfortable with themselves as time passes because they’ve accomplished so much and come so far, do I sometimes feel like nothing has changed except the likely foreclosing of opportunity?
Of course, when I express these thoughts to people who have an intimate sense for my life, they seem shocked, and note various reasons why I should feel great about what I have achieved. But the mind is a universe, and sometimes I do lapse into major disappointment.
So, when I see photographs of a murderer who was at odds with his community, who never fit in, who lashed out in fury against a group which supposedly included him but in fact kept him out… I mean… I despise him. I could have been one of those teachers or kids. How dare he snuff out the lives of people who had little or nothing to do with his basic trauma, his deep-seated lack of adjustment? But I also feel this tiny glimmer of connection with him, as a fellow outsider.
I find myself asking why, despite this basic connection, I would never commit physical violence and don’t even remotely wish I could try it. Part of it is likely simple biology. These crimes are overwhelmingly committed by dudes. Perhaps I lack the precipitating hormonal concentration, some kind of physical sense that pushes males to enact physical pain, and/or some kind of socialization that tends to accompany defined maleness in our culture. Beyond maleness, there’s likely something else going on with the killers’ physiology: a particular kind of neurological structure, a tendency towards a certain kind of physical arousal.
But I feel it goes much deeper than that, reaching into the basics of self, soul, and desire. Despite any frustration, any sense of terror or even possible hopelessness, I express myself. Always have. If something bothers me, I tell my family and my friends; if it inspires me, I publish writing about it. This is easy for me: I don’t need much encouragement. With this expression comes release, calm, even joy. There’s nothing bottled up – it all pours out.
Occasionally, I’m chided for being too open in my writing. I ignore those admonitions and keep on sharing, because sharing is my lifeline – my bridge to a sense of wholeness and belonging. If I share and someone resonates with me, I’ve achieved connection. I’m no longer the confused character on the sidelines of life. I matter, and so does the person I’ve reached.
I teach at a university, and I encourage this kind of openness among my students. Every assignment has a first-person option, a potential slant that allows people to plumb their own emotions, ideas, and life histories while exploring the topic at hand. Students frequently thank me for the opportunity, telling me that my class was the first where they felt able to write in a way that brought personal meaning; that, for the first time, they wrote for themselves, not just for a grade or as a hurdle to jump over.
This amazes me. Why don’t teachers routinely encourage students to share themselves within their work – not just their analytical minds or memorization skills, but their deep personal thoughts on the relevant issues, their related desires, beliefs, and fears? In many cases, this would surely encourage students to assimilate the issues into their overall thought patterns, to keep some memory of their explorations as they move into the future. What speaks to us tends to stay with us. And teachers can encourage students to tackle questions in ways that speak to them… but, typically, they choose much more detached assignments and educational experiences.
Assigning material that involves deep, fearless sharing can encourage similar expression among students. If a teacher assigns an essay by someone who struggles with violent urges, students will see that it’s possible to write about this problem. If they watch videos of people discussing their desire to kill or physically harm others (and they surely exist: check out Aaron Stark’s chilling, moving, heartrending video describing his violent designs during his high school days, and his relief that his plan was foiled) they’ll realize that talking about these thoughts is also doable and natural.
When students write or talk about this sort of thing, it comes out. People know. Red flags can be tackled. Students who feel rage, corrosive alienation, or other dangerous emotions could be encouraged to bring their feelings out and perhaps talk to professionals skilled at handling this sort of thing and deflecting the worst possibilities. At times, sharing what seems horrific can lead to artistic or emotional beauty. Praising the students who achieve this – letting them know that they’ve brought something glorious into the world – may well help some of them feel wanted and able to bring something profoundly positive to their communities.
I have no illusion that this would solve our problem with violence. Some people, like Aaron Stark, are very reformable: a little love when they feel unlovable, a little encouragement when they feel worthless, can transform rage and horror into hope and even comfort. Simply knowing how they feel can push people around them into action. Others may be inherently sociopathic: they may love to see others suffer; they may lack conscience and empathy to such a degree that no intervention would work. This personality type is one key reason that I wish guns could pretty much vanish from our social landscape, except for particular professional situations. But, even if guns remain as common as ever, some of the problem could be reduced if we allowed and encouraged all students, including those with socially unacceptable thoughts and urges, to express themselves. Guns are a huge piece of the problem – and so is festering rage that has no outlet for expression and healing. Ideally, both will be tackled. If one seems impossible to fix, the other can still appear on our agenda.
Encouragement of self-expression can and should reach far beyond our schools. The stigma against it is often fierce. At social gatherings, parties, and professional meetings, we typically expect people to be “up,” to seem pleasant, to avoid complaining. The complainer is often seen as a downer or a pill. Social media posts tend towards the positive: The great time! The enormous success! The overwhelming sense of love! Those who aren’t having a great time or achieving enormous success often feel silenced, like they have nothing relevant to share. And those who feel they lack love can fear that they are too far gone to express themselves and receive any level of support from their fellow humans.
I’ve tried to work against all this, sharing my deepest thoughts in person and online. The results are often wonderful: others do likewise, and we bond in a real, true way that reaches the heart of who we are and how we want to move through the world.
More often than I’d hope, I encounter pushback. “Was that conversation for real? If so, you are truly not the person I assumed you were,” an acquaintance wrote to me, after a Facebook discussion that involved some honest – and often not objectively flattering – sharing among many different people.
Yes, it was for real. And I’m not sorry that I blasted her assumptions, however positive they may have been. I shared, so did many others… and, within that process, I believe we reached a level of healing. If we can choose healing over squelching our truest thoughts, and overcome our fear that honesty will render us inherently unlovable, we can move towards making this world more accepting, more hopeful, more honest, and more safe.
Stephanie Wellen Levine is the author of Mystics, Mavericks, And Merrymakers: An Intimate Journey Among Hasidic Girls: winner of Moment Magazine’s 2004 Emerging Writer Book Award. Currently, Stephanie is on a spiritual quest as she completes a second book and teaches at Tufts University.