Friday, May 30, 2014

"The only cure for loneliness, despair, and hopelessness is love."

photo by Tim
By Mary C. Tillotson

I was saddened to hear about the shooting over Memorial Day weekend. Like many of the mass shootings we’ve seen over the past few years, it was arguably a “suicide with murder as an epiphenomenon, rather than murder that happens to end in suicide.” Most times when I read about these kinds of events, my heart breaks for the shooter, who always seems to feel deeply alone and unloved.

In the days following a tragedy, it’s only natural to feel a desperate desire to undo it, to rewind and try again to get it right. But we can’t, so we wonder how it could have been prevented and how to prevent it from happening again. I saw this in my news feed from Politico last week:

'RED FLAGS CAME TOO LATE': The start of Memorial Day weekend was interrupted by tragedy late Friday when 22-year-old Elliot Rodger killed six people and wounded 13 before killing himself near the University of California, Santa Barbara. The Los Angeles Times reports on the warning signs: "According to interviews with Rodger's acquaintances, law enforcement officials and mental health professionals, all that was known about the 22-year-old college student was that he was terribly sad. And being sad is not a crime, nor the sort of mental state that would, alone, cross a legal threshold requiring official response."

Being sad is not a crime, nor the sort of mental state that would, alone, cross a legal threshold requiring official response.

That, taken alone, is as it should be – it’s frightening to imagine a world where those not showing sufficient cheerfulness are automatically referred to a government psychologist for evaluation. But that’s bureaucracy, politics, and a legal system, and I don’t want to talk about any of those. I want to talk about real human relationships, and love.

People need to know they’re loved. This is an awkward thing to talk about in politics and policies and legal systems, and in one sense it doesn’t really belong there. Love isn’t the sort of thing that works in systems. Love isn’t a list of obligations that can be written down, tallied up, or checked off; love is the result of a decision to orient your life and dispose your heart in a way that prioritizes others.

We could make a legal system with ever more regulations to catch all the sad people before they crack, to check them off a list and wash our hands of responsibility – but we don’t need that; we need love. People need to know that they matter, that they are valuable, that they are loved. I don’t know how they’re going to find out if nobody tells them.

Next time you’re at the grocery store or on an airplane or otherwise in public, look for ways to make a connection with the people around you. You probably won’t become besties with them, and you may not thwart any rampages, but that’s not the point. The point is that person matters, and they probably need to hear it. There are plenty of ways to do this without being weird about it.

I used to babysit a two-year-old who loved going to the library. One day at the library he was fussy, fussy, fussy. It was frustrating and embarrassing. A man who looked about 60 was there with his toddler granddaughter; he noticed my awkwardness, looked at me (thinking I was the boy’s mom) and said, “Some days are like that, aren’t they?” That was all it took to tell me he recognized my frustration, didn’t think I was an idiot for feeling that way, and wasn’t judging me for having a fussy kid.

Another time, I had a flat tire and my go-to person for things like this had thrown out his back, so I scrambled to find someone else. I called someone I only sort of knew, and I was flustered and embarrassed to be asking him. I felt bad; I mean, didn’t he have more important stuff to do this evening? He came out to help, and when he finished changing the tire, he beamed with accomplishment. It was the first one he’d ever changed and he was proud of himself. He hadn’t solved all of poverty, but he had made a difference in the world; he mattered, and I had (unintentionally) acknowledged that.

We need more of this. What can you do? Be the one to break the ice. Pick up pens that other people drop if they land near you. Ask tall strangers to get that box of cereal the grocery store obnoxiously keeps on the top shelf. When you’re traveling, ask the people around you where they’re from and where they’re headed. Smile at babies and toddlers. Let the hardware store worker show you where the paint is even if you already know. Smile and say thank you. Find ways to make real human connections and let people know they matter. Nudge the world a little further toward love and relationship.

Actual mental illnesses, like clinical depression or anxiety disorders, can’t be cured by a smile from a stranger, and I know that. The LA Times article linked above noted that many people tried to befriend the young man who was “terribly sad,” and were met with a cold shoulder. I admire them for their kindness, and from the young man’s own comments, it seems there was a disconnect between him and the world, and it seems it was hard for him to receive kindness.

But I think we ought to be kind anyway. Between advertisements and career competition, most people are constantly nudged (and sometimes outright shoved) toward feelings of worthlessness and loneliness, and not everybody has a stable network of friends and family reminding them that they are loved.

So I think we should tell them.


  1. And this is all easy to do, and it makes us feel better, too. It's not that hard to be nice to people.

    1. I agree. I just talked to a young woman whose mother had taught her to say something nice any time a nice thing popped into her head. Her mother told her maybe it's her guardian angel or the Holy Spirit prompting her to say something the other person really needs to hear, even if it's something as simple as "your skirt looks really cute."


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