Gun Violence and the Solution That’s Right Under Our Noses

Last month, President Donald Trump and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos hosted a roundtable discussion where they invited victims of school shootings to the White House to discuss their experiences and ideas for solutions. Regardless of your position on the president and Mrs. DeVos, this was a welcomed development in the debate over gun violence. Instead of debating, arguing, and the typical candor between politicians, real people came together to share solution ideas for a problem that has divided us for years. Not one to watch the news (or what I call “the noise” because I’m just so damn clever), I was transfixed. In a culture where we’re focused on who’s right vs. who’s wrong rather than “How can we come together to create a solution?” for once those in attendance had a common goal: create a culture of safety. Not five minutes after the meeting ended, came the hot takes from pundits and social media accounts focused again on who was right and who was wrong, why the president is an asshat, and his meeting notes, including a reminder to “hear” those voicing their concerns. We were right back to focusing on problems instead of creating solutions. In all this noise, we missed out on the solution to the problem that was offered during the meeting that doesn’t just take care of the symptoms like mental health reform, banning certain guns, or arming teachers: a cultural shift focused on how we see one another.
During this meeting, one person really stood out to me: Darrel Scott, father of Rachel Scott, who was killed in the 4/20/97 shooting at Columbine High School. This was the school shooting that brought the topic of gun violence into the national spotlight almost 21 years ago, and still, few solutions have been reached. In fact, mass shootings have only intensified, because in these twenty-plus years, Columbine has dropped out of the top 10 list for deadliest shootings (um… yay?). It’s time for new ideas, because the ideas we’ve been working with for over two decades are clearly not doing the trick. What Scott said struck a chord with me since I study and share how to create positive workplace cultures for a living. Scott has a brief opportunity to get to the core of, not only the issue of gun violence, but the issues of violence in general and the underlying lack of happiness plaguing the country. Scott isn’t just talking about it a solution, he’s actively doing something to fix the deeply rooted cause of violent behavior: a lack of human connection.
Since his daughter lost her life, Scott has founded Rachel’s Challenge,* a nonprofit on a mission to create a positive climate focused on making schools safer, more connected places where bullying and violence are replaced with kindness and respect. According to Scott, the program has touched 28 million students since its founding in 1998, has prevented 7 school shootings, prevents an average of 150 suicides a year, and has seen improvements in the schools with whom they have partnered. According to the website, this includes gains in community engagement, faculty/student relationships, leadership potential, and school climate, as well as reductions in bullying, alcohol, tobacco, and drug use. While debates rage on over whether to arm teachers, ban automatic weapons, or apply stricter background checks when purchasing a firearm, Scott, a private citizen just like me and you, free from the entanglements of bureaucracy and politics, is, putting it bluntly, getting shit done.
Scott’s solution: “We must create a culture of connectedness. We must create a culture in which our classmates become our friends.” He goes on to explain how he has seen students connect with one another and makes a fascinating point: “Every single one of these school shootings have been from young men who are disconnected.”**
In his book, Flourish: positive psychologist Martin Seligman lists positive relationships as one of the five elements of human well-being.***

“Selfish-gene theory argues that the individual is the sole unit of natural selection. Evidence shows that the group is a primary unit of natural selection.”

Sure, I have read books in the field of positive psychology that re-affirm this, but it’s through my research in other fields like leadership, history, and, yes, even improvisation that have led me to go as far as to say that a lack of human connectedness is the causation of aggression, violence, and discrimination.
From Simon Sinek in his book Leaders Eat Last:

“When we cooperate or look out for others, serotonin and oxytocin reward us with the feelings of security, fulfillment, belonging, trust, and camaraderie.”

Humans are wired to get along, but we’re conditioned to covet personal gain, which goes against this biology, and costs us opportunities to make connections, become happier, and grow exponentially. In his book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, historian Yuval Noah Harrari wrote:

“Evolution favors those capable of forming strong social ties. In addition, since humans are born underdeveloped, they can be educated and socialized far greater than any other animals.”

To solve the problem of gun violence, we must create a culture focused on humans connecting with one another in order to make each other better and to make the world a better place, which is what Darrel Scott and his wife are doing with Rachel’s Challenge. I believe that the long-term solution is an overhaul of the education system where the goal is for students to learn to connect with one another and work together, rather than work separately for individual accomplishment. Until then, each of us can play a small role on creating a culture of connectedness in our own lives and circles. Though each of us as individuals has a small voice, we have an opportunity to come together and connect as a cacophony of voices on a quest to create safety, happiness, and love. It is in the pursuit of creating something we all believe in that can connect us, rather than arguing over who is right or who is wrong, which denies us the chance to create connection.
Darrel Scott is just one voice who has brought together a chorus of many voices to make a difference and bring us closer to a more human culture:
“The focus must not be just on unity or diversity, because if you focus too much on diversity, you create division. If you focus too much on unity, you’ll create compromise. But if you focus on relatedness and how you can relate with one another, then you can celebrate the diversity and you can see the unity take place. The focus really needs to be on how we can connect. That’s something our organizations have learned: how to connect students with each other, with themselves, with their teachers, and with their parents.”

Imagine the freedom of walking the streets without the fear of violence – with a feeling of confidence that every person you pass has your best interests at heart. We have the choice to focus on how this isn’t possible, which is what has been happening, or we can shift our focus onto how we can come together and create this culture. One thing you can do today is not to debate, but to listen to the ideas of others and remember that no matter who we are, we all want to feel safe and loved. How can you help make this happen and connect with others today?

“The most important decision we make is whether we believe in a friendly or hostile universe.” – Albert Einstein
“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new lands, but in looking with new eyes.” – Marcel Proust
*Darrel Scott speaks at about 33:50 in this video:
https://www.denverpost.com/2018/02/21/darrell-scott-columbine-shooting-donald-trump/
** Learn more about Rachel’s Challenge and how a culture of connectedness is helping students all over the country build relationships with classmates, parents, teachers, and themselves.
***The other four are positive emotion, engagement, meaning, and accomplishment.

How We Can Learn from Our Evolution

Have you ever read a book, watched a TED Talk, or heard a quote that made you take a step back and ponder the meaning of your existence? Check out this excerpt from Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari:

“The evolution of animals to get to where they are on the food chain took hundreds of millions of years constantly checking and balancing so that one species wasn’t dominant. Humans jumped from the middle to the top in such a short time, ecosystems didn’t get much of a chance to evolve along with them. Moreover, humans also failed to adjust. Having so recently been one of the underdogs of the savanna, we are full of fear and anxieties over our position, which makes us doubly cruel and dangerous. Many historical calamities, from deadly wars to ecological catastrophes have resulted from this overhasty jump…”

If you’ve ever wondered why humans can be such dicks, it’s because we haven’t had time to mature yet! As a species, we’re still in the snapping bra straps, giving Indian rug burns, harassing people for being overweight phase of life while we’re at home worrying we’re not good enough, insecure about our own status as the cool kid. Still, that’s no excuse for the way we’ve been acting lately. We’re at the top of the food chain, and unless Earth is invaded by the Yautja species from the Predator movies, that’s never going to change… unless we decide to dethrone ourselves.

“Tolerance is not a trait of sapiens. In modern days, as simple a difference as skin color, dialect, and religion has been enough to prompt one group of sapiens to set about and destroy another group.”

Whoa.

We’re so worried about losing our spot as the coolest kid in class, we kill people who are different than us because they’re “threatening us.” It’s not politics, religion, or skin color that cause violent conflicts, these are surface issues. Deep down, it’s our evolutionary software telling us that everyone unlike us is trying to murder us.

The good news is that we reached the top of the food chain, not because we made weapons and killed all of the other predators, but because we developed a brain that allows us to learn from our mistakes and plan for the future, and we also learned to work as a team to overcome obstacles. Our physical adaptations worked against us so hard, that the only ways to adapt was using our brains to learn and plan and teamwork. Think about it:

· We have no fur to protect us from the cold

· We’re slower than most of our predators

· We can climb trees, but we’re not exactly great at it

· Our nails and teeth are barely butter-knife-sharp

· Our children aren’t self-sufficient until they’re basically teenagers, sometimes later

So how do we overcome our self-destructive behaviors?

Knowing that humanity is the greatest risk to humanity’s success is a great place to start. Whether it’s violence, greed, or a basic “I’m-better-than-you” mentality, these behaviors are a result of our hardwired insecurity. To overcome them, just like we overcame predators and unfriendly climates, we need to take full advantage of our evolutionary adaptations:

1. Learn from mistakes and plan for a better future

2. Work as a team to overcome obstacles

Though our insecurities lead to the differences dividing us, it’s these different perspectives, life experiences, and talents working in unison toward a common vision that will better our planet, better each other, and better our species as a whole.

IF WE CONTINUE ON THE “I’M RIGHT, YOU’RE WRONG” PATH, HUMANS ARE GOING TO KEEP FEELING THREATENED, AND WHEN HUMANS FEEL THREATENED, WE KILL EVERYTHING.

That’s just stating a historical fact.

Let’s learn from our past, imagine a better future, and work together right now to start making that happen because there’s no reason to feel insecure; we’re the cool kids around here and we aren’t moving down the food chain anytime soon.

Good News: You’re the Worst Bully You’ll Ever Have

“You have no business talking to her. She’s way out of your league.”
“You’re an idiot. You’re going to look and sound like an idiot and no one is going to like your presentation.”
“A comedy writer? Seriously? That’s impossible. You’re never going to be able to do that for a living. Just go to law school.”
“You always mess everything up. No wonder you broke up. You’ll never be happy again.”
“F*ck you, you piece of shit. You have no friends and no one likes you. You might as well just hang yourself with those Christmas lights.”

I’ve been bullied my whole life. In grade school and high school, I had to put up with all of the creative modifications people came up with for my last name. I had to deal with the repeated accusations that I was gay when I’m not (okay, maybe I set myself up with the pink and turquoise double popped collar). I remember being given the Stone Cold Stunner and being put in the Sharpshooter at recess in 5th grade, but I stopped being bullied by other people in high school. If you don’t know me, I have a pretty easygoing personality and I try to make other people laugh every chance I get, so this demeanor caused the external bullying to naturally dissipate. All of the lines in quotations at the beginning of this piece? In case you didn’t read the title, they were all said to me by me over and over again throughout my life. What a dick. Fortunately, I have trained myself to listen to my thoughts and challenge the ones that sound like this. Whenever I hear myself being a dick to myself, I ask myself the following question: “Is it true? Is it true that she’s way out of my league? Only if I don’t talk to her. Is it true that no one is going to like my presentation? Only if I perform with that underlying belief. Is it true that being a comedy writer for a living is impossible? Only if I don’t try because I think it’s impossible. Is it true that I’m never going to be happy again? Only if I listen and look for all of the reasons why I won’t be happy. Is it true that I’m a piece of shit that no one likes? …I have at least three friends.

Internal bullying, or self-depriciating self-talk, is the skier that starts the avalanche. One of the most important things I have ever learned is in the book “What to Say When You Talk to Your Self” by Shad Helmstetter: Our repeated thoughts become our programming. Our programming creates our beliefs about ourselves and the world around us, whether they’re actually true or not. Our beliefs color our perspectives, or attitudes. Our attitudes make us feel a certain way. Our feelings directly influence our actions. Our results come from our actions.

If we’re not getting the results we want, trace them all the way back to the words we use when we talk to ourselves. If something doesn’t go as planned for me, I listen to the words I tell myself and correct the ones that aren’t serving me so that next time, I get a better result. Self-bullying with negative or limiting thoughts is like shooting yourself in both legs before a marathon and expecting to finish first – it stops us before anyone or anything else even has a chance. Even if anyone or anything else tries to stop you, it’s your thoughts about that thing that can either stop you or propel you to success. No matter if you have re-programmed your brain to think positive, you’re still going to get that asshole bully voice popping up in your thoughts to suggest that your big sales pitch tomorrow is going to end with you losing your job, your wife leaving you, and your brother finding your body hanging by a strand of blinking Christmas lights from a support beam in your basement. Think for yourself, not against yourself, and remember to ask, “Is it really true?” If the thought is negative, chances are it’s that bully again, and the only way to give a bully power is to give truth to the words you say to yourself.

So don’t.

Instead, train that bully to be the coach who will support you and expect the best out of everything that you do.