Editor’s note: Susan Bodnar is a clinical psychologist who teaches at Columbia University’s Teachers College and at The Stephen Mitchell Center for Relational Studies. She lives in Manhattan with her husband, two children and all of their pets.
By Susan Bodnar, Special to CNN
(CNN) - Too often, we allow ourselves to be defined by our differences.
We are either red state or blue state; 1% or 99%; Muslim, Jewish, Catholic, Protestant; black, white or brown; pro-life or pro-choice.
For or against gun control.
The citizens of this country speak strongly and divisively. After all, it is baked in our American identity. This dissent, we argue, creates a healthy democracy, and an inquisitive mind.
But sometimes too much difference can cause dysfunction.
As a psychologist I have often witnessed the distinct parts of a person’s mind come apart so strongly that extreme mental illness emerges.
Let’s not let this be our country’s fate.
Unity holds our country’s promise. May we offer it as a legacy to those taken away from us so senselessly?
Let’s let the little angels and their keepers who died so tragically become our inspiration for a society of difference that works together.
When so many little children die, as they did in the Sandy Hook tragedy, and when heroic teachers, a school psychologist and a principal are called upon to defend the lives of little ones with their own, we have two choices.
We can succumb to the base ugliness of despair.
Or we can repair.
Can we finally admit and agree that we have a problem with violence in our country and decide to fix it?
Sometimes so much focus on our collective differences obscures the valiant and expansive nature of the American character.
This weekend, however, we cried together.
Perhaps we found a way to honor our differences while also unifying for our children.
At the Sandy Hook memorial service, the nation witnessed Jews, Christians, Muslims, B’hai – black, white and brown – come together to mourn and to pray.
It felt like the template for our future.
President Obama asked us, “Can we say that we’re truly doing enough to give all the children of this country the chance they deserve to live out their lives in happiness and with purpose?”
We are not.
The knowledge that we have not done our best for our children lingers: Our kids need to know they can rely on us to manage our differences like the adults we are.
Coming together despite - or even because of - our differences happens more rarely than hearing about another episode of mass violence.
There is a better way.
The courage to create a country where all people can be different but equal, the same but also unique, characterizes the potential of our American identity.
We have shown this when we abolished slavery, rose from the ashes of war, and how we rebuilt after 9/11.
Now, again, is the time to build unity in our diversity – without losing the vestiges of a cultural past to which we are attached.
We can comfort our children, everyone’s children, and the children we once were with the patchwork quilt that symbolizes our national character and identity.
We can make collective decisions about mental health care, better gun control and rein in aspects of the violent entertainment world that holds our kids’ dreams hostage to cynicism and rage.
We can create an economy that fairly enables every person to enjoy individual levels of success while protecting that patchwork quilt that keeps us going, makes us strong and gives every child the same fair chance to thrive.
We can create a society where every person has the chance to live out his or her life in happiness and with purpose.
Will this prevent tragedy?
Will it prevent evil?
But it can make overcoming evil possible.
When the adults of this world can say we have done our absolute best, we can blunt evil’s impact, and provide our children an example that can sustain them through the worst of times.
Just wondering why no mention about the possible long term fall out and effects on young children of divorced parents no matter how amicable the separation appear on the surface..
rdha – I think you may be trying to say that we also need to talk the role of social issues in the role of violence. My position on this is that we need to think about the problem of violence in America from a psychological and cultural perspective and the enact sensible laws to keep people safe. Lots of people experience difficult divorces. I haven't seen any studies linking that to an increased tendency toward violence. I have seen studies that children of divorced parents have a harder time forming long-term relationships.
I would like to think that the only reason we don't mount our unicorns and sing Kumbaya is that unicorns are mythological.
Maybe the hard nosed approach that describes a plea for peace as drivel is part of the problem.
nicely stated, Nick.
Blame will not solve the problem of Violence, or most likely any other problem.
Investigation might better solve the problem. Maybe by employing tools such as:
...when you have eliminated all which is impossible, then whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.'
Now lets start a check list:
1. Mental illness – possible
2. Available weapons – possible
3. Evil – possible
4. Ignorance – possible
5. Self Righteousness – possible
6. Self Control – possible
Maybe I should have started with the impossibles. Can anyone help?
Hi Last stone carver, I like the list. These are the factors with which we begin. So let's get a psychologist and a psychiatrist, a weapons expert and a legal scholar, a theologian and a clergy, a teacher and a scholar, politicians from the right and the left and a couple of parents and begin the conversation.
Good Lord, what drivel. Next the author will be suggesting we all mount our unicorns for a rousing chorus of "Kumbaya". There are differences, wide differences, between us on a variety of issues, some more critical than others. Closing our eyes and hoping for the best will not solve these issues and that is all that is offered here.
Jack – The whole point is that we can be different, separate, unique and still work together to build strong communities and a strong nation. It is harder work but it is possible and it is the american way. It is when we are at out best. We have done this before and we can do it again. Think jazz, not Kumbaya.
Susan, maybe you can tell us why your patients are running around with guns killing people? Why not focus on that?
Pumba- you sir are a man that makes foolish comments. I hesitate to call you a fool. But based on what you wrote i'll assume that i'm very close on my EVALUATION. For now. Maybe you should go see a psych doctor- get that checked out.
Pumba – I am assuming that you want to know why people do this, and what role mental illness plays. I don't believe that mental illness alone can account for what happened in Newtown or in any of the other mass shootings. I also wouldn't comment about mental illness in a general way. Lots of people have a mental illness – some minor, some more serious. I've never met or spoken to a mass murderer though I have certainly spoken to those who have committed murder. For sure some kind of breakdown of mental function has to occur for a person to behave in this manner – but there are also other factors. My hope is that everybody comes together with psychological. cultural, societal, legal, and any other expertise so that we can find a way to lessen the violence. In some ways, I don't want this to become something we understand. That makes it too normal. I don't want this tragic behavior to ever become normal.
Angels? Like, with wings? Are you kidding?
Echoing Pax a little - it's nice to say we need to talk and find solutions, but the reality is that we've been talking and looking for common ground for years without success. A tragedy isn't likely to change peoples' worldviews. Some people believe government programs and regulation are needed to help people, and others believe such programs and regulations actually hurt the people they're intended to help. Where is the common ground between "government must do more" and "government must do less"?
Hi bpierce –
I don't know where the common ground is between more and less government – but we can find it. I worry that my writing sounds a bit pollyannish but there is a very serious intentionality to it that is political as well as personal. The diversity of our country is our strength. We can all be different and also similar, having some things in common. We need ourselves and our political and community leaders to start inspring us with their ability to build shared beliefs from different ways of being.
I can't help but be reminded of the earliest days after the killings on 9/11. How wonderful everyone was to each other. People were kinder, gentler and friendly to each other. People held doors for each, heck I even had someone let me go in front of them in a line at the store. It seems they even drove with more courtesy. ( in Boston that's not a common thing!) Unfortunately though, it didn't last. People get over the feeling of being scared and living in an out-of-control world. I wish we could all just get along. It takes each and every one of us. I even see people being disagreeable in response to your article! I do what I can to make a difference every day, but that's just me. People are even unpleasant at Christmastime. When did that happen? Happy Holidays!
Hi Sunshine. This is hard stuff. What is the answer? More than getting along we have to learn to respect each other's differences. We dont need to give up our opinions or our individuality in order to find common ground. There is a place to stand where people can agree. It stars with each one of us but it also extends to our political leaders, especially to them. It is imperative that we find unity within our differences. Those children, their teachers, their families, the community of Newton – they all deserve better from al of us.
Interesting flowery talk, but no solutions offered. Susan Bodnar is simply offering more of the Socialist Obama mantra: "We need to change this country, and the only way to do it is to get rid of what makes each of us unique. We need to absolutely force everything to melt in this 'Great Melting Pot' so that we are all completely equal..then somehow we'll all get along and be hearts and flowers and unicorns."
It's getting where nobody wants anybody to be an expert on anything except the "experts" who agree with the liberal or socialistic agenda. It is fast becoming a society of "If you don't agree that 'The Emperor's New Clothes are Magnificent' then you are not worthy of your office or are too stupid to have a correct opinion at all."
Wanting everyone to "just get along" is good and noble, but forcing that outcome at the cost of individual American freedom or Natural Freedom is what Socialism is all about. We should be good and kind to one another by our own Free Will, not at the command of a law.
Sorry Pax. You missed the point. Try to stay out of ideology like – socialism vs. freedom – and join the conversation. The solution is for everyone to talk together and figure things out. No one person has the answers. Not to problems this big. The people of Newtown are seriously pained. They need many practical things that can be provided by friends, family and community – even the world community at some level. But all of us also need to take responsibility and figure out how to be better and how to change.
Interesting read. I think the opening where you noted "we speak strongly and devisively is where the problem has grown from. In most cases, it is not even the subject that is in dispute as much as it has become a person's desire (and need) to be right. I have been guilty of this, as has everyone I know.
It is no longer enough to have an opinion, or even voice it. We have to shout down and belittle the other side to the point that no one even knows what we are fighting about. I don't think that is what the country was founded on. It was a desire to share opinions and work together. Too bad it takes something this horrific and unthinkable to bring civility to the discussion (for a few days).
In the end, "We the People" are going to have to start the move and demand it also come from those we elect to represent us. It is clear that NO ONE in Washington is going to take the lead and give compromise anything but lip service. Does anyone really want our children acting the way grown adults do in this country?? I doubt it.
Thank you. My hope is that everyone will stop trying to be an expert and instead try an understand what is happening. Then get our national leaders of all kinds to work together to solve our problem with violence. The families who must endure this dont need experts, they need love, compassion, support and the resolve to fix this problem.
Susan, I appreciate your compassion towards the innocents of this current tragedy.
I am not a psychologist or physchiatrist, and have not even been to college, but it doesn't take a rocket scientist, or nuero-surgeon to notice that most folks don't know and or have time to care about the Mind, or its illnesses.
Many folks self medicate, or lacrimate, and maybe even masticate to make the dreaded 'Thinking' go away.
It just gives them a headache, and besides we pay other folks to think for us – like you.
Maybe the USA needs an actual Think Tank, a whole force/army of individuals trained in the decision making processes who can teach the possibility of common sense and logical/analitic thought.
Like a school of the Mind, nah, nevermind that is too hard to think about
Thank you. I like your thinking. As a psychologist I try not to think for others but to help them think and find their own thoughts. You've got some real street smarts. Don't be shy about using them.
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