By Gerald Stribling
If you want to make a real and personal contribution to reduce gun violence in the U.S., you have to step out of your comfort zone.
Let’s rightfully assume that some mass killings—and maybe all mass killings—indeed are the result of severe mental illness (SMI), particularly young-adult onset paranoid schizophrenia. Can you imagine any time when it is acceptable to shoot innocent strangers? Of course not. It takes an unregulated and dysfunctional mind to come to that conclusion.
When some poor tortured soul kills a bunch of people, often what people say is “He was just a loner, stayed in his room a lot. Nobody ever saw it coming.” That’s because no one had ever taken the time to know him at all. I have observed that “different” people do a whole lot better when they have friends.
I heard a story on This American Life once about a pre-adolescent girl suffering from a severe form of Aspberger’s syndrome, who was disruptive at school and miserably lonely until she made friends with a “normal” girl who shared her passion for horses. As a result of this friendship—this relationship—the girl’s disruptive behaviors disappeared.
In my 20-year career as a case manager I was not supposed to make friends with my clients; there was supposed to be a modicum of professional distance, but I threw away that rule every chance I got.
Sometimes I was the only friend my clients had. A habilitation plan isn’t complete until a client has formed new relationships and community connections. SMI is bad enough. Overlay the desperation that comes of loneliness, and you have a suffering person left alone with his thoughts—abnormal thoughts.
So, you want to feel like you are contributing to the reduction of gun violence in America? Make friends with people who have mental illness. It’s all you have to do—be a friend. Listen to what your friend has to say. Sometimes, if their thoughts seem too aberrant, you can steer the conversation in a more sensible direction. Invite the loner nerd to your party, and make sure he gets there. People learn “normal” behavior from “normal” people (we used to call them “normates” back in my disability days).
And let’s not forget that suicide is gun violence too.
It’s not easy to befriend someone who might have violent ideations, but every time you step into the life of someone with depression, you have brightened their day. It’s easier to be depressed when you’re alone, not so much at a dance club.
If you make the effort to befriend lonely people, whether they’re crazy or old or impoverished or even dying, it is you who reaps the benefits as well as society. Buddhism knows this: the only true source of abiding happiness is compassion. Many of the volunteers I work with through Hosparus of Louisville say the same thing: they can have the worst day at work, but spend a few hours after work hanging out with a patient who may not survive the following week, and their day is refreshed and rejuvenated. And they go home happy. It’s the secret of life.
There are dozens of agencies in your community that treat and otherwise assist people with mental illness, and all of them have volunteer coordinators. They won’t stare at you with astonishment because you ask them to link you up with a lonely lunatic. They will know exactly what your motivations are, and they will welcome you with open arms, because they know that ultimately, it is relationships that save the world.
And I guarantee you’ll have fun doing it.
And they get to write it into their treatment plan. Everybody wins. If you befriend someone with severe mental illness, you become part of a team of the individual, relatives, friends, and psychiatric professionals who ideally coordinate their efforts on behalf of the wacko you will quickly grow to love.
When you step out of your comfort zone, the whole world can benefit.
Gerald “Strib” Stribling, M.Ed. lived a childhood that fostered in him a sense of adventure long before he served in the U.S. Marines. He points out that as the son of a career infantry soldier and a WAC, “We lived in foreign countries and distant army posts. The military was my culture. I didn’t know anything about civilian culture until my enlistment was up at age 21. Civilian life was fucking scary.” Stribling attended several podunk state universities and taught elementary school and special education for fifteen years, escaping the little bastards with frequent solo trekking trips to wildernesses ranging from Appalachia to the High Sierra, including a summer on the Appalachian Trail. During a second career that lasted 20 yeats, he served as a case manager and program coordinator for agencies serving a variety of populations, including people with severe developmental disabilities and mental illness, veterans, Asian refugees, the homeless, and prisoners re-entering the community. He was fired from his last case management position for paying a client’s rent out of his own pocket and pissing off the Urban Housing Authority.
Strib volunteered to English to children in Sri Lanka for two summers right after 9-11. There he studied Buddhism with some of the most highly respected monks in the country. During the second summer, he actually lived in a Buddhist monastery.
He is the author of one of 2015’s hottest Buddhism books, Buddhism for Dudes: A Jarhead’s Field Guide to Mindfulness—a not-so-subtle, basic examination of the essence of Buddhism, the Four Noble Truths, as well as the Buddha’s life, karma and rebirth, etc. It’s short and funny and to the point. “I wrote it with my golf buddies in mind. Way too much Buddhist stuff is too complicated to wade through, and some of it is fairyland voodoo, full of the metaphysical improbabilities that condemns religion to bullshit. Buddhism isn’t a religion, it’s a way to live a happy life.”
Stribling’s blog is called “Buddhism for Tough Guys.” Can’t find a link? Fuck you, Google it yourself.
Editor: Dana Gornall