Our Young Men

The current gun debates raging in this country were triggered by the horrific massacre in Newtown, Connecticut, by a young man – Adam Lanza.  It is important to name him because he was a person, he was a member of the community in which he committed this reprehensible act, he was a human being.  Unfortunately, this was not an isolated incident but merely the latest in a string of extremely violent acts carried out by young men who would otherwise be considered intelligent (some, extremely so) and educated.  The second tragedy after the loss of life and wounding of bodies, is the failure on our part as a society to consider the reasons for these events and to attempt to address them.  Instead, like most things, this sad and dangerous issue has instead been used as a political tool to battle over issues that were irrelevant to this tragedy.  Have we lost the opportunity to examine the root causes of why some of our young men turn on us and commit extreme acts of violence?

Could it be that we are ignoring the impact that a rapidly changing society has on the human being as a natural and physical creature?  Consider this, human culture – especially our modern, high-tech one – has the ability to rapidly change because of a variety of new technologies.  The speed at which information is exchanged around the world continues to grow exponentially as does the volume.  New ideas can be accepted in a matter of years that in the past would have taken decades or centuries.  We should not underestimate the impact of this.  The socio-biologist E.O. Wilson discusses in his works the problem that cultural evolution can take place very quickly while biological evolution is an extremely slow process by comparison.  What does this mean?  It means that while the world changes around us, we have the same genetic material and inherited triggers from millennia in the past.  There are traits, defenses, characteristics that are encoded within us.  This can explain why, for example, attempts to transform gender roles are sometimes resisted even by those whom the change is supposed to benefit.  It just doesn’t “feel” right.  Fortunately for human beings, we have a very adaptive mind that can often adjust to change quickly and our will can overcome innate characteristics to some degree.  But it is a struggle to do so.

What does this have to do with some of our troubled young men?  They are born with ingrained characteristics over the millennia that say that their role is to hunt, kill, protect, compete, and reproduce.  I’m not going to apologize for being politically incorrect, because this is fact and is readily observable throughout nature.  So we take these young men and what do we do with them?  At a relatively early age we basically tell them to sit down and shut up.  We particularly expect this of them as their hormones are in high gear physically transforming them into men who are becoming larger and more powerful.  They will compete with each other, they will test one another, they will form alliances, they will form bonds, and they will reject those who can’t cut it.  (Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, anyone?)  They will do all of this with much bravado and insecurity because they know they have not yet proven their manhood – and they don’t quite know how.  But they will try to find a way.

And where do they look for the answers, to understanding who they are and what on earth they are doing here?  Schools who are merely interested in them behaving and taking standardized tests?  Parents who have broken up and are dealing with their own crises or self-indulgent occupations?  Adults for whom they have no respect?  Most likely, they will turn to their peers, which can be dangerous or life-saving depending on the situation.  And what of those who are the outcasts?  Where do they turn, what answers do we have for them?

I am not a psychiatrist or sociologist, I am an attorney.  But I think I have one qualification that permits me to speak on this – I was a young man.  Not only that, my life as a young man was one that was filled with odd behavior, struggles, insecurities, depression, and the list goes on.  I came from a home that had marital separation and divorce.  I was introspective and lacked confidence.  I often escaped into the realm of fantasy, just to escape reality.  I had an affinity for things militaristic and related to warfare.  I had a gun.  My behavior was so different that my senior class voted me “Most Unique” upon graduation.  If I had grown up in today’s America, I have no doubt I would have been closely watched and drugged.  After the Columbine massacre, I had a discussion with a high school friend who said that if that had happened while we were in high school I and my group of friends would have been rounded up, thoroughly investigated, and monitored.

I know what my thoughts were back then and can recall them even today.  I knew I was different, and I knew that it would make life hard for me in the pack.  I faced a real level of rejection and persecution that most people likely would have tried to avoid.  The millennia of genetic coding was trying to make me grow up, society was telling me to conform, but the structure around me was shaky.  Why did things work out okay for me, when that was by no means assured?  I often think that it was a confederacy of knights who made the difference for me, and that America was a different place then.  When my parents divorced, I lived with my father rather than my mother.  As a new teenager, I can not overemphasize the importance of this:  young men need mature men as guides.  My father, whose name is Gary, was there for me not with a lot of great words, but by simply doing what he had to do every day.  There were also three teachers, all men, who had confidence in me.  They were aware of my rabid non-conformity, and encouraged it.  Their acceptance through simple actions and rarely with words let me know that I could be true to myself.    One would stay after school just to talk about life and what was important.  That action alone said, “you have value.”  And then there were my friends.  I was extremely fortunate in that, despite my weirdness and geekiness, there was a large circle of friends who were accepting, communicative, fun, and sometimes just as odd as I was.  Most were other young men, though there were some important girls in that group, too.  We joked around, played sports, engaged in combat, went on adventures – some of which we do not speak about to this day.  There were rites of passage of one form or another, and every young man needs that.  Cultures throughout history demonstrate this.  The point is this, young men who are struggling, who are having difficulty in the transition into manhood need other men to come alongside them as guides and protectors, and they need to test themselves against these men.  They need to know that men whom they respect accept them.  But that’s an important part – children can see through all of the fakery.  The respect has to be there.

Finally, there is the issue of society.  I grew up in a small farming community in western New York.  We did not have computers, cell phones, video games.  Life was laid back there, and the schools did not feel the need to interfere too much in the lives of children unless there was a serious and obvious problem.  It was extremely rare for anyone to be on some type of behavior-modifying drug.  We were given a great deal of freedom.  For an understanding of the time and place where I grew up, I recommend Scott Dalrymple’s “The day I took a gun to school,” in the May 1, 2013, Washington Post (http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/the-day-i-took-a-gun-to-school/2013/05/01/398e65ca-b0dc-11e2-bbf2-a6f9e9d79e19_story.html).  Furthermore, the schools did not have “zero-tolerance” policies for anything.  Why should people growing into adulthood and making mistakes along the way have to comply with any kind of “zero-tolerance” policy?  Making mistakes is what growing up is about.  I had breathing space.  I could experiment with who I was, who I was to become.  My fear is that less and less do our children, in particular our young men, have that breathing space.  Boys are rambunctious, loud, and crude.  Praise the Lord!  And society should be there to help them become men – not to turn them into repressed inward looking desk sitters ready to blow from the internal chemicals that are urging them to hunt, kill, protect, and reproduce.  For their and our benefit we should be helping them express those instincts in constructive ways, in groups, that have the active involvement of responsible men.  This would help all of the young men out there, for there are many, many more that are damaged and in despair who do not pick up a gun and start killing people.  And when one is in trouble, when the warning signs grow and reclusiveness and rejection of society begins to take hold, then there will be someone to step in and get help.