Making Sense of Friday

To make sense of Friday’s tragic, horrific events at the elementary school in Connecticut, I believe that there is no making sense of it. I think that’s a pretty important concept to wrap our heads around, as difficult as it is. Let me explain in two points:

It’s impossible to rationalize with a truly irrational person. As a nation, we feel helpless right now. There are lots of other feelings mixed in–horror, sadness, anger, denial–but helplessness is at the root of all of them.

We try to feel less helpless by making posts and signing petitions about gun control (which I fully support, but this post isn’t about that). We refresh to see if there’s more news about the killer so we can understand his motives so that we can pinpoint the root of his craziness and condemn it, prevent it. We look for reasons to explain something so senseless: he played too many violent video games, he watched too many violent movies, he was bullied, he was abused, etc.

We feel less helpless when we know why.

I would like to advocate a new approach: I’d like to suggest that we come to terms with our helplessness. I’d like to suggest that we admit to ourselves that why is irrelevant for a crazy person.

Have you ever talked to a crazy person? Someone who is truly mentally ill? It’s incredibly frustrating because their brain doesn’t work the same as yours. You have to understand that. There are many different types of craziness, but that’s the commonality among them. No matter how hard you try to make sense of the way they think or help them make sense of the misguided way they see the world, you’re running in circles. It’s impossible. It’s impossible to rationalize with a truly irrational person.

I do think it’s important that we find ways to prevent the mentally ill from being able to kill dozens of people within minutes. I also think it’s important for us to take care of the mentally ill, both for their sake and for the benefit of society as a whole.

But as we try to make sense of Friday, I think it’s really important to know that there is no making sense of a crazy person’s actions. There is no rationalizing it. I think the healing process begins when you start to understand that.

Everything does not happen for a reason. I wrote about this view in an open, accepting way about a year ago. Now I’m going to take a harder stance on this, and I think you should consider doing the same.

There are some out there who believe that everything happens for a reason. Again, I think this comes down to feeling helpless. We feel helpless and small when big, terrible things happen, and one way to feel less helpless is to put our faith in a divine power who has made this terrible thing happen for a reason.

If that’s what you still believe after what happened Friday, I am disappointed in you. And a little scared of you.

We all have a choice when it comes to faith. I’m open to people of all faiths and people of no faith. Even within my Catholic faith, I respect Catholics who believe in all sorts of things. I expect the same of my readers–if you’re not open to the possibility that you’re wrong about your faith, then you’re not respecting the other readers, and you’re not even respecting your own faith.

We all have the choice to believe in a divine power who lets bad things happen OR a divine power who actually makes bad things happen. The latter is the one viewpoint that I simply can’t consider. I refuse to believe in a God who picks and chooses where and when terrible things happen.

Don’t get me wrong–good things can result from even the worst of tragedies. In the coming months and years, we’re going to hear stories of people who turned their lives around because of the shooting. We’re going to hear about some kids who missed school that day and go on to do great things because they feel blessed, and we’re going to hear the same about some of the kids who were at school that day.

All of that is great. It’s wonderful that we’re blessed with the free will to experience a tragic event and let it affect our path in life in a positive way.

But I don’t believe in a God that pressed a button and made Friday happen because God wanted the survivors to go on to do great things. I don’t believe that God picked which kids died and which kids survived. Honestly, if that’s what you choose to believe, that’s a huge disservice to those who died.

Before Friday, if you believed in a divine power who has complete control over everything, one who actively makes terrible things happen for a variety of reasons that you somehow presume to understand even though you are not God, here’s a great chance to take a good hard look at your beliefs. Here’s a chance to think about the 20 children and the 6 adults who were mowed down by a crazed gunman on Friday and decide if God made that gunman do it. If God decided which bullets hit which children and which did not. Your faith is your choice–is that really what you choose to believe?

Everything does not happen for a reason. Sometimes things simply happen. There’s no making sense of it, and that’s okay.

My heart goes out to those who died or were directly affected by the tragic events on Friday.

11 thoughts on “Making Sense of Friday”

  1. Wow, this is a deep and heavy post. I won’t go into and address everything here but I’ll say that while you may think it’s impossible to ‘rationalize with a truly irrational person,” the thing is certain thoughts and feelings may seem perfectly rational to him/ her. This tragedy was a failing on so many levels–the relationships between the parent and child probably being paramount but then there’s also things that are outside our control–I’m not a psychotherapist but the conversation about mental stigma and mental illness needs to continue, especially for vulnerable persons.

    I think part of the reason people want ‘everything to happen for a reason’ is because it’s comforting. It’s comforting to realize that I found out about the hole in my heart before it was too late. Did it happen ‘for a reason?’ I don’t really know, but I’m grateful that it ‘happened.’ Perhaps what is not so important is the rational thought that is attached to the event but rather the utility that one gets from that. If it comforts the parents to believe that their son or daughter died for a reason, whatever that reason is (God, which I agree, is sort of sad, what kind of God is that?, etc.) sometimes that is comforting. The truth is sometimes bad things happen to good people (another cliche), life is unfair, etc. but that’s not as comforting as realizing that your child did not died in vain. My god, I can’t imagine what it is like for those parents to lose a child–it’s probably one of the worst feelings in the world. Interesting that they have words for widows and orphans but what about parents that lose children?

    Thoughtful post.

    • Thanks for your thoughts, Jen. I definitely agree that an irrational person’s thought seem rational to that person–I think that’s why there can be such a huge disconnect between a rational and an irrational person.

      You make a great point in the ability of God/religion/faith to comfort people. I have read, though, that one of the worst things you can say to someone who has lost a loved one is, “God has a reason for this.” That makes me wonder if a person telling themselves the same thing is truly comforted, or if they’re merely sweeping the hurt under the rug for it to fester. Like I said, good things can come out of senseless tragedies–we have that choice. I also think we have the choice to make good things happen without a tragedy to jolt us to our senses.

      As for your last question, I’m kind of stunned speechless as to those parents. I cannot even imagine what they’re going through, not even close. The best I can do is say that my heart goes out to them, because it really, truly does.

  2. Jamey,
    There are so few things that I’ve actually wanted to read or think about surrounding Friday’s events. I have actively avoided almost all news and Facebook posts – it isn’t something that I feel like I can process with two really little kids at home. With that said, I just read your post, and I couldn’t agree with you more, and wanted to say THANK YOU for writing this. One of the reasons that I have actively avoided reading and having conversations about it is exactly what you talk about: there is NO way that we can explain/rationalize/understand this. And I don’t think that we’re helping each other by trying. Or by continuing to obsess about it.

    I also very strongly disagree with the “things happen for a reason” stance. I have come to live by the belief that people (humanity) are inherently KIND. (Of course this doesn’t mean that things don’t happen along the way that change this.) I don’t believe that we can live and love fully in a world where we think that people, and that our God, would intentionally be anything otherwise. It doesn’t help anyone be their best self!

    Thanks again for your thoughtful post!
    (hope you are well – it’s been forever since I’ve seen you!)
    Mona (Vespa) Langenberg

    • Mona–Thanks for your comment. It was a nice surprise to read your thoughts on this. I’m touched that the post hit home for you, and I think you said it better than I did here: “There is NO way that we can explain/rationalize/understand this. And I don’t think that we’re helping each other by trying.”

      Well said in your second point as well. It all comes down to being our best self, and I don’t think a belief in a selectively punitive God helps us reach that goal.

      Thanks again, and you’re welcome back at any time…even if you don’t agree with me (but I’m glad you do in this case!)

  3. I think the first half of your blog is really well written and I agree wholeheartedly. I think the media has done some deplorable things in covering this (locally here, nationally, online, otherwise) and the attention and attempts to explain do not help.

  4. I’ve been hesitant to comment on this because I’m wary of entering into such a hot-button discussion. I understand the basic message you’re trying to get across here, and I really do genuinely appreciate the intent behind your post. By bringing up mental health issues, though, you have touched on something that I have strong feelings about and very different beliefs from those you described here. So I wanted to share a different perspective.

    “It’s impossible to rationalize with a truly irrational person”. “Have you ever talked to a crazy person? Someone who is truly mentally ill?”. As someone who works in the mental health field, I speak to people who are “crazy”, “irrational”, and “truly mentally ill” every single day. I would challenge you to clarify what you are defining as being “irrational” and “crazy” when you speak of people who have a mental health diagnosis and to reexamine the language you choose when speaking about fellow human beings who are different from you in one way or another. Those are pejorative terms that I think contribute greatly to the stigma surrounding mental illness. This language reinforces a divisive “us” (sane/rational/not crazy/normal) vs “them” mentality that adds to the already-present barriers for accessing mental health services. You and I probably have more similarities than differences with people with a mental illness – it’s not “us vs them”. Who isn’t crazy and irrational sometimes? Does having a mental illness suddenly determine that an individual is crazy and irrational? Are there times when people with a mental illness aren’t crazy or irrational? And most importantly, why should we give up trying to understand people who don’t make sense to us?

    We need to expand our understanding of mental illnesses and your suggestion that we give up on understanding those with a mental illness does just the opposite – it shuts that discussion down and adds to the stigma of seeking treatment. The line of reasoning can’t be: “We can’t understand people with a mental illness because of the fact that they have a mental illness”. We have to be able to do better than that. You seem to be saying both that we should just stop trying to understand people who don’t make sense to us and also that we need to treat them for everyone’s sake. Without the first, the second is impossible.

    I understand where you’re coming from in saying that there’s no point in trying to make sense of a senseless act. Certainly, trying to explain away will not undo what has been done. I don’t follow your extrapolation, though, to say that there’s no point in trying to understand a “crazy” person because they’re just irrational and their craziness will cause frustration for a sane person, hence the great divide between the “rational” and “irrational”. It is this sense of complete disconnect that contributes to events like these. “I don’t understand anyone and no one understands me”. For most people, the point isn’t whether I’m right or wrong. The point is whether there’s someone who understands me. Someone who gets it. Gets me. Regardless of whether something is rational or not, it is real to that individual and deserves a voice to be heard. But if you write that person off by saying, “They don’t make any sense. They’re crazy. They are misguided, so why bother?”, you get absolutely nowhere and plant the seeds of frustration, anger, and resentment in that individual. In my experience, it is by listening to people with a mental illness, empathizing with their experience, and accepting that my task isn’t to convince them to see it my way, but to try to see it their way, that their thoughts, behaviors, and emotions start to make sense to me. This approach expands the discussion and you can start to actually get somewhere.

    I think this tragic event highlights the absolute necessity of understanding people with mental illnesses so that we can better serve them and try to prevent acts like this from happening in the future. Let me clarify that what I’m advocating is NOT a frantic search for answers; rather, a pointed effort to improve mental health services and access to them. What if the shooter had been meeting regularly with mental health providers who listened to him, tried to understand his anger, demonstrated compassion, and offered alternative outlets for his rage? What if the shooter had a thoughtful psychiatrist who actually listened to his complaints about the side effects of his medication and worked with him collaboratively to find a more effective treatment? Would it have made a difference? Who knows, but for the next mentally ill, potentially homicidal person out there, I think it’s worth finding out. In fact, I think we have an obligation to try.

    By no means am I saying that this was anyone’s fault but the shooter’s. What I am saying is that this kind of disintegration of compassion for others, overwhelming sense of rage, and disdain for life isn’t built in a day. As a society, I would like to see us make it easier for people to access help – ANY kind of help that might make a difference – to keep people from reaching this breaking point. And in order to do that, we need to be having a different kind of discussion that opens doors rather than shuts them.

  5. Susie–Thanks for your excellent comment. I completely agree with the paragraph about trying to better understand mental illnesses and find ways to better identify and serve people with them. That’s a broad topic that I wasn’t trying to address in this post, but I completely agree with the sentiment.

    The specific topic that I was trying to address with my comment that “It’s impossible to rationalize with a truly irrational person” is, as you said, that there’s no point in trying to make sense of a senseless act. I think the danger in trying to make sense of a truly irrational person’s actions is that connections could be made that shouldn’t be made. For example, whenever one of these acts of violence happens, there are people who point the finger at violent video games. If we could simply get rid of such games, they say, these acts of violence will stop.

    Therein lies the problem–they’re forming a logical conclusion based on an illogical act. The vast majority of people can play violent video games and will still understand that it’s not okay to shoot people in real life. And then there are a few outliers who are drawn towards violent video games because it ignites some hormonal discharge or fulfills some need in them.

    And it goes beyond video games or other enablers–whenever a killing like this happens, we try to dig deeper into the killer’s past hoping to understand and make sense of it. Maybe he had a bad relationship with his mother. PLENTY of people have bad relationships with their mothers. The vast majority of those people will not kill their mothers. Because that’s not something that a rational person of sound mind will do.

    So all I’m saying is that we don’t try to draw logical, rational conclusions about the source of anomalous violent behavior. You’re totally right that it’s not fair for me to divide people into “crazies” and “not crazies.” My intention was to focus more on the term “truly irrational person,” as I think that’s more accurate. I’m not trying to diagnose this guy. I just know that there are better ways for us to spend our time and energy than trying to make sense of his actions, because any rational person isn’t going to turn an automatic weapon on a bunch of kids, no matter how much he hates his mother or how many video games he’s played.

  6. Jamey – I understand more of where you’re coming from now, so thanks for your clarification. I think the attempts at understanding the shooter that you’re referring to are the same things I was describing as a frantic search for answers. I completely agree that it is problematic for people to point to violent video games (or a bad parental relationship or whatever else) as the source/problem/cause of a homicidal and suicidal killing spree. I would actually argue that making those kinds of connections is NOT “forming a logical conclusion based on an illogical act”. Because, as you said, we all know that plenty of people play video games without going around killing people in real life. So, pointing to video games as the problem is NOT a logical, rational conclusion. I think maybe this is what you were getting at with your post – looking for a quick answer is pointless (and, I would take it a step further to say that it’s actually irrational as well).

    I disagree with your statement, though, that trying to better understand mass murderers isn’t a good use of time. I think that incidents like this serve as reminders that we need to take a much more in-depth look at what’s going on with people that makes them capable of such horrific violence. It’s not about quick-fix causes or solutions like video games, but more about what contributes to a person feeling so isolated and separate from everyone else that homicide/suicide feel like the only answers. And that is where my discussion about mental health issues comes into play.

    Because it seems like mental health issues (as well as gun control, etc) go overlooked until something extreme and tragic happens. Then there’s this frantic, pointless search for answers that you described in your post. And then the discussion about mental health issues stops once again until another violent killing occurs. What I was suggesting is that we need to be having broad, ongoing, in-depth discussions about the type of mental health services that are available, the barriers to accessing them, how to improve them, and the implications of how we work with people who have a mental illness. Because it’s only in the time in between these violent killings that we can have any impact on avoiding the next one.

    • Thanks for your response, Susie. I’m sorry if my original post came across the wrong way.

      As for understanding mass murderers…well, I can see your point, especially about how mental health issues often go overlooked until something tragic happens. By then it’s too late. I definitely agree with this: “We need to be having broad, ongoing, in-depth discussions about the type of mental health services that are available, the barriers to accessing them, how to improve them, and the implications of how we work with people who have a mental illness.”

      I don’t know if it’ll ever be possible to completely eradicate mass murderer, but it’s certainly worth trying.


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