Beyond Columbine:

- appreciating the patterns of social meaning hidden in the Columbine tragedy -

by Joel A. Wendt

Here we examine the unseen patterns in the social context  in which all the participants  in this tragedy found themselves embeded, yet did not recognize or understand.   While the social organism has many properties of a macro nature, most of us live our lives in much smaller contexts.   Just as it is possible to find ways to bring social health to our large social organizations, so is it possible (in fact quite necessary for the health of the whole) to bring social health to our local communities.   For it is just here that the sources of darkness in the soul are best comprehended and healed.


On April 20, 1999, two young men ages 17 and 18, named Eric Harris and Dyland Klebold, entered their high school in Littleton Colorado in the United States of America, carrying several guns, pipe bombs and propane bombs.  They had apparently hoped to kill hundreds of students, and destroy the large and complex school building itself.  They succeeded in killing 14 students (including themselves), 1 teacher, and caused relatively small amounts of physical damage (fortunately the propane bombs did not work - had they worked, huge explosive fire bombs would have gone off in a lunch room filled with four to five hundred young people - so perhaps we can see a miracle as well as a tragedy).  Another 20 plus students were injured, some permanently.

About five days after this event, while I was watching an analysis of these two young men on CNN, with my 16 year old son, he said: "That could have been me", revealing his identification with the two young men.   As we explored this over the next few days it became apparent that my son was just one of thousands of high school students, who saw Harris and Klebold as victims of a social climate of hate directed by the so-called jocks and the popular toward the individual or unusual.  Moreover, these young people were clear that they felt that their parents and teachers were responsible for this diseased social milieux that was so painful to so many.  The internet played a crucial role in this last element, in that without it, these thousands of young people would not have known of their common feelings.

Clearly this was an event that had social meaning far beyond its surface nature.  Even today, as I write these words almost 18 months after this tragedy, one can find millions of words and hundreds of web sites (if not thousands) on the internet, devoted to aspects of this event.  In the essay below I hope to add another dimension to the struggle to understand.

I have often thought of certain kinds of tragic and violent human events as not unlike, in certain characteristics, natural events, such as sudden lightning storms or tornadoes.  I don't mean to suggest that this is so from their inside, but rather in how we can relate to them.  For we do have to make some kind of relationship, to find for ourselves some kind of personal sense-meaning.

I have in mind these natural events, because for those of us who experience these matters at a distance, such tragic human events are not within our will powers to either determine the causes or ameliorate the effects.  We are too far removed.

Sometimes I form a picture of a kind of psychic storm, crashing and thundering across a given inner social landscape, easily as powerful and dynamic as a sense perceptible thunder storm and the following flash flood that destroys lives and property before one has time to really draw a breath.   What is interesting in all this, is that both with the physical cataclysmic nature event, and the social cataclysmic event - people not only want some way to predict these events, they believe such prediction might be possible.  One of the deep questions asked about Columbine, is how could the parents, teachers and law enforcement officials not see what was coming?

I believe the existence of this question is probably the most crucial fact to emerge from this tragedy.  Let me make this as clear as possible - the existence of this question itself is an essential fact of the event.  People believe that someone could or should have seen this coming.  People believe that what was going on within the inner life of these young men was not so mysterious as to be beyond human knowledge and cognition.  Yet, the fact was that in spite of many indications (a violence promising web site, known criminal activity, etc.) no one anticipated what came to be.

I would like us now to begin to slowly step back from the immediate events themselves.  My own considerations of these problems have lead me to understand that the answer to this so poignant question is to be found more in the social context, than in the immediate particular facts.  The failure to anticipate what these young men were contemplating is a phenomena reflecting something of the nature of modern social communities - for this event was not alone, but rather was a member of a whole class of similar violent events that have been happening in communities all over America.  Moreover, these violent events have been endemic in minority communities for more years then it is they have been happening in white communities.  Guns have been coming to schools for decades now, and being used there.  It is only in the last decade that this crossed over into white communities and thus became, in this still racist society, a media event as well.

At the same time as we recognize this, let us keep in mind that the central question from the standpoint of this essay, concerns why the community is unable to perceive and deal with this excess among the young.  We are looking at the community, not the individuals who violate its norms.

One of the facts, about human psychology that we know, is that very often, in the absence of its idea, phenomena will arise that cannot be perceived because we have no word or concept for it.  For example, if we take a young child and show them a field of flowers, they will only see (as parts of the whole experience) those differences and distinctions for which we have given them words.  Oh, they might see that something brown is in the center of something yellow, and that the shapes of some parts is more like leaves, while others look more like little bulbs.  But they won't "see" what these parts mean in terms of the whole and what their function is.

In a like fashion, Western Culture has many ideas about human inner life - about motives and complexes and passions and flaws - but not everyone knows all these ideas (many of which conflict with each other), and most ordinary communities know very little.  In fact, most communities have social rules which suggest that one's inner life is a matter of utmost privacy, so that even though many gossip, few have real knowledge of what we all seek to maintain as our own very personal and secret inner territory.  We may see the consequences of the psychic storms crashing through a family, but we really don't know the true texture and structure of what is going on inside the soul landscape of the individual members.

This does not mean we are totally ignorant, however, for many of us know to some degree our own inner environment, and will usually be able to at least project, an approximation of what is happening inside another person, from out of our own experiences.

Let us now review some of the above with a bit of a different idea.  We could ask the question if whether what we know, in any of the above instances, is either the truth or reality.  Does Western Culture know the truth of human inner life?  Do communities possess such knowledge?  What about individuals?

With these questions I mean to wonder whether we, as a slowly more self knowing species, know all that there is to know about human inner life, or human nature, either in general or in specific individual instances.  Are we not like that child in a field of flowers, knowing some things about what we see when we survey the inner landscape of our families and communities, but not nearly knowing all that we might?  Does the language we use, whether inherited from the so-called professionals or not, really enable us to see the hidden psychic storm clouds gathering inside another person's mind?  In fact, does not the existence of the Columbine tragedy, and its relatives, suggest rather starkly the truth that we exist in a condition of almost complete ignorance?

Many would not like this conclusion.  Practitioners, of much of science, and much of those disciplines which wish they were science (psychiatry and psychology), believe they know a great deal about mind, emotions, brain chemistry, emotional evolution, cognition and so forth.  Who could argue with this assertion?  The whole weight of knowledge of Western Culture descends on the side of this idea in such a way as to suggest that we know a great deal and are close to knowing all (genetic manipulation of states of consciousness).

Well, yes, of course, who could doubt the power of science to know and determine the truth?

Yet, we still have wars, child abuse, race crimes - an almost endless list of social horrors.  Science can make a claim for understanding the world of matter with some degree of success, for we live surrounded by the resulting technological achievements.  At the same time, a claim of success in matters of understanding the inner life of human beings will not stand this test of practical success.  Science, and its acolytes, may claim to know, but in practice they have little to offer.

Something is missing from their world view.

What science is blind to is clear, for almost everywhere this question spills out, the same dynamics arise.  For all of human history, and pre-history, human beings have had a spiritual view of themselves and of the nature of life and existence.  That is, up until the arrival of science.  Science has unfolding its powers of knowledge in such a way that it has pushed back a spiritual view of the human being, and frequently denigrated such a view.  A revisiting of the various old and ongoing debates is unnecessary, as this essay is simply going to proceed on the basis of what happens to our practical understanding of individual, family and community life if we just re-include the spiritual.

What science has pushed away, and systematically left out, we will reinsert and see if something practical results.  The test is not to be found in arguments and learned papers, but rather in how we conduct our social existence.  If knowledge of the spiritual allows our social life to improve, what more do we need to know?

Eric Harris and Dyland Llebold were young men, members of families, parts of a community and students at a respected local high school.  Yet, they felt invisible, unknowns in the social circles in which they found themselves - unrecognized differentiated flowers in a field of apparent sameness.  This they decided to change, in the most horrible fashion we could imagine.

Why didn't the community see them?

Perhaps the community itself was ill served by the larger surrounding cultural influences.  Perhaps the absence of the spiritual in the understanding of the world means not just different names for the phenomena of human inner life, but more crucially the absence of something else, something which we might call wisdom.  The psychiatrists and psychologists and teachers and law enforcement professionals were all experts, but is expertise the same as wisdom?  Is it possible the community had knowledge, but lacked wise understanding.

How could communities arise in this time of great scientific knowledge and expertise, and lose the capacity for the wise understanding of its members?  Is it a basic flaw, or something in the natural order of social existence?

I would now like to sketch out certain facts that can be seen when someone includes the spiritual in their examination of social conditions.  In this process we will create some new terms for the dynamics of social life, some new names for the parts of the whole of the field of flowers of our common community life.

Imagine, if you will, the panorama of recent human history as having an outward visible structure, and an inward invisible structure.  We know the outer elements in the many stories we have concerning persons and events as this history has unfolded itself over the last and most recent millennia.  If you will, however, picture behind these stories something else happening, something that leaves its traces in the outer stories, but is of a nature not visible to the mind in the same way as the events.

Consider that human inner life is not fixed, immobile, or forever known and formed.  Rather, it too, like the biological organism, evolves.  The inner organism changes as does the outer visible organism.

In order to discuss this we need some terms.  These terms can be fairly arbitrary if we wish - they could even be nonsense words.  Yet, we do have certain historically used terms that will not only serve, but whose use it will help us to resurrect - in this case the terms soul and spirit.  In the age of science these have come to be seen as metaphors, but not as realities.  For our purposes, let us consider them as possible realities, whose character and nature will enable us to do that act we so much desire - namely to reinsert wisdom into our social existence.

To make these matters most concrete to the individual reader, let us consider that soul is what we call conscious and unconscious experience, whether it be the experience of the senses, of thoughts, of feelings, impulses of will and all the other aspects of inner life our language and culture recognizes.  Spirit, on the other hand, is not experience but that which experiences.  Soul is the unseen content known to the knower and actor - the human spirit.  I don't know your experience, but I do know experience and I do know myself as a self.  I interpret the world (usually, if I am not a sociopath or other seriously ill individual) as containing other individuals of like nature - who also have a self and experience.

In order to understand the social context of the Columbine tragedy, it is necessary to appreciate how soul and spirit are currently evolving over time.  It is this invisible order which helps us appreciate the need for the return of wisdom to our social life.  This understanding of the evolution of consciousness need not be theoretical, because, as mentioned previously, these changes have left their traces all over our outer history.

A particular change occurred in this invisible organization around the 14th century.  Prior to that time the soul was more dominant than the spirit in the dynamics of the inner life of the individual.  Experience was more determinative of self, than self was determinative of experience.  Among the Scholastics of the 12th Century, we find the word participation in frequent use.  The soul felt embedded in the world, not separate from it as we do today.  Thus we have people with the names, John's son, or Telliard de Chardin, that is of a certain place.  We were part of the community and of nature, and much less individuals.

Other facts point toward these prior conditions.  In a book by the writer Michael Dorris, The Broken Cord, he writes of an American Indian language in which it is impossible to say "I hit you", but only "we hit us".  The ideal of ancient Taoism, so often repeated in the television series Kung Fu, is: "Be at one with nature", for it is the recollection of the taoist experience that self and experience - self consciousness and consciousness - (spirit and soul) was in a state of integration with outer nature.

Yet, this was not a stable and fixed condition, but rather one which changed.  Spirit became stronger, more individual, and began to determine soul, rather than be its semi prisoner.  As a consequence soul itself emerged more from the surrounding environment, both social and physical.  This also brought historical changes in its wake, changes we can observe.

For example, science arises from this change, for now it is possible, nay mandatory, for the self (spirit) to see the world as over there, and no longer something of which one is a part.  This leads to a kind of onlooker consciousness, or what some have called the onlooker separation.  It is as onlookers, rather than as participants, that we begin to develop modern natural science.

A rather remarkable fact arises at this time.  For the first time in the history of art, paintings begin to exhibit space.  Prior to this time there was no perspective in  paintings, then everywhere, slowly to be sure, space arises as the change of consciousness that is everywhere occurring takes place.  There are many other changes, far to many to list in this short article.  The reader who wants to go more deeply into this is invited to direct their attention to: Art and Human Consciousness by Gotfried Richter; and, Saving the Appearances: a study in idolatry by Owen Barfield.

It is the changes in this inner landscape of the soul and spiritual life of humanity that has lead to most of the current social conditions.  This is a complicated relationship, and I will only sketch out those matters connected to events about which we tend to have common knowledge.

The increase in the powers of individuality, of a more dominate inner spirit nature, begins to affect the course of social life from within.  Sons and daughters slowly lose interest in following in the footsteps of their parents, until in our time it is a social given that the children will take their own paths.

The view of the world that flows from the onlooker separation results in a science which proceeds to see the world as an object, empty of consciousness and being.  All the old ideas of Nature, as a place of spiritual workings, die, to be replaced by pictures of natural events as predictable clockworks.  Demeter and Persephone disappear, and laws of gravity and particle interactions replace this old view.  The social structures, once held together by these common religious impulses and understandings, begins to fail.

Science brings forth great powers over the material world.  From the technological implications, the industrial revolution arises, which also has a social effect.  Villages and farms no longer contain the greater concentration of people, as cities and industrial concerns now draw the majority of the labor pool to their environs.  The father (see Robert Bly's Iron John) and then finally, in our time, the mother, are pulled by the operation of economic necessities from the home.  Children raise themselves now in the industrial West.

Language itself undergoes many changes.  The idea of evil comes less to the fore, and individual characteristics become more the product of bio-chemical and electrical properties of the brain.  The individual grows stronger, and the ability of community to restrain it through social pressure lessens.  At the same time we are given a picture of a mechanical human being, who is more a product of his genetic heritage and less a product of his own freedom and responsibility.  In the psycho-babel of modern life, we become victims of our untrainable inner life, not the participants in an inner battle between good and evil.  We know a great deal about the material dynamics of brain neurophysiology and almost nothing about how to have inner discipline in a practical sense.

In outer social life this loss is named "the family values crisis" and becomes a political issue, rather than an issue of possible human knowledge and wise understanding.  Science having become disconnected from Art and Religion lacks the resources to appreciate what is happening.

Yet, the evolution of consciousness is not ended, but is rather a constant ongoing process of growth and/or possible decay.  The diminution of the power of the community to determine individual moral behavior becomes an alchemical social crucible for another development.  A free moral conscience is born within the self-conscious spirit.

The phrase, "do the right thing" begins to be replaced with the phrase "do your own thing".  A great debate over the right to life and freedom of choice arises within political life around the legal abortion question.

In one place, a man writes a book called The Philosophy of Freedom, bringing out in full consciousness these delicate inner issues.  In another place, two drunks found a movement called Alcoholics Anonymous, in which the same problems are approached in terms of terrible real life experience.  In a third place, a young man starts a change among the ordinary Christians, with his "what would jesus do" movement.  Self determined moral freedom, as distinct from acquiescence to community standards, tries to emerge everywhere in the twentieth century, from its beginning to its end.

And at Columbine High School, in April of 1999, two every angry young men scream with the most horrible violence imaginable - "we too are free spirits!", to a community blinded by expertise and lamed by the absence of wisdom.

Harris and Klebold, besides the obvious, share much kinship with the canaries coal miners used to carry into the mines.  The dangerous mine gases would kill or cause unconsciousness in the canaries, providing, sometimes, sufficient warning for the miners to escape.  Harris and Klebold are our "sensitives" to invisible changes in soul and spirit not yet recognized consciously in our communities and social life.  They knew they had more value than that which was reflected back to them by their social environment.  But, the same lame and retarded social structure could also not give them what they needed to understand about themselves. They looked inside at the dark, and when it looked back at them they were undone.

There was a time in Europe, and certainly it is part of the spiritual wisdom of the original peoples of the Americas, that the shadow or double or doppleganger of the human being was recognized as real.  Knowledge of evil was not wished away by thought structures that made of soul a determined mechanism and of spirit a helpless victim in the face of genetically fixed characteristics.

To speak of soul and spirit is merely to point in the direction of a whole field of human knowledge desperately needed in our time for the healing and future meaning of our common social life.  How much further tragedy will it take to wake human societies up from the dreams and sleep concerning the failure of scientific materialism to render practical aid to the understanding of social existence?  Columbine speaks to us in the strongest social language possible.  What comes next if we remain locked in the illusory trap of expertise and the resulting absence of wisdom?

Let us consider this last point more closely as we drawn near the end of this essay.

Expertise places knowledge outside the individual, and only within the realm of someone trained.  But a community is a whole, and at its core are fathers and mothers (hopefully), sisters and brothers, grandmothers and grandfathers, and all manner of little children.  If I say to a mother and a father that they should deny their own instincts because we live in an age of knowledge and education and training - i.e. if we say constantly, as we do today, that who you are as a person is only a relatively empty mechanical organism that has to be trained in order to know, how is a father or a mother to appreciate what might be latent in them as self knowing beings of soul and spirit.  Our education turns off as much as it teaches.  Our idol is the Einstein, the great intellect, and not the wise old woman and man, the grandfathers and grandmothers of American Indian cultural traditions.  Is not this same problem more and more true all over the world?

One of America's great wise men, Emerson, wrote: "In self trust all virtues are comprehended".

Over the last couple hundred years, humanity has quite systematically begun the destruction of most of its traditional social structures.  One could lament this, but only if one isn't paying attention.  What is new cannot emerge in the face of a coherent old.  Tradition always carries the danger of keeping the new and coming essential from entering in.  The evolution of consciousness has brought about a new condition in the inner life - soul and spirit have been strongly reconfigured and the resulting social consequences have yet to be cognized, appreciated and taken account of.

One might wonder at this point - shouldn't the next matter be an exposition of how communities should move forward in the light of the realities and new conditions.  Yet it is precisely this attitude that is of the old.  One is just substituting more expertise and placing it upon the basis of some kind of superior spiritual knowledge.  On the contrary, wisdom arises within the given social context itself, out of that context, and not through the imagined illumination from other outside sources.

A community, such as Columbine, doesn't need outside help, but rather it needs trust and encouragement to discover what is true for it.  It is only from within a given social situation that real wisdom arises, because wisdom comes from the reflection on life of those living it.  Wisdom is almost the opposite of expertise - the latter being something one goes away to learn.  Wisdom is inherent in life, a natural endowment.  We grow it out of ourselves, not from a book or a teacher, however enlightened.

In a sense, in these last days of Western Civilization, we are all trapped in the ideas of a most powerful recent past - the ideas and ideals of natural science, with its anti spiritual materialist orientation.  This relatively new tradition has overpowered most of the best of the old.  But in fostering the ideal of expertise, it makes impossible wise social existence.  Wise social existence needs thinking which is free of any tradition at all, whether it is apparently modern, such as Steiner's anthroposophy, fairly young such as natural science, or much older.

Let us come at this once again, in the context of a certain question.  We could ask: Does knowledge of the kind needed exist - that is knowledge that would have lead to understanding and appreciating these young men before they fell into the black hole of soul/spiritual ignorance?

It is not enough merely to have stated in this essay that if wisdom was returned to our communities, much would be different.  We live in an age of very concrete knowledge of all kinds.  Science, even though oriented materialistically, is not, in its own nature, in error.  Science puts forward a very basic view as regards the search for truth.  It asks this: If one wishes to assert the truth of a thing, then it is necessary to show how that truth was obtained, and in such a way that others may discover it as well.

Any new wisdom should be able to pass this test.

If we reflect, in a concrete way, upon the family and community life of these young men, we have to ask: What was the nature of conversation and discourse on human inner life?  Did mom and dad and teacher sit besides their young charges and discuss with them their own (the parent's and teacher's) reflection on the shadow side of the soul, or how this can be mastered by the conscious elevation of the spirit?

Sadly, we know no such discussion took place.  There is no language of spiritual wisdom alive in Western Culture.  There are certain traditions, often jealous of each other and their own prerogatives, but no outer common seeking.  On the contrary, the tradition of scientific discourse relegates such conversation to only places outside the school, and then only as belief systems, not as a discussion of realities.  With the rise of the idea of the family values crisis some attempts to bring alive moral discussion has occurred, but this has looked at the human being as if morality and character were something one poured into an empty soul, rather than being a feature native to the human spirit, which it could manifest if it was truly educated in the broadest sense of that term.

Let us be frank about something else.  There is to be no mac-wisdom, a fast food spiritual enlightenment that will sweep through modern culture and reform and deepen our social life.   There are far too many obstacles.

Science, for example, looks at the question of consciousness and precedes to examine it as if there were no deep spiritual traditions, with thousands of years a practical maturity already existing.  Science still looks at human inner life through the dark lens of its own assumptions concerning the absence of spirit and consciousness in the universe.

Besides these limitations of science, there is also the prejudices created by the needs of the huge business and financial organizations that dominate modern life.  In the light of their current habits and practices, workers and consumers that were self aware of their true spiritual worth would not necessarily be desirable.

There is an enormous structural inertia to the kind of social changed needed to bring wise understanding alive in our communities.  In fact, the re-awakening of wisdom in our communities would be a revolution that would stand the current social milieux on its head.  Yet, at the same time, the evolution of consciousness, with its emergence of the community and family dominating individuality and the birth of the free moral conscience, is a social force that cannot be stopped by any such inertial social resistance.

But, exactly this is the danger, and one of the deep lessons of Columbine.  If wisdom is not returned to our communities, by the conscious reflection of its members upon the deeper aspects of existence, then this power of the "I too am" can only continue to express itself violently and in other terrible and unwanted socially dysfunctional ways.  The psychic storm clouds gather everywhere, and as long as humanity remains ignorant of the true dimensions and dynamics of the inner landscape, then more and worse tragedies will occur.  It is really a matter of choice.  Do we return the seeking of soul and spirit to its true centrality in social existence, or do we deny it and suffer the consequences?

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