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The Anguish of Littleton The Anguish of America

How could it happen here? The cries rose up in a litany across the land in response to the tragic terrorist murder-suicides at Littleton. The more I heard this litany, the more amazed I became that so many of us have barely a clue as to why this type of event continues to wrench at the viscera of American society.

Perhaps a sense of the obvious comes to me as a result of almost a generation of providing professional counseling to individuals and families of this society. Others in my field are producing the research and statistics in our struggle with the issues of why kids kill kids. I would like to share my perceptions at a deeper level – at the level where clinical experience blends with common wisdom and where the psychological discipline becomes as much an art as a science. Maybe then a deeper chord will be struck, where the depth of our answers meets the anguished level of our questions. So, bear with me as I speak as one who has had the privilege and the burden of listening, observing and sharing in the secret pains and agonies of families and individuals living in a society that is in a state of collective insanity.

Today, America is an experiment out of control. As a society, we began with great vision, based on a sense of powerful spiritual values. Our forbears, many of whom had fled from persecution for religious differences, had a common goal of building a Democratic society where all were free to pursue their happiness and practice their spiritual callings according to their personal vision. From that time, up to the middle of this century, this diminishing set of spiritual values was held in common to varying degrees in all religious traditions. These spiritual values served as the glue that held our society together.

Children were raised with concepts like "honor" and "integrity" -- terms rarely heard in modern day society. Life was not only simpler, but the value of simplicity was a commonly shared value – as was the concept of family. We lived close to the land and close to Nature. Then, somewhere along the way, the "progress" of emerging industrial society began to fracture the spiritual seams of our civilization. Spirituality as a common basis of experiencing reality was replaced by a materialistic basis for experiencing reality. The earlier atrocities of religion and the atrocities of slavery and of stealing land from indigenous inhabitants contributed greatly to generating this psycho-spiritual decompensation of Western culture.

Values of togetherness -- from the family to the community -- and of simplicity were replaced with materialistic values of acquisition and progress. Forced slavery was replaced with economic slavery, as people left land and family and came to subject themselves to the growing industrial institutions. As science emerged with the materialistic focus borne of sensory-based objectivity, the industrial robber barons evolved out of the Darwinian-based rationale of survival-of-the-fittest. Now, exploitation of others, for material gain and power could be justified.

The reductionistic approach of science in our particular culture helped in leading to technological advances, but divided our disciplines and understanding of reality to such a degree that we lost our wholistic perspective of the inter-relatedness of all things. Now, exploitation of the environment, for material gain and power could be justified.

As we became more focused on material reality, it became easier to re-define the concept of power. The spiritual value of virtually all religious traditions, involving surrendering personal power to tap into the Ultimate Power behind all things, was increasingly ignored. The concept of freedom redefined itself as the quest for personal power and property. Competition emerged as a major theme in our society – and today, nobody appreciates the distinction of freedom for ourselves versus freedom from ourselves.

So many potentially wonderful technological developments have been abused in the name of our evolving materialist culture. With the development of electricity, it became policy to fracture our circadian rhythms and our families by "evolving" night employment. Schools "evolved" as education systems based on industrial-based factory models, where kids were pumped full of answers before they had opportunity to ask the questions where teaching methods and desk designs were standardized for the 90 % majority and the 10 % minority were "diagnosed" as rejects.

The spiritual value of cooperation (we’re all in this together) was replaced with the materialist value of competition. Spirituality-based concepts on the theme of interdependency do not mix with the competitive model, and thus, we have an increasingly fragile, overspecialized infrastructure – populated by workers enslaved by their over-specializations in unstable employment settings.

After fighting the two grisly world wars that initiated the race of technology, our civilization became enmeshed in the ultimate power struggle based upon two economic models of government. As we prided ourselves over the fall of communism, we failed to perceive that the underlying basis for BOTH systems was materialistic! Without the spiritual foundation of the society from which it emerged, capitalism will fail as surely as communism did – and it is failing, regardless of what the stock market is doing. With the rich and powerful increasingly preying on the less advantaged, we are now coming to bear on the lessons of how spiritual bankruptcy can reap more devastation on a society than economic depression.

A clinical diagnosis of a society is not unlike diagnosing an individual or a family – we look for the signs and symptoms – and these are rampant in our society. What began as a democracy is rapidly becoming a corporatocracy, with big business lobbying the direction of virtually all aspects of government. Gone are the days of loyalty (such as it was) between employer and employee. Corporations gobble each other up in an unprecedented feeding frenzy as they downsize and outsource – anything to maximize the bottom line. It no longer matters who gets hurt in the process of the acquisition of money and power. Managed care (an oxymoron typical of today’s double-talk) has decimated health care in this country and compromised even the moral sensibilities of our healers. Most of the economic gains of recent times are enjoyed by a distinct wealthy minority in our society, as more and more people work harder and harder for less and less security.

The parlance of war is increasingly applied in our corporate boardrooms and our sports arenas as we exchange terms like, "smashing the competition" and apply tactics inspired by The Prince and The Art of War. The "progress" born of irresponsible, greed-driven competition has brought our children increasingly violent, realistic and gruesome games; inundated them with increasingly bizarre, high shock-value music filled with angry and hate-filled lyrics; and challenged the very worth of living an apparent banal, simple and meaningful life by ever more shocking, violent cinema.

Unlike the parent generation, which faced a war in far-off Vietnam, our youth of today face war on the home front of our households, our streets and communities. It is a spiritual war escalating in a society driven out-of control by its relentless pursuit of the materialistic goals of power, money and progress. Values, like honor and integrity, were the first victims. The child victims of this war are the latchkey children, sequestered in their household compounds, where they receive their nurture from their music and their games and the other explosive media that are the "incoming rounds." In this war, the wounded children also search hopelessly for their parents – parents who often are not to be found. They too are casualties, fighting on the front lines of a corporate world too engaged in smashing the competition to care about releasing parents to the home front for adequate family time.

Here, the war is usually more subtle but just as lethal, and like Vietnam, the enemy could be anywhere. We are all competitors for the material American Dream. We are the "In-Your-Face" Society. Combat is everywhere and our children are learning survival skills as others take their rights-of-way at the street corner and cut into the checkout line. They turn to each other for succor as the adults of their world suckle them on the sound bites that pass for cultural wisdom. Their pleas to be heard are swallowed in the commercial swill packed between prime-time premieres. And what of the premieres in the lives of our children? Their premieres don’t count in our spiritual-war-ravaged land. Baby’s first steps go unnoticed by harried daycare workers, and sister’s first painting got buried unnoticed in daddy’s briefcase, and the kindergartner’s new word of the day is foul fare learned from a high school child in the back of a crowded school bus. Battle-weary parents pay little attention to the boy’s pleas from the back seat: "Nobody asked me if I cared about soccer, because beating the other parents’ kids was what it was all about. Nobody cared about my being made a fool in a game I care nothing about, but to me, it was really all about winning you – not the damn game!"

Psychological warfare is never more lethal than in a spiritual war. Duplicity and double-talk are the order of the day. Political correctness is shouted to the rooftop satellite dishes in a society where the war refugees are underpaid minorities, imported for the dirty work. Women’s rights and feminine qualities are acknowledged while the machismo aggressiveness of corporate culture has forced the masculinization of women for the sake of their survival. A population once defined as "citizens" is now referred to as "consumers" by a government held hostage by the lobbyist-warriors of corporate statesmen. The boundaries of privacy are being violated daily by corporate raiders who invade our homes through the phone lines, steal the intelligence of our personal lives through our home computers, and who employ our health-care workers in espionage tactics to maximize their advantages in the Battle for the Bottom Line. "War" is waged on illegal drugs, except where politically indicated otherwise. Yet, the most lethal drugs are the legal ones that generate the other prisoner- and death-by-addiction casualties, while adding to spoils of the tobacco, alcohol and pharmaceutical industries.

The tragedy of Littleton has no hope of being understood until we recognize that those young shooters and bombers were, first, victims in the spiritual war that ravishes our land. It has often been said that a society is judged by how it treats its children, and our children are the casualties of this war. This out-of-control, greed- and power-driven society will be inherited by our children. And they know something is wrong. They see the devastation all around them and they see an uncertain future where all tradition seems to have been abandoned for "a New World Order" that is not ordered at all. Even today, many of our children have less experience in the games of adulthood. Being closer to their Essence, they can still see through the duplicity and denial to the emptiness and meaninglessness of our materialist, power-driven culture. Tragically, so many face emotional and physical abandonment by parents. They face institutions with little viability due to poorly funded programs, bureaucratic suffocation and understaffing by over-worked, underpaid help. They are all too eagerly courted by a corporate world that has no scruples about filling the emptiness of their lives with more and more things to buy; more and more thrills to experience. Anne Wilson Schaef describes us as the addictive society, and we are fostering addiction in our youth. By not being there for our youth in terms of providing a supportive, nurturing structure in their lives, we are fostering rage in our youth.

Our society has a place to go for all stages of our lives, except for our youth. What does this say about our culture? We have day care facilities and even fast food restaurants specially or partially themed for children. We have retirement centers and communities and clubs for our elders. Since the demise of drive-in restaurants and other such hangouts, our youth have almost nowhere to go that truly meets their needs. For reasons that should be obvious by now, shopping malls and cruising are not meeting the valid social needs of our youth.

Our system of education teaches our children and youth the "3Rs." Yet, there is a fourth "R" that is ultimately more important than the other three – and it is not taught formally in our schools. That "R" is Relationships – with ourselves, with others, with society and with the deeper questions and answers that can bring ultimate meaning to our lives. This discipline is a science in itself, yet this society of broken homes and dysfunctional families requires its young to make their "best guess" when it comes to establishing the relationships that will lead to a new generation of families.

Since the most critical work of school counselors in our materialist society is intangible – helping youth to develop, to heal, or to find themselves does not produce a physical product – the crucial work of counseling is undervalued. Counselors in the school setting are grossly misemployed. In most schools, they are burdened with scheduling and other administrative tasks that often make them less available to meet the students’ more critical intangible needs. This is no surprise to counselors and other helping professionals, who live in a society that largely continues to perceive getting help as a stigma, while the "inside joke" of the profession is the valid observation that the healthiest people are the ones who seek counseling. As a society, we musk make an immediate collective commitment to restructure learning in a way that validates the universal human quest for relationship and meaning in life. Children who have these needs met will not be at risk of shooting their classmates.

So, what are we telling our youth? How is it that we, as a culture, are so far in denial or out-of-touch that we are completely at a loss as to why some kids are killing each other in our schools? Is it a surprise that some youth, overwhelmed with the impact of spiritual warfare, would physically act out their rage and confusion with real guns and bombs? How could a violent, competitive-at-all-costs, me first, materialistic society -- that is driven to maximize pleasure and minimize pain -- not expect to socialize at least a few of its children to strike out in their sense of rage and abandonment? Without massive positive change, at least for the sake of our children, I fear tragedies like Littleton will continue.

First, we must recognize that we are fighting a spiritual war. The battle lines in a spiritual war are drawn inside us. We must have the courage and take the time to explore the ultimate questions and to seek higher meaning in our lives. What really matters in life? Is employment or career more important than family? Can material answers to spiritual and social yearnings really meet our needs? If we feel that the religious or spiritual teachings of our earlier lives have failed us, we should seek the answers until we find what works for us. Values like honor and integrity must be fostered and taught, once again, to our youth. I believe the majority of people in our society recognize at some level that we are off course, but we must all have the courage to see the truth and make changes in our individual lives, our family lives and in the life of our community.

There is no profession more sacred than the one of parenting. No work or career, no relationship, should come before that. There is no duty of government more sacred than protecting the role of parenting and fostering the highest development of its children. It has been determined through research that even one caring adult in the life of a youth can make all the difference in the course of that youth’s life. It is the responsibility of all adults to hold all children in our hearts. When we truly cherish our children, the killing will stop.

Granville Angell, EdS, LPC, NCC

Copyright 4/99 by Granville Angell

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