On Guns, Mental Hygiene, and Resilience

December 17, 2012 | By | 15 Replies More

It may surprise people who know me that I am not completely anti-gun. It seems like something I might be.  I don’t like loud noises and I don’t like violence, and killing hurts me. I have to avert my eyes form a lot of TV and movies. But the gun thing is no longer simple for me.  The last time I was stridently anti-gun was while lecturing my father about the dangers of guns. He happened to be holding off a midnight intruder with a hammer and wanted me to go get his gun.  I was a senior in high school and I knew everything and I refused.

The intruder had awakened my parents  by announcing he was a private investigator investigating a murder that was about to take place.  He held a hammer over them. He was all kinds of high and very unpredictable.  My father wrestled him down the stairs, getting the hammer away from him and was standing barefoot in the broken glass of our back door window when I came downstairs.

I didn’t get the gun, and my father was too preoccupied to deal with me. My mother had called a relative who came over with his big gun while we waited for the police. They got lost, we lived in the sticks.  It was a good thing my cousin was there, too, with his big gun. Because when the intruder went for the gun in the holster of the cop who had finally arrived he was helpful in stopping him.  No shots were fired, but additional reinforcements were needed.

I usually tell this story as a funny one.  It can be, within the safety of the present. But it is also terrifying.  Forty-something me looks at high school me and is speechless at my arrogance and my naivete. That story could have ended so very differently and I no longer feel the same way I did in high school about much of anything – weapons included.

I know too many responsible gun owners who I respect and trust to be totally anti-gun.  The discussion we need to have is not pro-gun/anti-gun. Why must we always force our world into stark dichotomies that don’t fit? Guns are tools. They are not inherently evil (Is any device? Is any person? What is evil? I don’t like using that word).  It is true that they are tools for dealing death and dealing death is never something we should do lightly. However, the real problem lies not in the weapon, but in the person wielding it. I have needed the help of a trusted and responsible friend with a gun several times in my life. I’ve been comforted by the presence of a weapon.  I want to tighten access to certain weapons and ammunition, but I do not want to ban all guns.

We need to look at our need for weapons more closely.  Yes.  We need to ask ourselves how much death we need to deal and how swiftly.  Yes. We need to wonder how readily accessible these tools need to be. Yes. We need to look at a culture that glorifies guns and desensitizes us to violence. Yes. We need to disentangle the manufacturing and sale of weapons from our politics. Yes. Limiting guns is part of the answer. Oh yes. But guns are not the core problem. The fact that people go to a place where they see mass murder as a viable option is at the root of this horror. How dark must one’s lens be to see that as a choice you make?  

We need to look at a culture that is a such a pressure cooker of dysfunction that people go to that place. Yes, I know not everyone goes to that place – most do not. But many people are closer than we think, and our culture desensitizes us to the plight of people we don’t know (and even those we do).  We have an empathy deficit, a lack of emotional resilience, an abundance of entitlement and tools for dealing so much death in ready reach.  It is a toxic recipe.

Life can be hard. Life is often unfair. People struggle. Reality rarely matches up with our pretty imaginary scenarios.  We need to understand that mental health is not a clear dichotomy of health and illness (us and them).  Emotional health is a complex changeable spectrum and is, for many of us, a landscape fraught with effort and risk. Many of us can slip easily in and out of dangerous emotional places.  We all need to work on our emotional health just like we do our physical bodies and it is a constant process for everyone – even if we don’t admit it.

We need to look at how we teach people to deal with their emotions and how to deal with life’s disappointments right from where they are. Life is an ocean of failures and successes and so many feelings – some of which are so intense they threaten to overwhelm. We need to learn to swim in that ocean despite things falling apart – because things do.

Change is part of life and the ability to deal with the rapidly accelerating pace of change in our world and the ability to work with even the most intense of emotions are the most important skills we can posses.   Why do we just assume people magically develop resilience?  Some of us have to learn it.  No matter what our cognitive/emotional situation we all have to learn, right where we are, to live the life we have.  No matter our cognitive/emotional situation we can learn to work with our minds.

Over the last several years I’ve struggled with fear, anger, anxiety and doubt that were, at times, crippling.  I’m a self-employed sales person and I sell people to people – highs and lows are part of the business, and I’ve always ridden that roller coaster pretty well. But, like many people, my physical health and my mental health are intertwined and so deciding to “work with my mind” became not an abstract concept or a luxury, but necessary for my survival.

Self-awareness, mindfulness, acceptance and rigorous self-honesty involve facing feelings that are gritty, difficult,and anything but some new-age fantasy.  As we learn to feel what we feel and face what is in front of us (instead of living in denial or fantasy), we can learn to navigate anything that we encounter.  I think a lot of people lose heart when their life doesn’t turn out the way they thought it would, or the way they wanted it to, or when things fall apart as things so often do.  It is in those crunch times when we think “I can’t (or won’t) do this anymore” that terrible things can happen.

Skills to navigate challenging times can be learned, and as a society we must make these life skills part of being a responsible person in a functioning society.  We teach physical fitness, and dental hygiene, and we require a license to drive a car. We need to teach mental and emotional hygiene as well.  Resilience is essential to modern life.

Tuning up how we think about and acquire weapons as a society is a very necessary beginning, but we will need to go beyond these first steps toward a  gun control policy, and have a really different conversation about emotional health and how we incorporate mental hygiene and resilience training in daily life.  We can’t afford not to.


Tags: , , , , , , ,

Category: Aggression and Violence, Culture, Human animals, Meaning of Life, Neuroscience, Quality of Life, Science

About the Author ()

Lisa lives and works in the city of St. Louis, and is striving to develop the right mix of both while asking herself what it means to live a good life. You can follow her on twitter http://www.twitter.com/lisarokusek

Comments (15)

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  1. grumpypilgrim says:

    Great post, Lisa. I keep thinking that if the killer had instead used a car to deliberately run over children on a playground, we probably wouldn’t see many people demanding anti-car legislation. Yet when there’s a gun involved common sense seems to go out the window. The problem of violence in America has many different causes, each with no easy solution. The notion that gun control will solve it is misguided.

    Yes, the senseless deaths of two dozen people in a shooting is a tragedy, but we need to keep it in perspective. For example, if medical (human) errors were a disease, it would be the 6th leading cause of death in America, killing anywhere from 50,000 to 100,000 people *every year*. Like the 9/11 attack, this killing is relatively insignificant compared to all the other things that needlessly kill people in America.

    • Erich Vieth says:

      Grumpy. We do need to keep a better perspective. We are not purely rational beings who appreciate each death as a death. Not all deaths are equal. Allowing corporations to kill tens of thousands of people by burning asthma-inducing coal is not nearly as disturbing to us as an angry guy (or even 100 angry guys) who barges into a public place and kills 10 or 20 people. We are human animals who are wired to see some things as much bigger than they are. And we fail to see gradual change, even when its consequences are horrendous. We are blind largely because we are innumerate. Being ignorant of math is deadly. Lack of a good education is killing us.

      None of this is to suggest that we shouldn’t pick off low-hanging fruit. I would ban weapons that have the capacity to carry many bullets. A handgun for self-defense in one’s home or a shotgun for hunting? I am generally OK with these things, but not any further than that. We don’t cite to the 2nd Amendment to argue that people should have nuclear weapons or poison gas or explosives that could destroy a house. Why not? Because the 2nd Amendment is not absolute. For me, weapons that can cause mass killings are in the same category as the sorts of devices and weapons (such as the ones I mentioned) that no sane person would make legal. It’s time to apply the same principle to all devices that are capable of causing mass deaths. I device should not escape scrutiny just because it is a “gun.” Nor am I sold on the claim that an individual or even an private association of people qualify as a “militia.”

  2. Ben says:

    “However, the real problem lies not in the weapon, but in the person wielding it.”

    Actually, the real problem is when BOTH are combined.

    People are unstable. When combined with machines/guns which have been manufactured to enable effortless destruction, carnage is inevitable.

    • Lisa Rokusek says:

      It is true that the problem is more clear when guns (especially high volume/high capacity/automated) are combined with people in crisis of some kind. I hope, Ben, that you didn’t read that I am not a proponent of regulating weapons, because I am. However I think it is just as important to look at what I consider a deeper causal factor – and not in teh offhand “oh yeah we need mental health services for mentally ill people” kind of way. But arguably a different way of looking at getting healthy emotionally – resilience is important.

  3. Erich Vieth says:

    Thank you, Lisa. As I read your article, I thought of the many ways in which aggression permeates our society, whether or not guns are involved (and they too often are). Our sports are rife with unnecessary violence. Our movies are saturated with “heroes” who don’t plan and who resort to violence as their primary means to solve problems, mainly because the writers feature villains that invite violence as the most obvious of solutions.

    But you also reminded me that we might need to rethink failure; it’s not the end of the world, or at least usually not. But in a hyper-competitive culture that ridicules failure it seems like it is always the end of the world. And we should, indeed make sure that we better provide social and emotional supports for those who who struggle and those who take reasonable risks but don’t succeed.

  4. grumpypilgrim says:

    Before commenting further on the topic at hand, I want to first address Erich’s analogy, …”Allowing corporations to kill tens of thousands of people by burning asthma-inducing coal….” Are those corporations — i.e., are the *people* who run those corporations — really the ones to blame for providing a product (cheap electricity) that the rest of us demand? If those corporations follow the laws that we allow, and if they provide a product that we want to consume, then shouldn’t we be putting most of the blame on ourselves? Shouldn’t “allowing corporations to kill…” be rephrased as “demanding cheap electricity at the cost of allowing dirty air that will kill…?”

    Anyway, back to guns. The problem of gun violence is similar to the problem of illegal immigration: yes, it’s a problem, but we have ignored it for too long for there to be an easy answer. In a sense, trying to ban high-capacity weapons is a bit like trying to deport millions of illegal immigrants: the population is already too large for that to be a realistic solution. Moreover, although it might seem like low-hanging fruit, if someone wants to kill lots of defenseless people in a confined space (children in a school, customers in a dark theater, etc.), then they don’t need a high-capacity weapon; they only need more clips for a low-capacity weapon…and low-capacity weapons and clips are already in vast supply.

    The real appeal of gun bans is much like the appeal of the Patriot Act: it’s window dressing for politicians (and their constituents) who desperately want to look like they are solving a problem, but who don’t want to spend the time (or make the hard choices) to actually solve the problem.

    • Erich Vieth says:

      Grumpy. It doesn’t take a high capacity magazine weapon to neutralize a maniac mowing down children. Therefore, I would start by banning high capacity magazine weapons.

      What do you envision as some effective measures you would like to implement to address this problem which, I agree, has gotten really difficult because rational people have ignored it for too long?

  5. NIklaus Pfirsig says:

    Many states actually ban high capacity magazines. Other states have moved in the other direction by easing the permit application for fully automatic firearms.

  6. grumpypilgrim says:

    I never said I had effective measures to address this problem, only that the single proposal of a gun ban is not among them. High-capacity weapons account for something like 2% or less of the gun fatalities in the U.S., so even if a suitable ban could be written (a big ‘if’), legislated (another big ‘if’), and implemented (an even bigger ‘if’), it would still have a (statistically) negligible impact on the problem.

    A far better use of time and effort would be to work out why people do these sorts of killings and work to address those problems. Again, I’ll use the analogy of illegal immigration: why does the U.S. border with Mexico present such a huge problem of immigration, but the U.S. border with Canada does not? It’s because, compared to Mexico, relatively few people in Canada *want* to enter the U.S. illegally. The problem of gun violence in the U.S. can be effectively addressed when we work out why some people *want* to commit these sorts of crimes, and then attack those root causes.

    Here is one thought: maybe one of the reasons why disturbed people commit mass killings is because they want attention. If so, then a good way to deter such behavior might be to stop the media from sensationalizing it. I felt this way about the Bush Administration’s response to the 9/11 attack. A terrorist attack is mostly meant to create panic, so what better way to *increase* the effectiveness of a terrorist attack than (as the Bushites did) by blowing the importance of such attacks all out of proportion to their actual impact? What if, instead of making it sound like a huge existential crisis (which it wasn’t), the Administration had simply addressed the damage at the bomb sites and then gone directly after the perpetrators? When we understand what people want to accomplish from their bad behavior, and we take steps to create a disconnect between that cause and effect, we will go a long way toward stopping that bad behavior. That is why I have not offered “effective measures to prevent this problem”: doing so would require knowledge of the cause-and-effect that I do not have. If the cause, for some people, is a mental illness, then maybe we should have more proactive treatment for such illness. If the cause is anger from an unexpected adverse event (a romantic breakup, a job termination, a financial loss, etc.), then maybe we need to create a society that is more supportive of people at such times. The point is that just trying to ban particular types of weapons doesn’t stop anyone from having the *desire* to commit atrocities, it only thwarts one (of many, many, many) possible means of doing so — thus, it is clearly not “an effective measure to prevent this problem.”

  7. grumpypilgrim says:

    I forgot to mention one more bit of data that leads me to discount gun bans as a real solution: the communities that have the highest per-capita rates of ownership of high-capacity weapons tend to be communities that have the lowest per-capita rates of gun crimes involving such weapons. Perhaps that is one reason why disturbed people preferentially choose these weapons over other alternatives — perhaps, because these weapons are relatively rare in their communities and have a fearsome reputation, these weapons (in their minds) create the highest shock value. Simply put, maybe it is precisely this reputation that causes disturbed people to choose them. Maybe these weapons are the pit bull terrier of the weapon world — maybe certain types of people are preferentially attracted to the breed because of its reputation. And if pit bull terriers are involved in more human attacks than other breeds, is it because the breed is bad, or because more bad people choose them?

  8. “I want to tighten access to certain weapons and ammunition, but I do not want to ban all guns.”

    Efficiency is not cause. Murderers are attracted to gun-free zones.


  9. Grumpy: This is an amazing, and useful, statement that you have made. I hope you will allow me to apply it to where it will have maximum impact.

    When we understand what people [in government] want to accomplish from their bad [unlawful/unconstitutional/lieing] behavior, and we take steps to create a disconnect [we refuse to be stampeded] between that cause and effect [more government/less liberty], we will go a long way toward stopping that bad behavior.


  10. grumpypilgrim says:

    Larry, although your comments take my analysis farther than I would agree with (for instance, I do not equate “more” government (whatever that means) with “less” liberty (ditto)), I hope readers will investigate the links you provide as they offer some worthwhile perspectives on this topic.

  11. conservativegrandma says:

    The one statement that says it all is, “And we fail to see gradual change, even when its consequences are horrendous.” This is why I’m against any executive orders that change the Constitution.

  12. Fr. Fitz says:

    “The Gun Is Civilization”
    by Marko Kloos

    Human beings only have two ways to deal with one another: reason and force. If you want me to do something for you, you have a choice of either convincing me via argument, or force me to do your bidding under threat of force. Every human interaction falls into one of those two categories, without exception.
    Reason or Force, that’s it.
    In a truly moral and civilized society, people exclusively interact through persuasion.
    Force has no place as a valid method of social interaction and the only thing that removes force from the menu is the personal
    firearm, as paradoxical as it may sound to some.
    When I carry a gun, you cannot deal with me by force. You have to use reason and try to persuade me, because I have a way to negate your threat or employment of force.
    The gun is the only personal weapon that puts a 100-pound woman on equal footing with a 220-pound mugger, a 75-year old retiree on equal footing with a 19-year old gang banger, and a single guy on equal footing with a carload of drunken guys with baseball bats.
    The gun removes the disparity in physical strength, size, or numbers between a potential attacker and a defender.
    There are plenty of people who consider the gun as the source of bad force equations. These are the people who think that we’d be more civilized if all guns were removed from society, because a firearm makes it easier for a [armed] mugger to do his job. That, of course, is only true if the mugger’s potential victims are mostly disarmed either by choice or by legislative fiat—it has no validity when most of a mugger’s potential marks are armed.
    People who argue for the banning of arms ask for automatic rule by the young, the strong, and the many, and that’s the exact opposite of a civilized society. A mugger, even an armed one, can only make a successful living in a society where the state has granted him a force monopoly.
    Then there’s the argument that the gun makes confrontations lethal that otherwise would only result in injury. This argument is fallacious in several ways. Without guns involved, confrontations are won by the physically superior party inflicting overwhelming injury on the loser.
    People who think that fists, bats, sticks, or stones don’t constitute lethal force, watch too much TV, where people take beatings and come out of it with a bloody lip at worst. The fact that the gun makes lethal force easier works solely in favor of the weaker defender, not the stronger attacker. If both are armed, the field is level.
    The gun is the only weapon that’s as lethal in the hands of an octogenarian as it is in the hands of a weight lifter. It simply wouldn’t work as well as a force equalizer if it wasn’t both lethal and easily employable.
    When I carry a gun, I don’t do so because I am looking for a fight, but because I’m looking to be left alone. The gun at my side means that I cannot be forced, only persuaded. I don’t carry it because I’m afraid, but because it enables me to be unafraid. It doesn’t limit the actions of those who would interact with me through reason, only the actions of those who would do so by force. It removes force from the equation… and that’s why carrying a gun is a civilized act.

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