What School Shooters Can Teach Us About Our Systems

School shooters are a symptom, not a disease.  They are the outward sign of what is happening below the surface of our systems.

The school system, the health care system, the legal system.  Human needs are not being met. Our systems no longer serve us. We serve them. Even people who work within systems are dissatisfied – except perhaps those at the top of the system who benefit most from it. The higher up you go in a system, the more power you have and the less connected you are with those “below” – the people the system is meant to serve.

Donald Trump called Florida shooter, Nikolas Cruz, a “whacko.” His neighbour called him “pure evil.” His lawyer told reporters, “This is a broken human being.” This is the best description. The question for all of us then is how did he get broken?

Humans are the only species who build artificial systems. In nature, we find eco systems and climate systems that are organic and inherently work toward the promotion of life. The one natural system that humans have always had are kinship systems – natural systems of human-to-human connection. The goal of the system is the promotion of life. What makes the system work is love, compassion and empathy.

Our systems are breaking down because they serve themselves, not us. Our systems must be built on relationships. This means connection, empathy, kindness.

What can be done?

Anyone who works within a system can humanize it by their presence – a receptionist, a teacher, a nurse, a doctor, a police officer. When a plane leaves New York, a change of one or two degrees difference in its trajectory will determine whether it lands in London or Paris. The same is true for children. When a child enters one of our systems, meaningful contact with just one caring adult can change the trajectory of their lives.

But here’s the hard part. I’m not just talking about the nice kids, the cute kids, the compliant kids. I’m talking about the difficult child, the child whose nature doesn’t “fit” within the system, the square peg in the round hole. These are the ones who need our love the most.

The great Swiss psychologist, Alice Miller, wrote about childhood trauma. When asked what made the difference with some kids not being chronically harmed by their trauma, Miller cited the presence in that child’s life of an “enlightened witness” – someone who really saw the child.

Did Nikolas Cruz have a consistent positive presence in his life? Was he ever affirmed in a meaningful way – apart from false praise.

  • To be seen for who you really are.
  • To be listened to no matter what you say.
  • To be touched with nurturing affection.

These are the foundations of core self-esteem. Every child needs them, and our institutions are not providing them.

The lesson for all parents and those who work with children – show love, compassion and empathy – not just to your own children, and not just to the children who are easy to love. Love the fringe-dwellers. Love the square pegs. Love the outliers.

If you work in one of our systems, be that “enlightened witness” – be the person who was kind, who cared, who showed compassion. We live on in those we influence. Live on.