Children Who Might Commit School Shootings Are Not “Potential Sickos”

The issues of gun control and school shootings have been heavily conversed in the United States lately, so it shouldn’t be any surprise that Donald Trump weighed in with a number of tweets. The one that I want to focus on right now, however, reads as follows:

Now, there is a lot in this tweet that is concerning. The very concept of teachers being forced to carry guns is terrifying, and I genuinely hope that that never becomes a reality. But, at the same time, I think that this is the issue that the majority of people who read this tweet will focus on, and it is the issue that will be discussed more prominently. And there is something else in this tweet that I find terrifying, and worth discussion.

Namely, I want to talk about Trump’s repeated reference to shooters as ‘sickos’.

Now, before I get into this, I want to clarify something: anyone who commits a shooting has committed a terrible, sick act. They have taken innocent lives out of this world, and a very strong argument can be made that that is unforgivable. I am not trying to defend their choice to murder people, because that choice is indefensible.

What I am trying to say is that, especially lately, we have been talking more and more often about what causes people to commit shootings. And the general consensus seems to be that mental health tends to be to blame. Heck, even Donald Trump seems to be aware that mental health is involved in a person’s choice to take up a gun and murder others.

Now, the degree to which mental health is involved in gun violence is debatable. Only 14.8 percent of mass shooters in the United States are diagnosed as psychotic. People with mental illness contribute to roughly three to five percent of all violent crimes (most of which do not even involve guns), and when people with mental illness do use guns in a violent fashion, that violence is typically turned on themselves (in 2013, nearly two-thirds of gun-related deaths were suicides). So when we say that “gun violence is a mental health problem”, we need to remember that mentally ill people are not one gun away from murdering a whole bunch of people.

But there is a video that has been circulating around social media in the wake of this discussion that I would love to draw to your attention now.

This video is an open letter from Aaron Stark, and it bears the very intriguing title, “I was almost a school shooter”. In it, Stark talks about his experience in school, and how he had a “very chaotic and violent childhood”. He describes being bullied, and he describes how, as a result, “I got angry, and I started hiding weapons everywhere”. He states that, the only reason why he did not commit a shooting at his school was because he did not have access to a gun.

“People say mental health is the issue, and that’s true. My mental health was in sad shape. I was severely depressed and suicidal. I felt like I had nothing at all in life to look forward to, and so I literally had nothing to lose. When someone has nothing to lose, they can do anything, and that thought should be terrifying. So, yes, mental health was an issue. A bigger issue was love. I had a severe lack of love,” Stark says.

Mental health is not the only reason why gun violence happens. However, anyone who would be willing to take a human life is not a healthy person. These are people who are deeply pained, deeply rejected by their society, and, as Stark says, severely lacking in love.

These are the people who Trump is referring to as ‘sickos’.

And I’m not necessarily concerned for the men who have already committed shootings; that is an issue far too complicated for me to comment on. What I am concerned about is the young boy who is in pain, who is angry, who is in need of support and love so that he can avoid doing the terrible thing that he has been considering, and yet he is further alienated by his own president, who dismisses him as a potential sicko.

The language that we use when referring to people matters. And ‘sicko’ is a very dismissive word. ‘Sicko’ does not create room for discussion, and yet discussion is absolutely necessary for any young person who is considering this. ‘Sicko’ does not create room for love, and yet love is vital in avoiding this exact problem. ‘Sicko’ is the sort of word that discourages a young man from coming forward and talking about his feelings, because he doesn’t want to be dismissed as a ‘sicko’. So he doesn’t come forward. He just sits with it, and lets it fester. He allows it to progress, until the absolute unthinkable happens.

The truth is, it does not take a monster to do this sort of thing. All it takes is one lost, hurting, loveless child.

It bothers me to see the leader of a country use this sort of terminology, because it gives the rest of us an excuse to follow his lead. And we cannot do this. We cannot think in dismissive terms when it comes to other human beings. We cannot allow our horror of what might be to further doom other children who have not done it yet. These are children who need love and compassion and understanding, and if the president of the United States isn’t going to give it to them, then we need to make sure to give it to them. We need to be there to listen to people who need it. We need to be open-minded and non-judgemental when it comes to what they’re saying. We need to watch our language, and make sure that we are not alienating them further. Because that is so easy to do, when we are so used to doing it.

I am firmly of the opinion that creating stricter gun laws will help to fix this issue. This is something that we need to do; but at the same time, it will not make children stop feeling this way. It will only make them stop killing each other in such great numbers. This anger and this pain and this loneliness is not alright, and it leads to so many other problems – more than just school shootings. So we need to do something to fix it.


Do No Harm, Not Even To Yourself

If you identify as a yogi, then chances are, you’re aware of the term ‘ahimsa’.

For those of you who aren’t aware, ahimsa is one of the five yamas, or the moral and ethical guidelines that yogis try to live by. And ahimsa specifically refers to this idea of doing no harm, or engaging in no violence.

Ahimsa can be translated in many different ways in our life.

In the specific scenario of practicing yoga, ahimsa can be utilized by listening to your body. You never push yourself beyond what you are capable of. You do not cause yourself injury, and if you think that you might, then you back off a bit and forgive yourself, in full knowledge that if you just keep practicing, then you will eventually be able to push further, much safer.

I have heard ahimsa utilized as an explanation for why someone is a vegan or vegetarian – because they do not want to cause harm to any living creature on this planet.

We might frequently think about ahimsa utilized when it comes to our relationships. Ahimsa is an explanation for why we should not try to hurt other people. Why we should refrain from violence, or from intentionally harming another person’s psyche.

Yet, there is another use of the word ‘ahimsa’, one that I think is vital for everyone, yogi or otherwise, and one that I think needs to come before we utilize ahimsa in our relationships.

We need to practice ahimsa for ourselves.

And I’m talking about a very similar concept to practicing ahimsa in yoga: whenever something isn’t benefiting us, when it is only going to harm us in the long run, then we need to learn when to back off. And, I know, this sounds like common sense to most of us, but I think that there are many factors – some external, some internal – that makes us frequently push ourselves too far for our own health.

Expectations, for example, can be a form of harm that we put on ourselves – whether these be the expectations that others have put on us, the expectations that we put on ourselves, or the expectations that we place on the world at large. When we are constantly striving to prove something, first and foremost, we have a tendency to do harm to ourselves in an attempt to reach that goal. We sacrifice mental health. We pick ourselves apart, creating deep insecurities and self-hatred. We hurt ourselves, without even meaning to.

And according to the practice of ahimsa, all of this is a sign that we need to back off a bit on our expectations. Ease up. Allow things to be as they are, all in the faith that someday, they will grow to become something better. But we will not grow if we are constantly causing ourselves harm.

And there are millions of ways that we cause ourselves harm, every day.

We cause ourselves harm by holding onto toxic relationships that no longer serve us.

We cause ourselves harm by demanding that we fit into a specific image – that we be strong and silent and selfless and beautiful.

We cause ourselves harm when we allow people to hurt us, all in the effort to avoid hurting them.

And as a woman who lives in a society that tells my gender that we should be self-sacrificing at any given turn, as a person who has struggled with depression and anxiety, as someone who has literally self-harmed and battled eating disorders, I am no stranger to doing harm to myself.

But by doing harm to myself, I began to learn just how important self-love is. Because if you cannot love yourself, then you cannot fight for yourself. You cannot stand up and tell people when they are treating you in a way that you do not deserve to be treated.

When you cannot love yourself, then that opens you up to a plethora of harmful behaviours. It might create judgement or jealousy, as you look down on others who have what you feel you lack. When you feel angry about who you are as a person, then you take that anger out on other people, even if they had nothing to do with it.

When you cannot love yourself, then you cannot properly give love to the world around you. And, likewise, when you cause harm to yourself, then you cause harm to the world around you. That is because love will always start with you.

Part of ahimsa, in all of its translations, is simply accepting who you are as a person. Accepting that you are limited, but that you possess the ability to grow if you give yourself the chance to do so. This is why we back off on yoga poses that might cause us harm. This is why we stop being so hard on ourselves and the way that we look, or the place that we are in in our daily lives. Just because we can’t do something today, that doesn’t mean that we won’t be able to tomorrow – all it means is that we have to give ourselves time and patience to get to that place, and if we hurt ourselves in the process, then we stunt that growth. And it is easy to give time and patience to other people, but it is rarely natural for us to give it to ourselves. And we need it. We need it if we are ever going to grow, and do some lasting good in the world and in our lives.

So, breathe. Forgive yourself for what you perceive to be your faults. Give yourself time and self-care and a cookie, if you need it. And remember: do no harm, not even to yourself.

This article is part of a series about the yamas. To read more, click here:



Why We Can’t Only Focus on the Positive

I understand that everyone wants to be happy.

That’s the goal in life, right? To be happy. To feel fulfilled. I mean, as long as we have this, our lives are successful, right?

There are countless ways to reach this end. So many, in fact, that everyone has their own ways – art, love, family, pets, whatever works at the end of the day to make you feel warm and fuzzy. But one method that I hear brought up often is to focus on the positive in life.

I won’t deny that this is a worthwhile method. Not an easy one, but effective if you can teach yourself to do it right. Because we as human beings have this tendency to want to focus on the negative, for whatever reason (it sounds counter-productive to that whole ‘everyone wants to be happy’ theory, doesn’t it?). Before we notice the good in a situation, we’ll fixate on the bad. We obsess about flaws and pain and hardship so much that we sometimes forget to notice the strengths and growth and love, even when it is there.

And I do believe that what you see is what you get. If all you notice is what’s rotten with the world, then you’re not going to have a very high opinion of the world, are you? There might be a whole other side of the story, but to you, that won’t matter; what you focus on becomes your truth.

This is why it’s so important to train your mind to notice the good in the world. Because the good is there; we just need to see it.

And I believe this. Whole-heartedly, I believe this; but then there are the people who take it one step too far.

I have known people who will preach the importance of noticing the good in the world, of creating a more balanced, aware outlook on life. And yet, when someone tries to speak up about real pain and suffering in the world, they will just go silent. They will remove themselves from the conversation until it comes right back around to being about something happier again.

I have known people who will pretend that they have no pain, that everything in their world is just fine, even when that isn’t the case. Even when they are going through serious, life-changing pain, they still can’t bring themselves to complain. They can’t make their concerns heard; they need to focus on the positive in life.

These people bother me.

Because, like I said, I agree with training yourself to notice the good in the world. That is very important. But just because we notice the good in the world, just because we celebrate it and encourage it and hope that it continues, that doesn’t mean that we can’t notice when there is pain and hardship in the world.

We need to notice the good in the world because there is good in the world, and that good is worth fighting for. That good is what gets us through our days, keeps a smile on our face, makes our hearts a little lighter and our world a little brighter. Without the good, we’d all just be broken shells of despair, unenthused and unmotivated to do anything.

But we can’t live solely in the good. Because it might make us temporarily happier, but it won’t erase the fact that other people are still hurting. And, in some ways, it might even make things worse for us in the long run.

Because if we aren’t acknowledging the bad, the pain, the hardship, then we aren’t fighting it. We aren’t standing up for the voiceless, so the voiceless just keep getting beat down. We aren’t standing up for ourselves, so people just keep taking advantage of us and testing how many lines they can cross. We aren’t fighting for anything, and so no battles are won.

When we don’t acknowledge the bad, then we don’t challenge the bad. We become bystanders, and to quote Martin Luther King Jr., “He who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetrate it. He who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it.”

The world that we came into was not perfect. And I’m not even sure that there is a way to make it perfect, but I do know that the only way to make it better is to stand up and fight for what matters. Not sit back and ignore the bad because we don’t want to see it.

End of day, all of this simply comes down to balance. We need both, the good and the bad, in order to function in this society. We need to know that the world is flawed. We need to know that pain and hurt happens every single day, and it is an uphill battle trying to stop it. But we need to know that we can stop it; maybe not today or tomorrow or a year from now, but if we keep trying, if we keep fighting, we can make a difference. We need to know that this is a world filled with love, and people who want to make a difference, even if it is also filled with people who don’t care about or even notice the harm that their actions cause. We need to notice both, because both are just as prevalent in our society.

Why You Should Love Yourself Before You Start Losing Weight

Happy new years everyone!

So we’re into January now. The holidays are over, we’re all feeling fat off of turkey or chocolate or whatever it was we decided to gorge ourselves with this holiday season. And, more than that, the new year is upon us now, and the new year has traditionally been a time of great change. It’s the old “new year, new me” mentality; we make our resolutions, and we hope that we have the resolve to stick to them.

And for many of us, those resolutions will involve losing weight or eating healthy (there’s a reason why gyms get to be packed in January). We want to shave off the few pounds that the holidays might have added to us, and perhaps a bit more than that. Ten pounds here. Twenty there.

And all of this reminds me of when I began my fitness craze, roughly three years ago now.

Growing up, I always had a slightly larger frame than all of my friends. I was never overweight, exactly, but the fact that I was larger made me think that I probably would be someday. And, being a child, I didn’t want that. I saw how the overweight girls were treated: they were poked at by the boys in our class, laughed at, called names. I didn’t want to be treated like that. So, growing up, I always had a little bit of a fear of gaining weight.

This fear didn’t really come into play in my life until after I graduated from high school, when I lived on my own for the first time. In the course of two years, I gained about thirty pounds – at which point, I panicked. Logically, I knew that there was nothing wrong with me. I knew that there was nothing wrong with being a little overweight, I didn’t think it made me any less beautiful or anything like that. But I still had that fear, and so I told myself that all I was trying to do was “get healthy”. I was going to change my eating habits and I was going to start exercising, because I knew that I hadn’t been doing that enough while I lived on my own.

Except, as time went on, my actions made it very, very clear that health was not what was on the forefront of my mind. And perhaps part of it was related to the fact that I wasn’t quite educated enough on what being healthy was for a woman. I knew that I had to eat less, and so I did. In fact, if I ate fewer than 1000 calories a day, I was proud of myself, even if that meant that I went to bed early for the sole purpose that that would bring me to breakfast sooner (for reference, the average woman needs to eat 2000 calories a day to maintain weight, and 1500 calories a day to lose weight). I also knew that exercising was a good thing, and the more that I did, the better, so I worked out six days a week, for about an hour and a half a day. I didn’t realize at the time that I wasn’t eating nearly enough in order to power these kinds of workouts, so I felt weak and small and hungry and irritable – but, hey, I was losing weight.

And the more that I ate, the worse I felt. If I got so hungry that I could no longer take it, and I splurged on pizza or something, then I felt so guilty about it that I felt the urge to go into the bathroom and throw it back up. If I didn’t do that, then I’d work out so hard the next day that I gave myself a headache.

But of course I went through all of this; I’m not alone. In fact, our society practically grooms women to do exactly this from the beginning.

Society tells women that it is not okay to be fat. We so rarely see body fat represented in our celebrities, in our models or actresses or musicians. As children, we’re endlessly mocked by our peers for it, and as adults, we’re told that we aren’t healthy or that we’re lazy or that we’d be so much prettier if we just lost a few pounds. So of course we don’t want to be overweight. Of course we feel disgusting and ugly when we are a little bit heavier. It isn’t because we are; it’s because society grooms us to feel this way.

And, more than that, society doesn’t simply tell us that we can’t be overweight; society tells us that we have to be thin. In fact, the thinner, the better. And what exactly does that mean? Who knows! All that we know is that we can’t be fat, and we get so obsessed with that thought that we see fat everywhere. We see fat in the rolls that naturally form in our belly when we slouch. We see fat in our thighs jiggling when we jump. We see fat in our cheeks, our arms, our butt, in everything. So we can never quite get thin enough; we never know when to stop.

And how, exactly, does one eat healthy? How does one exercise properly? Society doesn’t tend to really talk about that, except for in the countless diets and trends that float around from time to time. For the most part, all that we really hear (unless we go out of our way to research into the matter) is that we need to eat less and exercise more.

But when we take this approach of eating as little as possible and exercising as much as possible, we aren’t really acting for our own health. If we were, then we wouldn’t feel weak, hungry, or tired all the time; that’s not how a healthy human being feels. No, the only thing that we are really accomplishing by doing this is making ourselves thin – and is that really the most important thing? Isn’t it more important to be happy? Or comfortable? Or strong?

So if losing weight is part of your resolution this new year, then I can’t really fault you for that. I understand how much importance our society puts on being thin, so it makes sense that you might aspire to that. But before you begin your weight loss journey, I recommend two things:

1) Do your research. It’s a little bit difficult to recommend where to start, because different sources will tell you many different things, and the same thing won’t work for everyone. Some people will recommend cheat or ‘treat’ meals every once in a while; some people find that more difficult. Some people can cut out meat or cheese or bread from their diet; some people can’t. It’s a matter of trial and error, and it might take you a while to realize what works best for you, individually, but it is always best to go into this well-informed. So try talking to different people about what worked best for them, and search things up on the internet, read about different theories and experiences. Trust me, there is a lot of information out there (almost too much).

2) This is the most important thing: start thinking about this whole journey differently, and start from the very beginning. Many of us begin our weight loss journeys from a place of self-hatred; we want to change because we think there is something wrong with us. Our goal, first and foremost, is weight loss, not health. But the thing is, there is nothing wrong with us. We are beautiful, and we are capable, and we are wonderful. Being overweight is not the worst thing a woman can be. So if you want to change your eating habits and start exercising, then great, but don’t do it because you want to ‘become prettier’ or lose weight. Do it because you want to get healthier and take better care of yourself.

Weight and health are not necessarily correlated. You might appear to be overweight, and yet be in the best health that you can possibly be. And you can have a Barbie doll’s figure, and be starving, weak, and frail. I know that I wasn’t in my best health when I was at my skinniest. In fact, I’m in better health now, ten pounds heavier than I was a year ago.

Love yourself, and accept yourself as you are. I know that that’s easier said than done, but it all starts with an attempt. By looking in the mirror and telling yourself that you love your belly, your thighs, your arms. Keep telling yourself that until you believe it. And once you do, then decide if you still want to change. Because if you do, great; just make sure that you are changing for you. Don’t change because you think society expects you to, because that isn’t healthy for any of us.

Your Depressive Thoughts Are Not Real

Have you ever heard of this thing called depressive realism?

It’s a not uncontroversial theory that I don’t quite feel fully qualified to explain in great detail, so I’m pretty much going to stick to essentials here. And, essentially, what it means is that people who are depressed have a more realistic view of the world, as well as a more realistic set of expectations. This theory is backed up by a study where participants were asked to press a button and determine how much control they believed that button to have over a light that would occasionally go off. People without depression tended to overestimate how much control they had over the light, whereas people with depression tended to be more realistic.

I first heard about this theory when I was eighteen years old, from my philosophy teacher. Depressive realism wasn’t part of the curriculum or anything like that; it was merely something that was mentioned in passing. And pretty much all that he said about it was, “studies have proven that people with depression have a more realistic view of the world.” He didn’t mention the fact that some studies have proven this; not all. In fact, there are plenty of studies that indicate that there are countless different factors that dictate our view of the world, including whether or not you’re discussing your own control or the control of others, whether you’re currently in a public or private sphere, and how much time has passed since the incident occurred (just to name a few). My teacher also failed to mention the fact that this is still a heavily debated theory that has been intensely criticized. All that he said was that “studies have proven”.

And when I was eighteen years old, this was not what I needed to hear.

Because when I was eighteen years old, I was in the process of falling into a deep depression that would stay with me for the next two or three years, and the last thing that I needed was to be told that my depression was true. Valid, yes. Recognized, of course. But true?

I didn’t want to hear that my view of the world was, in fact, reality. That when I thought that I was worthless, incapable, weak, and stupid, I was actually telling myself the truth. I didn’t want to hear that my fears that the world was corrupted and beyond saving were more than just fears. I wanted to be able to tell myself that these were all lies that my mind was telling me because my mind was sick.

But, of course, my depression grabbed onto this idea of depressive realism and it ran with it. Of course I was worthless and stupid; anyone who thought otherwise were delusional because they didn’t want to face the truth. Of course the world was going to burn to the ground; anyone trying to save it was fighting a losing battle. Of course. This was truth; other people were just too happy to see it.

Time has passed since I was eighteen years old. I have done more research on depressive realism, sure, but I’ve also done more research on depression. It’s been a long, uphill battle, but I like to think that I’m in a much healthier place with it now. That isn’t to say that I never have my depressed days, or even weeks, but I recognize it better now, and I know how to deal with it.

And I no longer accept that depression gives us a more realistic view of the world.

Because I’ve seen both sides of the spectrum. Hell, I’ve been on both sides of the spectrum. I have been depressed, and I have seen the world as a terrible, awful place, full of terrible, awful people – and of those people, I was included. And when I was depressed, this, to me, was truth. In these moments, I had more than enough evidence to back up what I believed.

I have also been happier, and I have seen the world as flawed, and yet I have known, in my heart of hearts, that change is possible. I have seen the evidence of that myself, in every young girl who identifies, proudly, as a feminist, in every marginalized person who demands to be recognized and respected. I have told myself and believed, fully, that these voices cannot be ignored forever. I have also seen change in myself; I have noticed my own successes, I have proven to myself that I am not stupid, that I am capable. I have come to the conclusion that people are, generally, good, and they try to the best they can with the information they have at the time. And when I have seen the world this way, this was also truth.

End of day, truth is, quite simply, what you believe. There is no way that depressed people can see the world more realistically than non-depressed people, because there is no one set standard for reality. The world is what you see it to be. You can see it as a terrible, ugly place, because it can be; or you can see it as a beautiful, loving place, because it can be.

What you focus on becomes what is.

And, of course, that isn’t to say that people who are depressed can just wake up one day and decide to start seeing the world better; depression doesn’t work that way, and that isn’t what I’m trying to say here. But what I am trying to say is, quite simply, the way that depression makes us see ourselves, the people around us, and the world at large, is not real. Telling ourselves that we are terrible, worthless human beings is no more or less realistic than telling ourselves that we are magnificent, glorious gods with no flaw whatsoever.

The views that depression tries to give us are lies, and more importantly, they are not constructive lies. Nobody feels good when they think they are worthless. Nobody is inspired to try their hardest in a world that they believe to be beyond saving. So if this is the case, then why not fight to convince yourself of a better lie? Why not identify your depressive thoughts for what they are, and remind yourself of what they are every time that they rear their ugly head?

So even if the more positive thoughts feel like lies, even if they feel completely unnatural to you at first, keep trying to tell them to yourself. Because even if they are lies, they are no more or less lies than the opposite. And, most importantly, forcing yourself to think these thoughts might eventually make you believe them (fake it until you make it, am I right?). Thinking these thoughts could, quite literally, change the way that you perceive your entire world.