Tragic Results of a Mistaken Identity

Crime sceneI heard someone say in an interview recently, that there is only one good reason to talk about and discuss the perpetrator of shocking crime or tragic event. That is to see what can be learned and done to prevent something similar from happening again.  That is my intent with this post.

A Tragic Event

On the night of May 23, 2014 a young man – a student at University of California Santa Barbara – went on a shooting spree in a community not far from the campus, killing 6 people and wounding 13 others.  The shocking and tragic shooting ended when he apparently took his own life with a bullet to the head.

A few days later, an out-of state colleague wrote an email note to me acknowledging the sadness and pain of the incident and offering compassionate thoughts.  Knowing how involved I am with the work of forgiveness, he also speculated how things might have been different, if the young man had known how to forgive.  Below is a slightly edited version of the first part of my response.

“Thank you for your thoughts and intentions for us as Californians and as humans. You’re right, this is a young man who appears to have known only anger, hatred and blame. He apparently knew of no better way to deal with his pain than to lash out at those he saw as culprits and oppressors.

I sent you an email just a little bit ago… In it, I shared about my desire and drive to educate people – to teach them more constructive, useful and empowered perspectives and ways of thinking. Elliot Rodger and the sadly, horrific crime he committed, give a stark example of why this kind of education is needed.

I agree that had this young man learned to forgive… things would likely have played out very differently. But there’s so much more than just forgiveness involved! His act of violence was spawned from a belief system, a world view and a personal narrative that cast him as both the victim and the avenger. This was obviously not a healthy way of seeing his circumstances and thinking about himself.

We can say that he had psychological problems, that perhaps he was mentally ill. I don’t know, I’ll leave it to the mental health professionals to determine that. But I would assert that he had perceptual problems, perspective problems, interpretive problems. He seems to have lacked the knowledge and understanding to be able to choose to interpret and view his situation in any more positive or constructive way.”

A Mistaken Identity

Security concept: Identity on alphabet backgroundA little later as I was again thinking about the incident it occurred to me that the entire thing was the result of mistaken identity – many mistaken identities actually.

Elliot Rodger seems to have mistakenly identified himself as both a beleaguered victim to the circumstances, as someone unwanted and unloved and as one who needed to seek vengeance on others.  He mistakenly identified other people as being the cause of his pain and suffering.  He made up a narrative and plot line about himself and his life that validated those misconceptions and justified his randomly violent actions.

Continuing on with the email response…

This incident is yet another call to action. In order to forgive, people have be able and willing to change their perspective on an event or circumstance, to choose to extract value and learning from it and then to change their story and beliefs about it.

The problem is that too many people don’t even have an inkling that they can do any of those things. They believe instead that their current interpretations and ways of thinking are the only reality and that they’re stuck with it all no matter what.

Forgiveness is key, it is so important. And there are so many factors that contribute to one’s ability to forgive. There is so much for us to do in terms of raising awareness and educating people in this regard. Especially the young, because they are the ones most able to easily learn and adopt new ways of being.

Extracting the Lessons

positive thinking word cloudSo there is something to be learned and there are actions to be taken that may help prevent this sort of senseless killing and other violence in the future.  An important lesson I believe, is that as individuals and as a society, we are sorely lacking in emotional education.

It’s the kind of education that teaches people how to deal with upset, disappointment, anger, shame and blame in healthy ways. It’s the kind of education that encourages people to eschew the victim mentality and to take personal responsibility for their own thoughts, beliefs and circumstances.

Collectively we’ve failed to train people to recognize and use their emotions as tools for self-insight and understanding.  We’ve failed to teach people to be flexible and adaptable in their thinking.  We’ve failed to support them to be able to create empowering yet compassionate belief systems and to choose positively focused, useful narratives about themselves and their circumstances.  We continue to allow a huge segment of our population to mistakenly identify themselves as perpetual victims to circumstances, rather than being capable, resourceful and adaptable human beings.

Concepts about and tools for forgiveness have been certainly lacking in our culture.  Yet true forgiveness can only happen when someone is able to adopt an emotionally healthy, empowered perspective from which to view themselves and others.

A primary purpose of this website is to help promote and deliver emotional education.  My recent book, The Forgiveness Handbook emphasizes both forgiveness and emotional education.  It is something I’m committed to.

What Can You Do?

Take Action words on Blue Road SignBecome a student of emotional education. Learn the concepts and skills and practice them for yourself as an example to those around you.  Become knowledgeable and engage others in these kinds of conversations. Share books, blogs, videos and other forms of media on the topic.

Advocate for change.  Join me here, or find some other way to make a difference in this regard. The request I would make though is, “Please do something.”

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4 Responses to Tragic Results of a Mistaken Identity

  1. John says:

    “We continue to allow a huge segment of our population to mistakenly identify themselves as perpetual victims to circumstances, rather than being capable, resourceful and adaptable human beings.”

    Cliff the reality is that beyond “allow” in the sentence above, as a culture we have come to cultivate and encourage “victimhood” and systemic dependency that crushes individual initiative and results in a hopelessness bred by the perceived inability to control personal circumstances.

    Forgiveness only salves the injury; prevention of the injury is the key and that prevention lies in the restoration of personal responsibility. The problem is that when “the system” or a bureaucracy is involved, individual responsibility is abrogated and accountability is clouded and diluted. In the case discussed, there were probably a dozen opportunities to intercede effectively in the course of this tragedy through conscientious execution of individual and professional responsibilities. In general, the system is too busy covering it’s collective tracks, denying responsibility, and blaming the tools used to inflict the murder and mayhem to deal with the root causes.

    • Cliff Edwards says:

      Hi John,

      Thanks for your comments. I agree wholeheartedly that prevention of such events is crucial. You mention personal responsibility as key and I agree there too. Forgiveness is but one piece of a larger puzzle. This is where emotional education comes in – teaching responsibility and other important concepts/practices at the individual level. Real forgiveness is impossible from the perspective of a victim.

      Unfortunately I also have to agree that as a culture we do in many ways encourage people to adopt the perspective of victimhood and cultivate other deleterious belief systems and ways of thinking. There is much in our governmental and societal systems that is need of adjustment and/or overhaul. I focus on education of the individual at this point. Because I believe that systemic change starts with empowered, responsible individuals taking action in their own lives and spheres, then migrates ‘up and out’ into the larger whole.

  2. Barbara says:

    So beautifully said. I love the concept of mistaken identity.

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