Heather Martens’ annual fundraiser was planned long before Elliot Rodger unleashed familiar horror on a Santa Barbara college community, leaving six dead and 13 wounded before he killed himself. So it was before Oregon, before Seattle.
It’s getting hard to keep track — a horror in itself — and harder still to not feel hopeless that we’ll ever extract ourselves from this theater of the absurd starring too many of our young and troubled sons.
It was comforting to have coffee with Martens before her recent event at the Varsity Theater. Martens, executive director of Protect Minnesota, a nonprofit organization promoting sane gun laws, believes we’re moving toward this year’s theme, “Happiness: Imagining Childhood Without Gun Violence.”
“In 20 years,” said Martens, who was remembering Sandy Hook when she chose the title, “we will have a changed narrative, with responsible gun ownership and laws that back it up. Public sentiment will become policy.”
But we both know that sane gun policies alone won’t get us there. Yes, overall violence, including youth violence, is down and that’s worth celebrating. But mass killings have doubled in the past decade, nearly all of them committed by young men.
And, yes, most of our young people, our millennials, will emerge into thoughtful, productive adults. But too many young men are struggling in a 21st-century world for which they are ill-equipped.
Looking back in 20 years, here’s what I imagine our young men will understand about growing up, forming healthy relationships, and becoming themselves.
We forced you to live an outdated masculinity. While the clunky word “mascupathy” is unlikely to go mainstream, the idea will be universally embraced. Coined by Michigan psychologists Randy Flood and Charlie Donaldson, who have spent decades working with men and boys, mascupathy describes “a socialized exaggeration of masculine traits, including aggression, invulnerability and competition, and a reduction of qualities typically associated with femininity, such as compassion and vulnerability.”
Masculine traits worked well — once. In your young-adult world, those traits left you feeling like outsiders as your female peers soared in college and the workforce, far more at ease with openness and collaboration.
“There’s a lot of pressure on boys to become emotionally stoic, to keep their game face on,” Flood said, “to man-up and take charge.”
Only a tiny number of men and boys, of course, take charge through violence. But which ones? “The level of toxicity that someone marinates in, it’s like air pollution for an asthmatic,” Flood said.
“A lot of the shooters feel marginalized, like they’re not making it in the adult world. They develop this aggrieved sense of entitlement and convert it into retribution and revenge, which is the ultimate masculine act.”
In the future, you’ll know that it’s OK — preferable even — to balance important male traits with traditionally female relationship skills so that you, too, soar.
We too often threw pills at you, when you needed so much more. Rodger may or may not have been dependent on the anti-anxiety drug Xanax when he penned his chilling 141-page manifesto, took to YouTube with his video titled “Retribution,” and began his killing spree.
In the future, we’ll better understand the complex chemistry of the still-developing brain, and will see prescription drugs as just part of a holistic approach to getting well.
That approach will combine exercise, meaningful work and, maybe most essentially, supportive and accountable connections with other men. We’ll finally understand that men of all ages can become depressed, angry and anxious because they’re lonely.
“Real men do need intimacy with other men,” Flood said. “We wonder why so many men are obsessed with sex, but that’s the only option we give them for intimate connections.”
We didn’t listen enough to your families. Rodger’s parents knew something was wrong, but the officers who came to his door met a polite young man who seemed fine. Even trained mental health teams can miss clues, said Sue Abderholden, executive director of the mental health advocacy group NAMI Minnesota.
“It’s a very, very difficult thing to predict,” she said. Families are typically the first to notice when depression “morphs into a first psychotic episode, something beyond what he had before.”
In addition to trusting families more, and blaming them less, we’ll have a standard crisis plan in place as we let our young people move away from us, such as making sure that they are connected to mental health professionals on campus.
We made it too easy for you to get guns. As Johns Hopkins gun policy expert Daniel Webster noted, we protected you from your risk-taking urges by making 21 the minimum legal age for drinking. But we allowed you, at 18, to legally possess a handgun, even when research unequivocally showed that people ages 18 to 20 have some of the highest rates of homicide offenses.
In 20 years, we’ll have accomplished what most Americans, including gun owners, favored: background checks on all firearms sales, expansion of existing rules disqualifying some people from legally possessing firearms, and 21 as the minimum age to legally own a handgun.
We parented you with too much love. Funny criticism, eh? As a baby boomer parent, I cringed when millennial expert Jean Twenge told me that parents, with the help of media and our overall culture, “set up this generation to fail. We did not prepare them for the realities of adulthood and, especially, how the economy ended up,” said Twenge, a psychology professor at San Diego State University.
My 25-year-old daughter was kinder. “Mom,” she said. “You loved us the most.” I’ll go with that. But all that love, all that adulation for putting a plate in the dishwasher, was not the best approach. Indulgence plus a bad economy equaled lots of foundering, lots of grown kids sleeping in their parents’ basements, lots of conflict in the workplace when they weren’t promoted quickly.
Yet you’ll also remind us that it was your generation who pushed for marriage equality and food justice. You built cultural bridges by volunteering around the world.
In 20 years, I hope you’ll look back with pride that you hung in there, built on your strengths, learned from your setbacks and added, better late than never, a renewed focus on hard work and self-control.
And here’s the thing: You don’t have to wait.