“Anybody can become angry - that is easy, but to be angry with the right person and to the right degree and at the right time and for the right purpose, and in the right way - that is not within everybody's power and is not easy.”
In 2023, there have already been over 400 mass shootings in the United States (a mass shooting is defined as a situation in which four or more people are killed during a gun attack, excluding the shooter) (1). Given that we are roughly 230 days in to the year, this equates to nearly two mass shootings per day and it will unfortunately lead to a record-breaking year (2). Why is this so?
Several years back, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) examined the typical pre-attack profile of 63 shooters over a 10-year period (3,4). The analysis revealed the majority of shooters were 18 to 49 years old and nearly all male (in rare cases involving female shooters, they often accompanied a male). Contrary to common opinion, 77% had spent a week or longer planning the attack, which indicates most of the shooters did not "snap." Also contrary to common opinion, only 25% of shooters had ever been diagnosed with a mental illness in the past, and only 5% with a psychotic disorder, which indicates most of the shooters were not "crazy." Furthermore, in the year prior to the attack, the typical shooter had experienced an average of 3 to 4 stressors (defined as physical, psychological, or social forces that place perceived or real demands on the individual leading to distress), with the most common stressors (in descending order) relating to mental health, finances, employment, peer conflict, and marital problems, which indicates the typical shooter was struggling in multiple avenues of his life. Essentially, the FBI analysis indicated that the typical mass shooter was a relatively young male with both foresight and a sound mind, yet who was failing in life.
Some examples of recent mass shooters (3).
FBI analysis revealing the typical pre-attack profile of a mass shooter (4).
Once the dust has settled from a mass shooting, a frequent and familiar public reaction is to spotlight the fact that the shooter also had relatively easy (and legal) access to firearms (5). Virtually every mass shooting is predictably followed by a public outcry, which has resulted in severely restricted or banned access to firearms in many countries around the world, including Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, but not the United States. The reason for the resistance in the United States has to do with a number of potential disadvantages that are often referenced - for example, it can be claimed that severely restricting or banning firearms violates the second amendment, which protects an individual's right to possess firearm as a check on the government, or that firearms are needed by some people to defend themselves (6).
Whilst restricting or banning firearms in the United States would undoubtedly reduce the incidence of mass shootings in the shorter-term (years to decades), which would be a good thing, it does not deal with the root of the problem, such that the violent tendencies underlying these mass shootings eventually resurface in a variety of other, more insidious forms. It is worth considering whether the fundamental problem lies in the path that leads a man to become a mass shooter...a path of feeling angry, unimportant, and helpless much of the time, a path of weakness.
When younger, I was schooled in many interesting ideas about what made a "strong man" from a variety of sources. In the 1980s and 90s, most of these sources came from books, television, movies, mainstream media, and political leaders. Even well-meaning friends stated many of these ideas to me, for they had been schooled in the same Matrix-like illusions. Unfortunately, these ideas remain highly prevalent as teachings to young men today.
One idea taught to me was that a man should pursue happiness and avoid adversity. That one should steer their ship towards a rich and content life, full of happiness, joy, and an absence of suffering. And that pain in any form was detrimental and not conducive to happiness. The main use of pain was to provide a stimulus as to what one should "not" do.
Is this the right goal?
Is this the right question?
Who's the stronger man?
For years, I pursued many of these notions to the best of my ability. Unsuccessfully. I was unable to achieve happiness, or to find my passion, or to gain genuine satisfaction in the expression of feelings or instincts. I used to think this constituted a character flaw, but now I realize the problem was more with the ideas themselves...they cultivated weakness, rather than strength.
If I could provide some advice to my younger self, I would start by dispelling some of the above faulty notions about what makes a strong man. I would replace many of them with ideas I have gained through my own experiences in the real world.
First, I'd tell myself to stop chasing happiness - it's better to embrace adversity. Chasing happiness is like chasing a rainbow - it seems easy and one thinks they know what they are aiming at, but the goal is illusory and one never truly arrives, which leads to frustration. It's better to chase the horizon - something filled with obstacles that may seem difficult or even impossible to reach compared to the rainbow, but the goal is real and can be attained, even if only partially. This notion was summed up by the stoic Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius who stated, "the obstacle is the way." Stop chasing happiness, embrace adversity. And as horizons are reached, happiness will arise as a downstream effect.
Marcus Aurelius pointed out that rather than avoiding or bypassing obstacles, or seeing them as "in the way," they are the way itself - go though them.
Second, I'd tell myself to stop trying to find my passion - it's better to forge it through discipline. Trying to discover a hidden reason for one's existence is like seeking for the lost city of Eldorado - one keeps looking for a destination, but all destinations are defined by the resolute journeys that lead to them. It's better to focus on the journey - something self-created, self-taught, filled with Mountains of the Moon and Valleys of the Shadow (7), with wonderful successes and despairing failures...yet it is your journey, your mission, and you are the star of your own life, not an "extra" in someone else's. This notion has been summed up by the United States author Cal Newport, who learned that successful people do not waste time by seeking the perfect passion in life, but by picking the best option at the time and working relentlessly hard at it, and as one improves, the passion follows later (8). Stop chasing passion, embrace discipline. And as the journey unfolds, passion will arise as a downstream effect.
Third, I'd tell myself to stop expressing feelings and instincts - it's better to master them. Seeking satisfaction in feelings and instincts is pointless - they are fleeting, and disappear as quickly as they emerge, like morning mist. It's better to seek self-mastery - acknowledging the feelings and instincts, good and bad, but master both so they are released at the appropriate moment. This notion was summed up by the Greek polymath Aristotle in the quote up top, which applies not only to anger, but to any feeling. Stop self-expressing, embrace self-mastery. And as emotions are tamed, self-expression will arise in a more noble form, as a downstream effect.
Aristotle emphasized that it's easy to be angry, but to be angry at the right time, for the right purpose, and in the right way...this is difficult.