Over the last week, I've been reflecting on the Islas Vista shootings, along with, I'm sure, a lot of other people. That is, of course, a natural reaction to this kind of incident because it is disturbing to see open violence breaking out in our seemingly peaceful streets. It also should cause us to wonder what is it about our culture which breeds this kind of hate-filled (usually) young men, whose only outlet for their feelings is violence and murder. How does this happen in a society which is supposedly at peace? And, if we are at peace, why are we not peaceful?
I don't know the answers to those questions. Of course, many explanations have been offered for this and other shootings—mental illness, video game culture, gun culture, a crisis in masculinity or rampant misogyny. Indeed, it is more than likely that there is not any one simple answer. The challenge of Elliot Rodger, I think, is not to explain why he is different, but, rather, to identify those parts of one's own heart which are similar to his.
I am uncomfortably aware that the same attitudes of entitlement to sex, seeing women as collections of albeit desirable parts or as prizes to be won, have been a part of my own thinking and behavior. Living with a woman in marriage has forced me to see both the good and bad in her and love her for who she really is, not as I want her to be. Even with that lived experience, I still have to monitor my thinking and my relationships with women to make sure that I'm seeing them as the people they are, not as extras in the (self-centered) drama of my life or, worse, as mere objects.
About a week ago, when I watched the video Elliot Rodger left behind before his rampage, what came to my head immediately was that the Desert Fathers were so right about the importance of what we think. These monks considered that they would make no spiritual progress if they didn't confront the 'bad thoughts' which accosted them daily. These thoughts have been translated into the Western moral tradition as vices. They are better understood not so much as actions, but as dangerous thinking patterns which lead the soul into a willful decision to pursue the objects of that thinking in the place of God. So, lust takes the desire to connect with another person to the point of wanting to possess that person as an object. Anger takes the desire for justice to the point of imposing one's will on another. Pride takes the recognition of one's preciousness in the sight of God to the point of displacing God and feeling one can be God in one's own life. These early monks seem to have understood something that we have problems seeing. They understood that one's thoughts make one vulnerable to self-will and, from there, to displacing God from one's own life. That is why they put so much attention on how to pray and how to deal with these distracting 'bad thoughts'.
I don't know what happened to Elliot Rodger to lead him to think and act as he did. There is reason to believe that those factors were amplified by mental illness. And, the way this mental illness manifested itself was, also, shaped by the misogyny of 'rape culture' which pervades much of pop culture and many sub-cultures in our society. What I see is the results of 'bad thoughts' running rampant through one’s life. Ultimately, it was anger, pride and thwarted lust which drove justice, humanity and love out of the heart of this young man. That is a tragic thing, but a tragedy that is further compounded by the murders that this young man perpetrated on his fellow university students. I don't know how else to react to this tragedy, but to mourn those who died, identify the lies I hear from society and keep a watch on my thoughts. That's not enough, but it's all I have right now.
Phil Snider is a teacher in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, and is also a Life with God participant. You can read the expanded version of this post and more of his writings at http://uperekperisou.blogspot.ca/