I travel around the United States giving lectures on waging peace, ending war, the art of living, and what it means to be human. Last week I spoke with high school students at Center Grove High School in Greenwood, Indiana about the importance of belonging, which is a crucial aspect of what it means to be human. Reflecting on belonging and its opposite, alienation, can help us better understand the societal violence we are seeing in our country and around the world, such as the tragedy we saw in Las Vegas recently.

To get audiences to reflect on belonging, I ask them what our humans needs are. They often list food and safety as our most basic needs, because they have been influenced by Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. I then ask the audience, “What is more important for humans: food or belonging?”

After giving the audience a few moments to ponder this, I ask, “What is more important for a wolf-pack: food or belonging? Keep in mind that belonging is the precondition that allows wolves to obtain food, because they are social animals that hunt as a pack, as a community. In a similar way, belonging is the precondition that allows humans to obtain food, water, safety, shelter, and all of our physical needs, because we rely upon a community for our survival. If you put a two-year-old child in the wilderness alone, that child will starve to death.”

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs got it backward. Although he lists physical needs such as food and safety as coming before belonging, the opposite is true. Since the time of our earliest ancestors until today, belonging to a community has been the foundation that has allowed humans to obtain food and safety.

What is the most common characteristic that all serial killers and mass shooters have in common? In his book Female Serial Killers, Peter Vronsky says that “social isolation—loneliness—might be arguably the most common characteristic of the childhood of serial killers.” A lack of belonging in the form of social isolation, loneliness, or alienation is also common among mass shooters. So what is more important for humans: food or belonging? People do not become serial killers or mass shooters because they lack food. But people can become serial killers or mass shooters because they lack belonging.

Painting with Knives

As a child I grew up with strong feelings of alienation, because my mother is Korean, my father was half black and half white, and I grew up in Alabama. My father fought in the Korean and Vietnam wars and suffered from war trauma. As a result, I grew up in a violent household and developed a lot of behavioral problems as a child. I was kicked out of elementary school for fighting, almost kicked out of middle school, and suspended in high school for fighting. In high school I often fantasized about shooting all of the students in my classes, and I wanted to express my pain through violence. 

For many people suffering from alienation, rage, and unhealed trauma, violence can be a form of expression. As an adolescent who wanted to express my pain through violence, I often fantasized about painting with knives. When we paint with knives, we use a weapon for a brush, and our canvas becomes living flesh. When I sank into the abyss of agony as a traumatized child, I wanted to paint the world with my pain. I wanted to use a knife to write my rage. Instead of writing for peace, what if I had focused all of my energy on dialoguing through destruction? In the dialogue of destruction one side speaks with violence, and the other side replies with screams and suffering.

If people do not have healthy ways to express their emotions, they will choose unhealthy ways, and violence and rage are not healthy ways to express our emotions. Healing my trauma has been a long journey, and during that journey I graduated from West Point, served in the army for seven years, was deployed to Iraq, wrote several books about waging peace, and created an idea called peace literacy that can help us heal trauma, alienation, rage, injustice, and other root causes of violence. As I received military training and became an adult still suffering from severe trauma, my capacity to commit violence increased, making it even more apparent to me that I needed to find a way to heal my trauma and become peace literate.

Realizing that humanity is facing new challenges that require us to become as well-trained in waging peace as soldiers are in waging war, I created peace literacy to help students and adults from various backgrounds work toward their full potential and a more peaceful world.

Our Country and World Need Peace Literacy

Peace literacy frames peace not merely as a goal, but as a practical skill-set that allows us to increase realistic peace in our lives, communities, nations, and the world. Peace literacy also helps us fully develop our human capacity for empathy, conscience, reason, and realistic hope.

Imagine if there were a basketball game where none of the players had been taught how to play basketball. It would be a mess, and would anyone be shocked? Would anyone feel hopelessness and despair over the players’ poor performance? No, because that is what you would expect when basketball players have never been taught how to play basketball. Imagine if an orchestra played Beethoven, but none of the musicians had been taught how to play their instruments. It would be a mess, and again, would anyone be shocked or feel hopelessness and despair? No, because that is what you would expect when musicians have never been taught how to play their instruments.

In a similar way, we live in a society where people are not taught the most basic peace skills. When our society and education system do not teach us peace literacy, which includes basic peace skills, a realistic understanding of our human needs, and how to heal our trauma, why are we surprised by the problems in our society? Why do we feel hopelessness and despair, when these problems are what we should expect in a society that lacks peace literacy? Some people learn peace skills from their parents, but many people learn very harmful habits from their parents, and so much of what we hear from political leaders and the media reduces our capacity to promote peace by suppressing our empathy and sense of empowerment. Peace literacy gives us practical solutions for overcoming these and many other challenges, thereby giving us reasons to have realistic hope. I have realistic hope because I know how much of a positive difference peace literacy can make in people’s lives. I am living proof of this.

Since our understanding of peace is only as good as our understanding of the human condition, peace literacy provides a realistic and empowering framework for understanding what it means to be human, the root causes of violence, the nature of peace, and the anatomy of trauma, including childhood trauma, racial trauma, and war trauma.

In a world where so many proposed solutions merely address surface symptoms, peace literacy teaches people how to create solutions that heal the root causes of our human problems. The wellbeing of our communities and the world will depend on humanity moving from preliteracy in peace to peace literacy, and every bit helps. You can learn more about peace literacy and how we can heal trauma, alienation, and other root causes that lead not only to mass shootings, but to so many of our other human problems, at peaceliteracy.org. This website offers free curriculum, peace literacy skills, and reasons to be hopeful during challenging times.