Chain Letter Society: On The Virginia Tech Tragedy genre: Nouveau Thoughts & Six Degrees of Speculation
It is being widely reported that at least thirty people have been killed on the campus of Virginia Tech University. Apparently the shootings were carried out by a lone gunman that witnesses report to be a male in his early twenties. The motive is unclear at the moment, but the incident certainly looks to be reminiscent of Columbine and a number of other similar events that have happened in school settings.
Clearly, it is far too early to draw any conclusions about this particular tragedy, but let me suggest that it isn't too early to begin discussing the dynamics that may be contributing to the recurrence of these horrific events...carried out by individuals seemingly far too young to have problems so significant that they are willing to act out plans that can only be seen as life ending...even though it doesn't always end with their immediate death.
Again, we lack sufficient detail to fully understand this particular situation, but we are hearing that this shooter was perhaps looking for his girlfriend. My first assumption was that perhaps the tipping point for this shooter may have been the end of a relationship and the inability to accept that reality. Regardless, each of these events has been triggered in some way by circumstances that are apparently beyond the coping abilities of these young individuals.
The question is why? What is happening in our society that leads these individuals to commit unbelievable acts of violence with such detached disregard? Over the next few weeks, there will certainly be endless attempts to decipher the motivations and the mechanics that have made these situations all too prevalent. Let me offer my own hypothesis.
We have become a society that is obsessed with winning…what I have called the “Chain Letter Society". Let me explain. A chain letter is basically a pyramid scheme whereby a list is circulated and those receiving the list are asked to send money to the first name on the list, add their own name to the bottom of the list, and then forward the list to a number of new people (often ten). Over time, each name is supposed to reach the top of the list and each person is supposed to receive large sums of money from the many people participating in the chain. The problem with chain letters is that, by sheer mathematics, they cannot work except for possibly those few individuals who originate the letter. The bottom line is that there aren’t enough people on the planet to allow all those who participate to benefit.
So how does that relate to today’s tragedy? Again, we have to consider the mathematics of life. In this country, the value placed on being the best, being number one, or being famous has become a focal point for our American culture. Parents today raise children to believe that they are privileged and can and will be the best…and the inference is that they must in order to have worth or value. It’s as if narcissism has become the trait of choice.
Is this an oversimplification? Perhaps, because the desire to succeed or achieve need not lead one to get a gun and kill people every time one fails to win. Nonetheless, one can surmise that the push to be first and the sense of privilege instilled in children will no doubt manifest itself as pathology in some portion of these individuals.
It seems to me that a growing number of parents no longer teach their children to find self-satisfaction outside of the construct of being the best at something or being famous. All too many parents believe that they can and should raise the next Tiger Woods…the next American Idol. One need only read the news to see the signs. It’s the father at a soccer game that attacks the referee or the opposing coach or even a child they view as a rival to their own son or daughter. It’s the mother who tells her daughter to attack the girl that was selected to be a cheerleader. It’s the parent that pushes or schemes to assure that his or her son or daughter date the boy or girl from the prominent family.
Sadly, in this construct, a successful life becomes elusive because it requires one to be the best…and by definition only one can be the best…leaving the rest to be viewed as the losers. Granted it’s more subtle than overt…but then doesn’t that simply help explain why no one anticipates that these perpetrators are about to cross the line of no return? If a child perceives that their parents love or approval is conditioned upon the success of the child…again whether that be spoken or implied…intentional or not...then more and more children are going to find themselves alienated and lost.
Further, if these individual’s first experience with alienation comes from those who should be considered fundamental and unconditional loved ones…it shouldn’t be difficult to understand how they can dehumanize fellow students or co-workers. It also shouldn’t be a stretch to think that they can blame fellow students or co-workers for their lack of success and therefore hold them responsible for their perceived alienation at home.
In watching the aftermath at Virginia Tech, one sees signs of the dynamic I’m suggesting. Each of the major cable news networks appears to have been deluged by student callers seeking to tell their story on national television…and that included at least one student that had actually been a shooting victim. Maybe I’m wrong, but should calling CNN after being shot be the instinct we want driving our children? What does that say about the priorities we are communicating to our children? Should recounting ones experience with being shot on national television become second nature? Doesn’t that indicate a misguided value system or at the very least a desensitization to the real meaning of tragedy and death?
I guess I would close with a suggestion that we need to reevaluate our values and begin to focus on raising our collective kindness quotient. Shouldn’t being a good person have merit and why can’t that measure come from sources other than our current standards of success…standards that seem to suggest that goodness is obsolete? Why is the Miss Personality or the Sportsmanship award viewed as nothing more than a consolation prize? Why is having one’s name on the television screen an acceptable instinctual reaction to untold tragedy?
What is going to happen when today’s children…raised with the belief that they can and will achieve notoriety and fame…realize that most of them aren’t the best and won’t succeed in that quest? What coping skills are we instilling and what alternative measures of success are we fostering in our children? In our earnest, though possibly misguided, desire to see our children have more and be more are we not setting them up for disappointment and failure?
The mirror of narcissism can only reflect back visions of grandeur. Isn’t it time we begin to see ourselves as we are, not as we aspire to become? In the end, we achieve our greatest success when we find ourselves. Finding that person is a process of reflection…but not the kind that can be found in a mirror.