Dark Knights — How Spiritual Communities Could Help

The recent horrible shooting incident at a premier showing of “The Dark Knight Rises” in Colorado has focused attention, once again, on some aspects of what has gone wrong when a person takes such a violent and antisocial turn. Naturally, there are the questions about who could have or should have seen changes in time to stop the person. (I will purposely make my references general rather than just to this specific shooter because there clearly is a pattern that has to be considered as somehow society-wide — many similar incidents have occurred.) Our reflection and search for answers must go much deeper than just spotting a problem before it’s too late in terms of a violent act. It must go beyond the gun control debate as well although our attitudes toward protection, use and availability of guns, etc. is one piece of the larger picture which we must observe and reflect upon.

Yes, it’s proper to empahsize that individuals still have responsibility for their actions in the midst of any social or cultural analysis… the conservative/individualism emphasis is correct in this limited sense, though the usefulness of that emphasis is not what that mindset often wishes it to be. (That is, even the most responsible people can and do sometimes slip into a psychotic or otherwise “crazed” state, losing their normal controls…. We have to look at why it happens in the forms it does).

My first suggestion for everyone who is Christian in any form, or religious or spiritual (including “spiritual but not religious“).  All such people I think will agree that there is a spiritual component or at least a potential spiritual aspect to both the irrational violence of incidents like the recent one and the less-newsworthy violence taking place daily on our streets and in homes which is related to mental health issues.   One of the spiritual aspects I refer to is how a family, neighborhood, church or other spiritual community may be involved and often should be involved when it is not.

I think it’s fairly obvious that in many if not the great majority of mass shooting incidents, social isolation and a sense of alienation or humiliation has been part of the process.  It is not necessarily the cause but at least one aspect — an aspect that can often be spotted by certain people around the person.   The point for religious and spiritual people is this: being a community of love means, among other things, keeping touch with community members, even when they may have moved out of the area.  Not a smothering kind of contact but one that expresses care and supportiveness.  Along the way, it may make it possible to observe if the person is withdrawing or showing signs of unusual thinking or feelings.

All this is basically common sense and “Love 101,” but finding it practiced among churches and spiritual communities is actually shockingly rare.  I can offer one other suggestion to make a focus on this narrower and thus easier to implement and practice initially: Do some “profiling.”  There is a fairly distinct profile of most of the recent perpetrators of mass violence: male, between 15 and 25, student (or recently one) and in a transitional situation or somehow on the “margins” of society or their primary social identity.  There is at least a double jeopardy of being in such a demographic.

For one thing, the onset of schizophrenia is often in late adolescence or early adulthood, frequently with no signs preceding a fairly rapid development (the causes of it are still poorly understood).  Secondly, aside from a true form of psychosis like this, young people (and males often more intensely) may experience high tension and anxiety in the transition from adolescence to adulthood — a subject I’ve written more about from a spiritual angle in a soon-to-be released short book.  And males in particular are sometimes prone to be unwilling to show this outwardly or to share their feelings and struggles even with family members and friends.  (This does admittedly make it harder to touch some people effectively by reaching out, but the attempts at least allow the chance for them to share or to be seen to be struggling from circumstantial signs, or through lack of responsiveness.)

My final suggestion… no, I’ll say sermon point… is this: Christians and other spiritually-minded people have even more reason to become well-informed about psychology and emotional/spiritual health than do more “secular” people.  One would think they would be highly motivated in this direction.  Unfortunately, they are often among the least informed or even antagonistic to everything to do with psychology (because they view psychology as based on atheism or as too “humanistic,” etc.).  This is often a form of over-spiritualizing of human inner dynamics, practiced not just by conservative Christians but in some forms of “New Age” spirituality as well.

So if you are either a church-going Christian or involved in some kind of spiritual group (hopefully viewed as a community), here are a couple practical applications:

1. You could suggest a class (or series of them) on mental health, especially with a view to creating effective outreach within your community and neighborhood or town.  Or start one yourself if you have the qualifications and the position or can get authorization within your community.

2. You could organize a system of keeping contact with people who have attended or been a part of your faith community and find out what forms and frequency of contact they are comfortable with along the way, refining the process and procedures as you go.  (This may sound too programmatic for genuine love, but I’m talking about a practical  application OF love, which does often need an element of organization — all love is not just spontaneously expressed.)

Please share your own experiences with any of these issues or additional ideas you may have.  Have you been in a setting where you saw these things being done, whether formally or informally? What impact did they have on you or on others?  

Do you also observe churches often ignoring or even avoiding learning about mental health from a social and psychological point of view? If so, why do you think this is so? 

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