Adam Lanza and The Pain of the Introvert

Now that we have had some time over the holidays to reflect further and perhaps even find some meaning in the inconceivable meaninglessness of the tragedy at Newtown, we can begin to move towards a healing that is not superficial, which can acknowledge the pain we all feel, and which can move to prevent such tragedies in the future. While the debate on the question of gun control in America moves into a new urgency, I can’t help but think and feel that when we give too much attention to this particular issue, as important as it is, we are missing something else about human nature which we should not ignore and which is also so essential to the answers we are seeking.

What is often the most difficult thing to do in circumstances like these is to understand the pain that such individuals as Adam Lanza, James Holmes, Jared Loughner, Eric Harris, and Dylan Klebold were feeling as they were drawn to commit such terrible atrocities. Who are these people? What caused such pain in their hearts and in their lives? We so easily condemn these young men to the pits of hell, dehumanizing them as we recoil from the vicious ways they dehumanized so many others. It’s a perfectly natural reaction, and in so many ways it’s also justified, but it’s one I cannot personally abide. Two verses from the Bhagavad Gita comes to my mind as I try to comprehend what was in the minds and hearts of these troubled souls:

While contemplating the objects of the senses, a person develops attachment for them, and from such attachment lust develops, and from lust anger arises.

From anger, complete delusion arises, and from delusion bewilderment of memory. When memory is bewildered, intelligence is lost, and when intelligence is lost one falls down again into the material pool.

These verses compel me to ask: what did these young men really want? I really don’t think it was to be a harbinger of massacre. A great teacher from the contemporary Vaisnava tradition of the Gita has said that are actions are either an act of love or a cry for love. When our desire for love is corrupted, ignored, and seemingly destroyed, it manifests instead into selfish and lustful desires, from which the most obscene and nightmarish acts can manifest. How did the natural and human desire for love in these young men’s lives become so perverted?

As I have read the sporadic and incomplete accounts of Adam Lanza’s life, and as I recall the life stories of some of these other young men who were drawn to such evil, I can’t help but feel some sympathy and some resonance. They are often described as ostracized loners, deeply introverted individuals struggling with intense mental illness. The structures of family, society, and culture which surrounded them did not do enough to cure the sense of marginalization that they felt. They were not like “everyone else” and they didn’t fit into the mainstream of what’s cool, what’s hot, and what’s sexy. From those dark margins, they lashed out in ways which are truly beyond mercy. In order to be seen, to be known, they killed as many innocent people as they could.

How much of the recent news coverage of the Newtown massacre has really attempted to try to understand the pain that Adam Lanza felt? How much of our own thought and conversation about what happened in Newtown has been about Adam’s pain? This is no way condones what he did, nor should it take our focus and care away from the victims of this tragedy, but I feel that we must try to understand the sources of Adam’s pain to truly understand what happened and what we can do to prevent it from ever happening again. No amount of gun control can prevent this evil from showing its face if we choose not to confront this evil where it truly lies, from where it truly came from.

In my first semester at Union Theological Seminary, I have deepened my encounter with the marginalized voice from across many different social, sexual, and religious perspectives. In my own experience, as a straight-white-middle class-North American male, I cannot say I suffer in any way the same marginalization that most people in this world face, yet I cannot say I am free from its curse. All of my life, up to this very day, I share a lot of similarities with someone like Adam Lanza. Like him I am also introverted, not entirely comfortable in the crowd and in the scene, often unable to find a secure place in the social sphere. Like Adam, going back to the days I was chased around my junior high playground because I was a “nerd”, to my struggles today to find a place in the intensely extroverted and passionately activist environment at Union, I have felt a sharp and certain pain at being left out of the crowd.

As I’ve grown, I have seen that the cause of my own marginalization has often been my own fears and paranoias, and I am deeply grateful for my friends, family, and comrades and colleagues who have and continue to give me the love and support to help me become who I am and who I want to be. I am very grateful for my spiritual path which has given me so much meaning and clarity as to the reality of my nature and the nature of reality itself. I am also very grateful for my mental health as well. Perhaps I may be on the “spectrum” of Asperger’s/autism as Adam and many of these other individuals were and are to greater or lesser degrees, but I am secure in being able to discern when my mind is my friend and when my mind is my adversary in terms of having a sane bit of ground to stand on in this seemingly insane world.

I can imagine that perhaps many other introverts may also feel this kind of sympathy and resonance with Adam Lanza. Being an introvert means feeling a certain vibe of exclusion from those who are not introverted. As I have said, sometimes that vibe is simply a projection of one’s own fears, but very often it is quite real. Those who are extroverted, who are “socially adjusted”, often simply do not know how to deal with those who are introverted. They may call the introverted person “mysterious” without understanding how that can be taken as a sort of epithet, as the extrovert’s own failure to see outside of a limited socialized vision. Because one doesn’t fit in what the expected ways and means of socializing, one can be expected to face a certain kind of conscious and unconscious marginalization. This is my experience at least, and I feel it is a kind of marginalization which has to be considered alongside all of the other kinds of marginalization we study and agonize over and fight to transcend.

In many ways, our contemporary culture is geared towards the marginalization of the introvert, and from the darkest corners of this space, individuals like Adam Lanza are pushed by others and pushed by the illness within their own mind to lash out as they do. We live in a culture which is exquisitely geared to the passion of extroversion, of the fashion of being able to impress and of wanting to be impressed, often for the shallowest of reasons, of profit and prestige. The great Christian philosopher Reinhold Niebuhr, in Nature and Destiny of Man, writes that the individual shaped by the most superficial modalities of modern industrial and technical culture has an “easy conscience”, since they refuse to look and think deeply into the shape of the reality that surrounds them. We are, in many ways, a culture which has tremendous difficulties accommodating and acknowledging differences which reveal aspects of human nature which don’t adhere to the so-called values of conformity. In that ignorance comes a tremendous price to pay.

It is a common realization and frustration amongst many of us who seek truth and spirit that the art of introspection and introversion, the art of being alone, the art of being comfortable with oneself in solitude, has become devalued. In the “one great big festering neon distraction” we have lost touch. Another fellow Christian mystic of our times, Thomas Merton, writes in New Seeds of Contemplation:

The need for true solitude is a complex and dangerous thing, but it is a real need. It is all the more real today when the collectivity tends more and more to swallow up the person in its shapeless and faceless mass. The temptation of our day is to equate “love” and “conformity”-passive subservience to the mass-mind or to the organization…True solitude is the home of the person, false solitude the refuge of the individualist. The person is constituted by a uniquely subsisting capacity to love-by a radical ability to care for all beings made by God and loved by Him. Such a capacity is destroyed by the loss of perspective. Without a certain element of solitude there can be no compassion because when a man is lost in the wheels of a social machine he is no longer aware of human needs as a personal responsibility. One can escape from men by plunging into the midst of a crowd!

I think we can all agree that something like the tragedy in Newtown has happened because we have lost perspective. It is so overwhelming to try to figure out where we have gone astray, and what we have lost. It is incredibly confronting to admit that one of the root causes of something like Newtown is because we live in a culture which no longer places the personal responsibility for each other’s human needs at the center of our lives. Those who get lost and thrown in the cracks, the Adam Lanzas of the world, bear to us a tremendous reminder of the transvaluation of natural and spiritual values and morals which we all too often take for granted and conform to in our own ways.

The question of gun control is but one facet of a deeper corruption of our human society and nature which is the real cause of the tragedies in Newtown, Columbine, Tucson, Aurora, and Virginia Tech, what to speak of the countless daily massacres we hear too little about here and across the world. One humble suggestion in this case is a call to honor introspection and to honor the introvert. We need to understand, especially if we of an extroverted nature, that if marginalize those who are introverted, we are causing tremendous pain, which rarely but all too often manifests in something which is so inconceivably terrible. There are many like Adam Lanza around us, if not in the potential to cause so much grievous harm, but in those who are solitary people either comfortable or uncomfortable in that skin, and who experience great pain at being ostracized from the love and acceptance they crave and need.

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