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Before the hate, bullets, and depression comes rejection

GunWhy is virgin killer Elliot Rodger getting so much attention? It’s all about rejection.

Before the bullets comes rejection. Before the hatred of women comes rejection. Before the depression comes rejection. Rodger’s Day of Retribution is striking a nerve. His 141-page Manifesto made The New York Times (read here). Fan groups are springing up, lauding him as a hero. And while some women have started a twitter campaign to fight misogyny #YesAllWomen, others have expressed their sadness that they didn’t meet him before he took his own life.

Everyone can relate to the pain of rejection. It doesn’t justify a killer’s actions, but it explains why this story is so big. We have all felt defective, ugly, and not good enough. We have all been emotionally attacked. From the ages 13 to 18, the game is to make everyone feel like less so we can all feel like more. The end result? Everyone feels like less. Some never learn that rejection is as normal and natural as breathing. It’s part of life. In extreme cases, the inability to tolerate rejection can end lives.

Rodger’s manifesto is a story of misguided anger stemming from rejection and mental health issues. At age 6, he was denied access to a Jurassic Park ride at Universal Studios because of his height (he hated tall men). In 7th grade a girl rejected him, which sent him into a depression. In high school he heard a classmate talking about having sex; this sent Rodger into hysterics because he felt worthless. In college, he saw a couple kissing and attacked them with hot coffee because they reminded him of his pain and loneliness. He rejected himself, rejected everyone who got what he desired, and coped by hiding, hating, and shooting up a college town full of people who reminded him of his pain.

The inability to tolerate, manage, and face rejection is a thread that connects all shooters.  From Sandy Hook, to Virginia Tech, to Columbine, all the attackers have been alienated, excluded, and unable to cope with rejection. Just last month, a high school student stabbed and killed a girl who refused his invitation to prom. Whether it’s a heart-broken lover seeking revenge or a vengeful ex-employee teaching a boss a lesson – it’s the same story of rejection and retribution.  While mental illness often plays a factor in the more extreme situations, fear of rejection is universal.

Why do so many college students struggle with rejection? Ages 15-24 is a time of firsts; new situations and big new emotions. Life can be naturally uncomfortable, awkward, and unfamiliar. Newfound independence means less support and structure.   College is the first time millions of students are faced with social and emotional challenges far away from family, friends, and a support system. They don’t have practice dealing with transition and struggle. A report from the National Mental Health Association indicates that over the past 60 years, the overall rate of suicide among adolescents has tripled. It’s now the third leading cause of death among 15- to 24-year-olds and the second leading cause of death among college-age students. When you investigate the stories of students who took their lives, rejection is always near the root.

This latest tragedy has many storylines. Families have suffered unimaginable losses. Women are taking back the power. Gun control debates are raging. But there is a storyline at foundation of this tragedy that must get more attention. We don’t teach high school and college students how to face, embrace, and overcome rejection. They’re self-taught to hate, hide, and avoid it. We live amidst a wounded generation lacking the emotional stamina to navigate life. Rejection doesn’t make us flawed, worthless, or defective — it just makes us normal.

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