Just recently, a 12-year-old boy brought into school a sawed-off shotgun in Roswell, N.M., and shot two classmates. And a 71-year-old retired policeman in Florida killed a young father in a movie theater because he was tweeting his child before the movie started.
We have listened to myriad reasons for this: lack of mental health treatment programs, video games, violent movies and TV shows, the breakdown of the family, the decline of religion, a lousy economy, and the availability of guns.
My angle is something different: "depersonalization." What I mean by this is an inability to experience other human beings with empathy, compassion, understanding — and yes, love. "Hardness of heart" is the biblical term, which is as descriptive of the modern phenomenon as any term in a psychiatric textbook.
Many studies have shown that urbanization has contributed to people feeling "alienated" in impersonal cities. The loss of a sense of community in churches is a factor for some people. Our obsession with television, video games, movies, etc., can create a sense of isolation from the world.
I would add here another recent obsession: tweeting, using Facebook, and sitting in front of a computer screen — as I am doing as I write this. How often do we use social media to communicate rather than taking the time to sit down face to face with someone?
In the gym, many who work out have ear plugs inserted for music, which does not invite conversation. In fact it is a signal to "bug off."
School bullying no doubt causes many students to feel alienated from their classmates, and large schools do create a depersonalized environment. I know from my own experience that leaving a small town for a large university is a daunting introduction to adult life.
Psychologists (Milgram, 1965; Zimbardo, 1969) have shown that when people fail to experience others as individuals, they may become more boldly aggressive, impulsive and punitive. For example, bombardiers in wartime often have reported feeling immune about dropping their explosives; but when the victim is closer, and his or her pain is more evident, the aggressor may become more sensitized and hence more reluctant to administer violence.
Such studies show that depersonalization is an important factor in violence, whether in declared wars or wars on our city streets, or now in our schools. One theory of why members of Congress are at each other's throats is that most members spend little time in Washington and have few close friends among their colleagues.
How do we create empathy, compassion and tender feelings for others when the heart has already grown cold, for whatever sociological or psychological reason?
No easy answers here. Working on creating warm, caring communities in our schools and churches is part of the solution. Working to alleviate poverty so families have a fighting chance of staying together without fear and suffering is part of the solution. Limiting TV and computer time, and spending much more time with real human beings is part of the solution. Beefing up our mental health facilities is part of the solution.
Each one of us taking the time to reach out to those we know who are isolated, lonely and hurting would be of great help.
Why is it that, in so many of our school shootings, it is the teacher who gives his or her life to save students? Because, as teachers, they were emotionally connected to their students. No depersonalization here! Those teachers who sacrificed their own lives to save their students had empathy, compassion and love for those entrusted to their care.
May such teachers be our model for what is desperately needed in our present impersonal culture.
— By the Rev. Henry Idema, Tribune religion columnist