What happens when an entire generation grows up believing that they’re so special they deserve nothing but the best in life? Well, disappointment. And worse.
So, what causes someone to pick up a gun, walk on to a school campus, and start shooting people? Well, that’s not a question I sit around thinking about very often. But a recent online article in Aeon magazine has some insights that I think are worth sharing.
The article, entitled “Running Amok,” was written by Joseph Pierre, a professor of psychiatry at UCLA. In it, he surveys the clinical literature on the perpetrators of mass killings at places like Columbine High School and the University of California at Santa Barbara.
Pierre notes that in the aftermath of these killings, we try to identify some “offending agent,” such as “mental illness, guns, video games, [and] the media,” and then we “set up a kind of quarantine so that it can be banished from society and no longer threaten” us.
The problem is that none of these “offending agents” alone adequately explains these shootings. Pierre cited a paper published in the sadly-named journal “Homicide Studies” that examined these mass murders in depth.
The researchers concluded that “violent entertainment doesn’t seem to be a significant cause of mass murder.” They also concluded that neither “tighter gun control nor arming our schools are likely to reduce mass shootings.”
As for the psychological component, Pierre found that the risk factors associated with mass murder was “not necessarily the domain of mental illness, but rather the ‘psychiatry of everyday life’”—that is, the way we cope with life’s inevitable setbacks and obstacles.
And this is where culture comes in. One researcher has argued that “modern society, with its emphasis on individualism and the pursuit of material happiness, fosters narcissism.” And, in the suburban settings where nearly all the shootings have taken place, “self-worth is defined by the likes of socioeconomic status, achievements in competitive academics and athletics, and fashion.”
In this culture of narcissism, “affronts to self-esteem can be equated with threats to our very survival and … the typical response to such narcissistic injuries is a desire for revenge.”
Sadly, in suburban American parenting, the automatic response to an “affront to self-esteem” is more self-esteem. But Pierre and others suspect that the “promotion of unconditional self‑esteem of children in more affluent family structures instills a kind of”—here’s that word again—“entitlement.”
Instead of self-esteem being a reward for “good achievement or behavior,” feeling good about ourselves comes to be seen as something that the world and our peers owe us. In more extreme cases, “When the happiness and social status that one feels is deserved is not forthcoming, feelings of peer rejection, resentment and blame can become all-consuming.”
In the most extreme, and thankfully, extremely rare instances, it can turn violent.
Pierre asks parents to consider “re-assessing some of our cultural values and teach our children . . . how to resolve conflicts, and cope with loss.”
Agreed. But we also need to shape their expectations and get them past a sense of entitlement. They need to know that life is filled with pain, sickness, insults, and failures. And overcoming them is often difficult. Anyone who promises them otherwise is lying. Harsh words, but true.
Second, they need to know they’re not special—at least they are no more special than any other man, woman, or child made in the image of God. But they are loved. And that love—the source of true self-worth and happiness—is found at the foot of the cross.
— by Eric Metaxas
Metaxas is currently the voice of Breakpoint, a radio commentary (www.breakpoint.org).