How can something like this happen?
If you are anything like me, you have been wrestling with this question lately – and honestly have been wrestling with it for years, as news reports plague us with stories of violence across the country, and across the world.
I am writing to you, our NL community, and beyond, to those of us who have not been directly affected but are wrestling with ‘what to do’ – this is a time for us to dig into what it means to be a community. What it means to be trauma informed.
What it means to truly connect
The families involved in this latest tragedy and all the violent tragedies that have come before are suffering profoundly – I don’t expect them to do anything but grieve. But as observers, as helpers and healers, it is time for us to hold, and practice, a truth.
Connection is hard, painful even, and it is so so necessary.
It has been one week since the devastating event in Uvalde where over 20 individuals, mostly children, were killed by an armed shooter. While I struggle with my own grief and fear, I see countless others in my community doing the same. Debates have broken out about how to prevent something like this in the future – what actually would work to keep us from having to live this again and again? To keep families like those in Uvalde, Sandy Hook, and frankly, hundreds of other communities, from experiencing the worst losses imaginable?
There are no simple answers
I suspect the solutions are much more nuanced and complex than we all want to admit. When we are afraid, we want clarity, we want to do something. It is normal to feel strongly, to want to take action, to think of ourselves and our safety. Bettina and I wrote about this in our first blog after the shooting.
Unfortunately, nothing is as clear cut and simple as we would like it to be.
But there are, and will be, things we can do – individually and as a community. As a bit of an outsider to Uvalde, I find myself wanting to understand the situation more deeply – it feels like a responsibility to those who are within the community, suffering so acutely. A deeper understanding offers me clarity of purpose when I think about “what can I do?”.
While the logistics of what occurred on May 24th are important of course, I see what happened through a trauma lens.
I believe, without a doubt, that a ripple of trauma is at play when these episodes of devastating violence occur. It breaks my heart, and yet, it also gives me hope. I am broken hearted because understanding how trauma works means that I know, for a fact, that the young man who committed this horrible crime (and the others who have come before him) was in terrible pain – and without any other way of managing his pain, he gave it back to his community.
“The child who is not embraced by the village will burn it down to feel its warmth.”
Stories about the Uvalde shooter are emerging, and they are sad ones.
I sympathize that compassion for this young man may be hard to come by – some of us may be feeling a revulsion, or downright hatred, for a person who could commit such an act. Admittedly I recognize it is very soon after the event to ask you to consider anything else. I do not mean to side-step the overwhelming horrors the children in that elementary school faced, or what the families and community members who survived are now dealing with.
I wonder, though, if we can bear to hold both – the bottomless suffering of those who have lost so much AND the deep suffering of a young man, a child still really, who felt so alone he was motivated to act the way he did.
Can we hold both?
It is a lot to ask. I understand if you are not ready. If this is where you are, it is ok, it is human to feel this way – and I hope you will continue to consider the rest of my letter.
Consider that hating this boy only brings more pain and isolation. More trauma. It does not contain our solution. Consider that connection is what we are made for, it is who we are, and when an individual resorts to violence it is because they felt so little connection that violence seemed the only way forward for them.
“Love me when I least deserve it because that is when I need it the most” (this anonymous quote hangs in Bettina’s office).
The young man in Uvalde was raised partially by his grandparents, as his mother battled heavily with drug addiction. A father or father figure was not mentioned in accounts of his life, though it seems a neighbor tried his best to be a role model. This young man was bullied horribly in school for being different – for having a speech impediment. He was often in fights. He was teased for wearing old, worn clothes. He committed acts of self-harm and threatened aggression toward animals and other humans. He lived through domestic violence, with police making a frequent appearance outside his home he shared with his mother.
This is an old story. It is not just about the young man in Uvalde. It is about all the people across our country, in our very own communities, who suffer from lack of support, lack of connection, lack of love. There is no single person, no single village to blame for it, because disconnect is passed down from generation to generation, and ripples far and wide. Our culture suffers from a profound problem with connection or the soul-crushing lack thereof.
What Can We Learn?
We are a community of trauma professionals, and understanding the humanity inherent in each and every one of us is a significant aspect of calling ourselves “trauma informed”. The science of neurobiology tells us that we are all a blend of nature and nurture, and that our nature is in fact highly influenced by the nurture that occurred in previous generations.
We are the outcome of our relationships, our environments, and our support systems over the generations and most acutely, during our own developmental years. To arrive at age 18 being a violent “loner” with an unstable home life and an aggressive thirst for vengeance is not a fluke, but a result of layers and layers of wounding. This is not just in Uvalde, this is everywhere.
No one is immune from pain so deep we lash out. It feels like a heavy responsibility, but a necessary one, to remember that each and every one of us could become cruel under the right circumstances.
We are human.
This young man was human.
To cast him out into any other category does us all a disservice. There is no “us” and the cruel/evil/murderous “them”. There is only “we”.
When we reject someone in pain, when we hate him, we exacerbate the very problem that created him.
How Can Adverse Childhood Experiences Help Us Connect?
I understand if you are not ready to hear what I am trying to say. It is a hard truth. It asks us to feel deeply, and rise above our survival instincts. Again, listen to your body––allow yourself to grieve and feel it all – anger, rage, sadness––when you are ready, maybe you can revisit this conversation with me. If your body tells you that you are ready for this discussion I ask that you allow me to offer a little more, to help us sink a little more into understanding.
Let’s take a look at a simple measure, that of the Adverse Childhood Experiences survey. This measure looks exclusively at home life, and has 10 measures. For each adverse childhood experience, an individual receives a score of one. The closer to 10 adverse childhood experiences a person is, the more dire their adulthood experience can be – including significant physical and mental health issues.
The 10 ACEs are defined as the following childhood experiences:
– Physical, sexual or verbal abuse
– Physical or emotional neglect
– Separation or divorce
– A family member with mental illness
– A family member addicted to drugs or alcohol
– A family member who is in prison
– Witnessing a parent being abused
Based on the accounts of the Uvalde shooter’s life leading up to the shooting, and looking at the quiz questions to measure the number of ACEs possible in his home life, it is safe to estimate that this young man experienced at least 7 of 10 ACEs. (For reference, a score of 6 or higher is said to take at least 20 years off your life, not to mention cause marked difficulties in daily living).
For the possible childhood experiences considered “adverse” and damaging, he experienced at least 70% of them.
It is also important to note that the ACEs cover a range of adverse experiences within one’s own home, but do not include community based experiences a youth can experience like bullying at school, the general stress and risks of poverty, lack of a support system/friendships outside the home, lack of support within the school system (the young man in Uvalde skipped frequently and was not on track to graduate with his peers), and the myriad unsupervised online encounters that are possible.
ACEs also do not cover the wider struggles our country is facing culturally and politically. Our country is divided, angry, and wanting to place blame somewhere. It has also become common practice to shame others for not living up to certain expectations. There is a far-reaching disconnect between us on a grand scale.
Trauma Isn’t Always Obvious
There are multiple facets of trauma that we could consider, the ACEs being one of them that is easiest to wrap our brains around, perhaps. But when we consider the subtler neurological development and attachment development aspects of trauma (which we discuss at length in our trainings, especially the Fundamentals of NL), there are likely many other ways this young man’s brain and body were traumatized.
We can only speculate at this point, so I won’t go beyond a general wondering – but based on the little history we have now, we might hypothesize that the intrauterine experience and early childhood experiences of this young man may have contained significant amounts of stress, or at least numerous deviations from the optimal. His brain and body may very likely have been primed for survival, with muscled up and disorganized lower regions of the brain. Survival is inherently selfish, and sees threat at every turn.
This can happen to any of us
With the amount of conflict he experienced in his home life, later followed by the amount of distress he experienced in his peer groups – I truly wonder if connection, and relationships in general, mostly set off alarm bells throughout his system, feeling like threats rather than safety.
I will stop there, as I do not wish to speculate further about the story of a young man I didn’t really know – who was in so much pain, who was so alone, he turned to inflict devastating pain on others. Now his trauma has been passed on to the families of Uvalde – so many more ACEs to add to the list. Parents, teachers, families, neighbors, will never be the same, perhaps for generations to come.
As hard as it can be to find, being trauma informed means I can catch enough of a glimpse of this man’s world, and the lens through which he saw this world, that I will not call him evil. I will not call him “other”. I will grieve him as I do the children and the ones whom he killed. I will grieve the isolation, the fear, the pain, that everyone in that community, and countless communities across the country, are feeling.
And, I also have hope – because I know there are thousands of us out there working tirelessly to prevent and heal trauma Every. Single. Day.
I know this community in particular, of Natural LIfemanship professionals, understands that trauma is a beast, but one that can be prevented and healed. So, we grieve. And then we roll up our sleeves and go back out into the world to do what we can, here and now. This will likely mean policy change, holding leaders accountable, and a dedication and perseverance to penetrate the helplessness and apathy that occur on a grand scale.
And, we do what we can in the small choices we make every day.
We connect with those who need connection. We reach out when we need connection. We don’t look away. We don’t pretend the answers are simple. We don’t let fear drive us. We take a deep breath. We let fear and grief move through our bodies. And then we remember that healing takes place in the context of a healthy relationship…and we know how to do that.
The hard truth, the utterly simple and yet excruciatingly difficult truth is that we prevent things like mass shootings, suicides, and violence by being the village that loves the child.
To honestly call ourselves trauma-informed, we must find our way to embodying this truth.
I only wish this particular child had been surrounded by the amazing hearts and minds that I know belong to this astounding Natural Lifemanship community. Maybe then he would have felt the warmth of his community that he truly needed, rather than pass on the pain, like so many others.
I feel hope because I know you all are out there. I feel renewed passion in our mission here at Natural Lifemanship. Pain may be inevitable in life, but the lasting effects of trauma can be tempered. Connection prevents and heals pain over and over again. It is not always easy – in fact, loving through fear, grief, and anger may be the most difficult thing we do. But we can do it.
This is something we can control.
Sitting with you in grief, and holding onto hope.
If you feel called to learn more about how to help people heal from the effects of toxic stress and trauma, join our amazing community of helpers and healers.
Natural Lifemanship is composed of people just like you, who want to make this world a better place —a world where connection and the value of healthy relationships is seen and felt in everything we do!