The Systems Thinker - Center for Family Consultation's blog

Thinking Systems After A Mass Shooting

Reprinted from Thinking Congregations with permission of John Bell, M.Div.

I live and work six blocks from the Henry Pratt Company in Aurora, IL.  On February 15th, Gary Martin killed five people and wounded five police officers after being fired from Henry Pratt.  At this time, not much is known about Mr. Martin.  I’ve written before about violence in society.  What I do know is that there is a connection between chronic anxiety in the family, one’s level of stress and violent behavior.  All of us tend to move towards others to take control or to distance when anxiety goes up.  In cases where there is violence, people move aggressively towards others when there is high levels of family intensity, significant cutoff among family members and a trigger of intense stress.

The Force for Togetherness

After the shooting, and after the police presence had diminished, I walked down to my neighborhood grocery store. I needed a couple of items and I wanted to find out what people were learning.  The employees at the grocery store were eager to talk.  One woman talked about her experience.  She had just arrived to work.  She was home during the shooting.  She recalled that after she heard about the shooting, she had a deep desire to pick up her child from school.  Schools on the west side of Aurora were on a soft lock down which means that students could freely move throughout the building, but no one was allowed in or out of the school.  She lamented how she wanted to pick up her child even though she couldn’t.  Over the years I’ve observed that this desire, (particularly among mothers) to unite the family in times of danger, seems to be universal.

Interlocking Triangles

Interlocking relationship triangles lit up for me as news of the shooting spread through my family and the community.  I was able to observe the movement of anxiety in the triangles between:

  • myself and members of my family.
  • myself, the congregation and the community.
  • myself and organizations that care for children in the church building.
  • myself and the clergy of all faiths in the community.
  • myself, other clergy and officials in city government.
  • myself, gun violence prevention groups, gun rights groups and the community.

In each of these triangles there was varying degrees of distance and cutoff.  Some triangles were more fused than others.  I observed variation in the way people managed their anxiety in the triangles and how some people depended on others in the triangle to manage their emotions and stress.  Some people were quick to point fingers.  Some people collapsed with feelings of hopeless or uselessness when confronted by others who were upset.  Some were steady. Some developed physical symptoms in the days that followed.  Some started to react more intensely to daily challenges.

The Interconnectedness of Life

A shooting, like any traumatic event, reveals the interconnectedness of all of life.  Individuals, families, neighborhoods, institutions and the community-at-large are mutually influencing and interdependent on each other.  Each has an impact on the functioning of the other.  The nucleus of this process is the family.  The complexity grows, however, as one adds the natural world to the mix.

Questions to Consider

There is much to consider after a shooting like the one in Aurora, IL.  Asking good questions makes a difference.  What are good questions that help one understand violence in society?  How does one think about violence in the context of the family and the community?  If there is violence in one’s family, how does one think about this from a systems perspective?  If one does not have evidence of violence in the family, how does one account for this?

A good place to start is to develop questions about one’s family.  Good questions can help one better understand one’s family and help one develop the capacity to define a self in relationship with one’s family.  Differentiation of self provides a way to both understand how there is violence in society and what one can do about it.

John Bell

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