How do people go haywire and shoot up a school, a concert, a random crowd? Humans are hardwired to be connected, and when those connections cannot be found, the result is emotional pain. Isolation and loneliness are painful experiences.
There are 85 billion to 100 billion neurons in your brain working in concert to direct everything from your heartbeat to your thoughts about politics. You spent nine months connected to your mother, taking nourishment from her body. When you were born, you recognized a human face only six minutes after birth.
We are all connected to each other. When connection is thwarted, we lose the sense of caring about the connections we cannot maintain. Learning to not care about a loss or unfulfilled connection is less painful than longing for it. An intermediary step to not caring is anger.
Anger is a disconnecting emotion, and its prime directive is to destroy or neutralize the foe at any cost. Social constraints usually limit the complete destruction of another person to verbal altercations and then avoidance. Unfortunately, although we can avoid physical contact with a foe, we continue an internal monologue of anger and alienation, building resentment and emotional distance.
Without mitigation, this internal angry monologue can lead to explosive consequences. An example is Jarrod Ramos, who is charged with killing five employees in June at the Capital Gazette building in Annapolis. He was an outlier, maintaining a grudge against The Capital newspaper for reporting the harassment conviction against him in 2012. Perhaps foretelling his alleged actions, he wrote in a 1997 high school yearbook, “You know it and I know it — this class, this school, this whole damn place is full of s—-.”
Bullied children, those who are isolated and disconnected from their peers, achieve less academically, and have lower self-esteem and greater anxiety and depression, and are more likely to attempt suicide. To go to school with other students and feel alienated from them can be extraordinarily painful.
Imagine becoming more and more thirsty as you observe others drinking their fill of water, but they will give you none. Eventually, all you can think about is the water that they have and won’t give you. You become angrier at them. If you can’t share their water, you don’t want them to have any water either. You plot how to take it away from them. You may even want to find their watering hole and poison it. You want to make yourself significant.
Maybe if you’re a student in a school or someone who feels wronged and alienated from co-workers or community, and you can’t find a way to feel a connection, you poison the watering hole. You transfer your pain to them.
The family connection, beginning at birth, is the most salient and influential connection in the early years of childhood. That early connection may be positive or negative. It forms the meaning and value of love and safety, power and independence, and the value and relevance of pleasing others.
Lecturing children about what they should believe or say is of little value, and the lessons are often not supported in their homes. What is of value is helping children and their parents model and experience the value of acceptance, tolerance, differences and similarities without negative labels and connotations.
The school system provides a meeting ground to build connections. Connection to a like-minded group is easy. The challenge for students and for parents is to develop connection to differences that allow us to grow. Respecting differences as differences rather than as threats, valuing freedom of choice as a right and not something to be justified, accepting someone’s self-expression as a legitimate attempt to connect rather than an attempt to undermine your own values, and embracing kindness as a tool to connect rather than as a weakness or agreement with different points of view — all these contribute to connection.
Connection is a fundamental truth of human existence. Outliers are made; they are not born.
Jack M. Long is a psychotherapist in private practice. He wrote this for the Baltimore Sun.
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