The Off Switch

What do Newtown, a local car rampage, video games and my trash can have in common?

The day before the Newtown murders I experienced my own violent incident in my neighborhood. A 17 year old, teenage girl, for all intents and purposes, went on a violent rampage with her car, right in front of me. I had seen her, just before, round the corner at the intersection where I was standing, at such a high speed that I remember thinking it was miraculous she hadn’t flipped the car. Minutes later she came back down the street, again speeding, and a few seconds later I heard tires squealing and the sound of a crash. My first thoughts were this was probably that same car. I started to walk down the street toward the accident to see if anyone was hurt, but then I suddenly stopped short as I witnessed what ensued.

The crash sound came from her attempt to turn another corner and didn’t make it. As it was reconstructed by numerous neighbors, she had, instead of turning the corner, crossed the 4-way, stop sign intersection at a diagonal and crashed into a parked Jeep, taking out the front end. Not stopping there, she then put her SUV in reverse and, hitting the gas pedal, backed up taking out the corner stop sign and diagonally crossing the intersection again. Her full-speed reverse backed her over the curb, on to the grass where she hit a large redwood tree, the only thing stopping her from continuing into the neighbor’s house. She then threw the SUV into drive, attempting to take that first corner again, wheels spinning in the wet grass, she lunged forward horizontally across the street. Short of the turn, she went up on to that curb and into another redwood that stopped her from driving into that neighbor’s house. Still not achieving her goal, she again hit reverse, flattened that corner’s stop sign, and landed in the street. Finally hitting the brakes, instead of stopping completely, she put the car again into drive and, ignoring the police car that had arrived, finally made the corner, leaving her front bumper, other car parts and the stop part of the sign in the middle of the street. By now the police had cut off all her exits and she was forced to a stop a block away.

The police said she was drunk and she had first started this rampage in another part of town by hitting another car. That first time I saw her, she was a few blocks from her way home. The second drive-by I saw, and this rampage, was her leaving home to go who knows where. All many minutes apart, amazingly, no one was hurt or killed by her violent, uncontrolled destruction with a deadly weapon. My reaction, and that of those hearing me relate this story, was that she wasn’t drunk. She was more likely on drugs. But what hit me later was not the question of substance cause, but her seemingly in ability to put on the brakes and ever stop. She continued on, and on, until she was absolutely forced to a halt, not by the realization of her destruction, but by the police.

So what are the commonalities? In Newton the shooter also only seemed to stop when he had no way out. Shooting himself when the police entered and were about to stop him. It is chilling to think if the police had arrived any later, what the death toll might have been. With this teenager, there was the same behavior pattern. It is chilling to think what other destruction of property, or people, would have occurred if the police hadn’t stopped her. Certainly, as I experienced, she had failed to stop herself after her first accident and her six subsequent attempts to keep going afterward, yet another parallel to Newtown, where the first shooting of his mother was not enough. He kept going on. Where would the girl in the car have gone next if the police hadn’t caught up with her? Just past where she was stopped was a busier intersection and streets with cars that had people in them, bicyclists riding and children walking to the nearby park.

What about the latter two, video games and my trash, adds to the commonalities? We all know that most videos games are about not stopping. Play again and again, try again and again, and don’t let the obstacles of the game stop you or get in the way of your attempts to achieve to the next level and win. With video games and other similar vehicles, we are training our youth, and our selves, not to have an off switch. We do this in video games. We do this in sports, both professional and now down to the elementary school level. There are abundant stories of parents cheering and pushing their kids beyond the point of endurance, beyond the point of sanity and reason, to physical injury that stops them or others from ever playing again. Bullying is a similar performance. No longer just an expression of youthful differentiation, the act of bullying is now intended to cause serious, permanent harm and even death. But what about the injury to the psyche and to the brains natural survival switch? We have broken the connection to the part of our brains that tells us when to stop so we won’t get hurt, or die, or do the same to others.

And my trash cans? My next door neighbors and I have a disagreement. But they won’t agree to disagree. For years, any time the man saw me he brought up our issue not matter what the situation, whether in conversation with other neighbors, at the mail boxes or I just opened my garage door. He’d say hello, in what would turn out to be not a pleasant greeting, but a preemptive strike. If I, in turn, responded with a hello, he took that as an opening, a crack for him to kick wide open the proverbial door and enter, thus bringing up our disagreement in order to ‘persuade’ me to change my mind. My only choice left, short of getting a lawyer with a restraining order, was to alter my behaviors in order to set boundaries by being unfriendly, un-neighborly, never to interact, or be polite. If not, I would be continually forced to suffer faux greetings intended as dominance, or to give in. This went on and on for years until I finally gave him a definitive no. Did that stop them? No, they just tried a different tactic. They had their dog piss on my back ivy, poop on my front walk and, along with their pal across the street, they dumped their trash in my garbage can and their extra recycle material in my recycle bin. They have taken the actions of making my life environment toxic. Just as they learned to deal with people they don’t like or disagree with in their work by making their work environments toxic. Co-existence is not an option. They have no off switch.

In our wondering of how something so horrible can happen, like the killings in Sandy Hook Elementary school in Newtown, Conn., or Virginia Tech or Columbine in Littleton, Colo., or the movie theater in Aurora, Colo., or the sausage plant, in Geneva County, Ala. or the shopping maul in Happy Valley, Ore., or the law firm in San Francisco, a past client of mine, et al., we need to look to ourselves as a culture. Curbing our gun insanity will help, but it is not the answer. Neither will the easy argument that they were all just nuts, or drunk or on drugs. Each of these excuses may be true, but only in part. Under any influence, the brain is still making decisions. If we train our brains never to stop, to run past and ignore our off switches, then under these influences, incidents as major or as minor as my not being infinitely agreeable and amenable with my neighbors and having a mind of my own, the first-choice behavior pattern is to keep going. There are no brain barriers to break through. The way is already nicely paved for free and unfettered travel to whatever it deems desirable, ignoring all virtual, and literal as with that teenage girl, stop signs.

And the list of common non-stop actions goes on and on. The car robber/mugger who, mad because the woman he was trying to rob didn’t have ‘enough’ money in her purse, kept going, tossing her dog into oncoming traffic and killing it; The cheating scores skyrocketing in schools as we train our students to hyper achieve. The government that can’t govern with a winner-takes-all, it’s my way or the highway mentality. Wall Street, banks and corporations that operate in unbridled greed sacrificing people’s jobs and futures, which includes their own, for supposed bottom line profits. The 24/7, always on, technology that leaves more and more people unable to turn off their smart phones, computers or TVs. Unable to just turn it all off in order to interact as human beings.

A is for Accomplish

Coda:  In my book, Do Work Different – The New Alphabet for Work, I start the Alphabet with Accomplish. Accomplish as a replacement for achievement. When I wrote this first part over a year and a half ago, I didn’t realize how prophetic it would be. I meant accomplish to be a different way to do work. An antidote for the toxic environments I encountered and their associated behaviors. I was looking for some remedy, some alternative, some way to ameliorate our hyper-competitive, climb-over-the-backs of other people and kill them off way on our way up the ladder to make it, business interactions. Accomplish, a small thing, replaces achievement’s win by beating others, cause others to fail and win at all costs, with a simple act of accomplishing individual things, not at the expense of others. Accomplish is a small concept, maybe not the whole solution, but a start – a way to practice hitting the off switch by not keeping it on all the time.