There were about sixty of us sitting in the room, waiting for the start of a graduate-level psychology class specifically designed to teach interactive counseling techniques.
A few minutes later, the professor took his place at the front of the room and began to briefly outline the course content. After suggesting some additional reading sources, he asked each of us to think about why we were there, and what we hoped to learn as a bunch of soon-to-be therapists.
Then he made a statement that rattled a few, pissed off a few more, and left the rest of us wondering if he might be right
“The reason you’re in this class is because you’re broken. In fact, the reason most of you have chosen to pursue a career in psychological counseling is to give you the opportunity to establish control over others. The long and short of it is this: You’re looking for a way to validate your power, and you’ve chosen to establish your value as a human being by suggesting you know how to “fix” other people’s problems.”
He went on to explain that the classic therapy model was designed to place the therapist in control. The therapist must project and assume the role of the expert, the professional, the one with all the answers. And patients readily accept that premise. Otherwise, they wouldn’t pay for the experience. Someone looking for help isn’t going to shell out a couple hundred dollars an hour to talk to a stranger on the bus.
I thought about that professor’s statement for a long time.
Maybe his rationale for teaching a bunch of wanna-be therapists originated from his own lack of personal confidence or identity. But the reason I was in that class was based on far more than the need to exercise power over others.
I was searching for a better way — better than the violent physical exchanges, senseless confrontations, and the visceral bullying I witnessed on a regular basis during my childhood and teen years.
I wanted to know why so many people seemed obsessed with violence, as if they were predisposed to intentionally behave in ways that would harm others. And I especially wanted to know why their cruelties often targeted the innocent. In short, I simply wanted to know why bad things happened to good people.
Things like . . .
- Why a random stranger decided to attack my twenty-three-year-old sister during her work shift by breaking a Coke bottle over her head and then stabbing her with a commercial meat fork, leaving her on the floor, bleeding and close to death.
- I wanted to know why a fourth-grade teacher took such obvious pleasure in grabbing her nine-year-old students and shaking them with such force that their heads violently jack-knifed back and forth. Mostly, I wondered why none of the other teachers tried to stop her, especially when I watched her victims flailing on the ground, disoriented and holding their heads in pain.
- I wondered why a thirty-something man who frequented my dad’s grocery store had the overwhelming need to brag about the fights he’d been in over the weekend, and how he had left his victims bloodied and broken.
So, I had plenty of my own reasons for being in that psychology class.
And none of them had anything to do with compensating for a lack of self-esteem, boosting my ego, or wanting to exercise control over others.
My search for answers initially started with self-help authors, people like Wayne Dyer and Jim Rohn, both of whom promoted the value in taking a more objective view of the world — and finding a place within it.
Believing I’d found a way to experience the peaceful acceptance of what I could not change, I took up residence in the neighboring houses of psychology and philosophy, resolving to learn everything I could from these new masters.
I earned over sixty hours of graduate-level psychology credit (which I later threw away to change majors). I completed the est training taught by the man himself — Werner Erhard. Then I sat through the PSI World training, and later, Life Spring.
I became a poster boy for seminar junkies.
But the agenda-driven gurus who promised to change my life in exchange for five hundred dollars grew old and repetitive. Looking for an alternative, I spent a year of solid study with Rene Pfaltzgraff, Richard Bandler, and Don Aspromonte, earning credentials in Neuro-Linguistic Programming.
That was thirty years ago.
And much of that education was based on the premise that the vast majority of people — in spite of their ego-centered posturing and intimidating façade — would jump at the chance to be the better person, to do the right thing.
And maybe three decades ago, that was a relatively safe assumption. But since then, I’ve learned — many times the hard way — that not everyone plays by the same rules. And trying to generalize the motivations or make assumptions about the behavior and intentions of others can put you into extremely difficult situations.
And in the worst of circumstances, it can get you killed.
I’m talking about everything from physical altercations on airplanes to random, indiscriminate public attacks that we commonly call mass shootings.
As a culture, we’ve always lived with the possibility of violence.
In a sense, we’ve come to expect it, typically thinking of violence as something that happens to those living on the fringe — in society’s “failure zone.” We’ve told ourselves the overwhelming majority of violent incidents result from criminal activity, or is the unfortunate outcome of situations where the desperate are pushed too far by despair and misery.
In the process, we learned to placate our revulsion to savage brutality by accepting it as the unfortunate but necessary liability of living in a society where malevolent inclinations and predispositions are never questioned until after the fact — when it’s too late.
So from a big picture perspective, most of us have been taught to believe that violence affects only a small part of the population — so small, that the chances of becoming personally involved in the crossfire are simply too insignificant to worry about.
It’s the premise many of us have grown up with.
It was what I told myself as I tried to rationalize the violent acts I witnessed while growing up in what we’ll call the “less desirable” part of my hometown.
“If my family lived in a nicer neighborhood, it wouldn’t be as dangerous,” I told myself.
I told myself other things, too. That, in time, things would improve. Educational standards would rise. Productivity would increase to the point that no one would suffer from hunger, lack of shelter, or the scarcity of basic life necessities. And I wasn’t the only one. Economists had charts and graphs that indicated we were on the right path.
In many ways, it gave me hope.
I began to believe in another couple of decades, the “need” for violence would diminish to the point that physical confrontations would become a rare anomaly.
But those future decades are history now. And the accuracy of my predictions? Well, let’s just call them sadly flawed.
Today, the concepts of compromise, cooperation, and negotiation are much too often replaced with confrontation, intentional baiting and bullying, and outright violence. An unintentional mistake is often interpreted as an intentional attack, requiring immediate retaliatory action.
It’s as if the population’s collective tempers have been set just below a boil, and your smallest, unintended infraction can place you in physical danger.
I know there may be some of you who may think I’m exaggerating the issue, trying to make the situation far worse than it really is.
If so, take a look at these statistics:
A report from the Gun Violence Archive, a non-profit research group, stated that this country saw at least 200 mass shootings in the first 132 days of this year.
A survey by the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) claims nearly 40 percent of Republicans believe political violence is justifiable and may be necessary in the immediate future. Their logic was based on the statement: “If elected leaders will not protect America, the people must do it themselves, even if it requires violent actions.”
On the other side of the fence, twenty-two percentage of Democrats and thirty-five percent of independents indicated they supported violence as a viable method of “retaining traditional American values and way of life.”
And then there’s the escalating rate of racially-motivated violence.
And while it’s something that desperately needs legal and cultural action to protect the rights of people of color, some of the rhetoric that’s coming from those who we would otherwise consider as intelligent and rational is becoming extremely disturbing.
For example, in April of this year, Dr. Aruna Khilanani, a New York psychiatrist told a crowd at Yale University that she has “fantasies of unloading a revolver into the head of any white person that got in my way, burying their body, and wiping my bloody hands as I walked away relatively guiltless with a bounce in my step — like I did the world a fucking favor.” (She made this comment during a public lecture titled “The Psychopathic Problem of the White Mind,” presented at the Yale School of Medicine’s Child Study Center on April 6.)
When someone with this amount of education and influence — someone we would typically look to for their leadership — makes a statement like this, it changes minds and attitudes. For the worse. Even more unfortunate, it can give those on the fence a reason to take sides.
Need more evidence of this growing mindset?
Take a look at the increase in gun sales.
The Washington Post reported there were over two million guns sold in January of this year. That’s an eighty percent increase over the same time period a year ago.
And in 2020, the firearms industry set new records for the number of guns sold — nearly 23 million, which is a 64 percent increase over the previous year.
If you look at public transportation — specifically the airlines — the number of passengers involved in onboard altercations classified as violent and dangerous rose from about one hundred forty in 2019 and 2020 to nearly four hundred in the first five months of this year.
While doing the research for this article, I found more negative stats than I could stomach
And frankly, the numbers made me very depressed, so I’ll save you any more of the analytic argument. And yet, it’s hard to ignore the increased frequency of violence happening all around us. And it makes me wonder…..
Is my neighbor getting ready to gun me down because I voted contrary to his choice of candidate?
Compared to a year ago, is there an even greater likelihood of being targeted as “undesirable” because of race, heritage, or country of origin?
Is victory at any price the philosophy of the new American mindset?
What happened to patience? And reason? And perspective? Why is there such a rush to respond with anger and hatred, much too often expressed as an immediate show of violence?
Yes, the numbers are depressing. But there’s another casualty that comes from this spreading mindset that is just as concerning — the growing stress and worry over the possibility of becoming a target.
And it is changing us.
It’s turning us into a nation of suspicious and guarded individuals. We see a woman standing by the road pointing to a car with the hood up. Do we stop and offer to help. Or is the risk too great?
Here’s the point
Thirty years ago, I believed there were times when you needed to draw a line in the sand.
Instead of telling yourself to calm down, use a little perspective, and put yourself in the other person’s shoes, I suggested getting up, arming yourself with the truth, and making it absolutely clear you would no longer tolerate unacceptable behavior from others. I promoted the idea that expressing yourself with emotional congruency may be exactly what’s needed to extinguish the fire others are hurling at you.
And if it meant pounding your fist to convey your message, then pound like hell.
And no, I wasn’t telling anyone to arm themselves to the teeth and then go looking for trouble. I was saying there are too many people who want to see how far they can push you — to determine what they can get away with. And if you never say, “THAT’S ENOUGH,” they won’t stop until they’ve bled you for every drop of sadistic contrition they can get.
But today, that advice has a very limited value
Especially in a world where respect, authority, and the right to express personal choice have been replaced by extremism, the summary rejection of compromise, and the need to eradicate those who look, think, or act differently than the standards created by those who believe they know what’s best for us.
I wish there was an easy solution — a way to diffuse a ticking time bomb that continues to move closer to midnight. But I’m afraid another ten-step program to learn how to love thy neighbor won’t cut it. At best, it’s four years too late.
As an alternative, we can start with a few guidelines — a personal policy to help us determine what to do under situations of stress and difficulty. Consider it a set of default responses when you’re confronted by those who seek to validate their own beliefs by finding strength in numbers — because they can’t think for themselves.
- Choose your battles carefully. Realize that some things are worth fighting for and others are not. There’s a huge difference between arguing over a missing dime from the change you receive at the store, and defending yourself in a physical attack. Don’t threaten to escalate your actions unless the cost of that escalation is still a price you’re willing to pay — based on what you have to gain or lose.
- Evaluate the situation in the long-term. Before you take any kind of retaliatory action, determine the long-term advantage in walking away versus escalating the situation to a point of confrontation. Yes, I know principles are important. But when your opponent fails to recognize them or refuses to acknowledge them, you must decide what’s best for you and your family in the long-term.
- Use a measured response. When it’s necessary to defend yourself in a verbal confrontation, address the specific issues that are in dispute and avoid enlarging your counter-attack to other areas that are not specific to resolving the situation. That means avoiding the temptation to insult the intelligence, experience, or character of your opponent.
- Avoid taking sides. Certainly, support the causes and organizations you believe in, just realize that not everyone is going to agree that your priorities are well-placed. You can deliver the most intelligent, logical argument to prove your point, but if the opposition is driven by illogical or nonsensical motivations, you might as well try reasoning with a charging rhino.
- Avoid openly proclaiming your opinions to strangers. Yes, you’re entitled to them. And certainly, in the appropriate setting with others who are receptive to the discussion, you’re welcome to explain and if necessary, defend your ideas, beliefs, and motivations. But strangers are likely to consider a differing viewpoint as a personal attack. Those who don’t know you, but ask you to reveal who or what you support, are separating the allies from the enemy. Don’t fall into their trap. Avoid it by allowing others to voice their opinions without expressing your support or opposition.
I’ll leave you with this
As our world becomes more diversified, and our sense of a shared history, traditions, and culture becomes less of a commonality, we can no longer make assumptions about shared attitudes, biases, and preferences. For example, fifty years ago, if you asked an American if they were a patriot, the overwhelming majority would say “yes.” Today, you’ll get the same answer, but that doesn’t mean they support the current administration, a governing democracy, or for that matter, the constitution.
So I hope you’ll make up your own mind.
I hope you won’t be swayed by false drama, fabricated news, or the deceitful agenda of those who seek to mislead others into supporting hostility and conflict by using the dictatorial strategy of divide and conquer. Most of all, I hope you stay safe while maintaining control over your own destiny.
This post was previously published on Equality Includes You.
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