Bullies with Guns vs. Nurturing the Desire to Aspire


I was picked on and teased as a youngster. Beginning at 7 years old, I worked in the hayfield with a crew that was mostly high school kids. The funning, at my expense, didn't hurt anything, too seriously.

When I was in 4th grade, my one-room, country-school grew to eight students. One day, Mike, a big 8th grader, caught me, hooked my belt to the flagpole rope and pulled me up to half-mast. When recess was over, everyone went into the schoolhouse and left me hanging. After a few minutes, our teacher came dragging Mike out to let me down. It wasn't malicious and it didn't scar my psyche. The only lasting damage was a flagpole bent in a curve.

That summer, I was walking to the minister's house after bible school one day and a big kid, from bible school, jumped out from behind a bush, grabbed me, and threw me down on the ground. He called me a country kid and a pansy. He scared me and I avoided him the best I could. He didn't demean me in front of others but I did live in fear on my walks home the rest of the week.

My next confrontation came when I started town school, as a freshman. I looked forward to playing football. After a couple of days, Randy called me out in the locker room.

"Hey, you! Country hick, you'll never be any good at football. Go back and f_ _ _ your sheep!"

Everybody laughed. I had a towel in my hands and I snapped him on the butt. He turned around and swung a glancing blow to my shoulder. I caught him full on the mouth with a right cross, knocking him down on the slick shower floor.

He scrambled to his feet wiping the blood from his mouth, "Why did you do that?" he pleaded.

He never bothered me for the rest of high school.

I shared a locker with a boy, who was constantly picked on. I pushed back and tried to get others to leave him alone. He was a good kid who was just in that gangly, early pubescent stage of awkwardness. I didn't get why others picked on him so much. He didn't play any sports. He wasn't in the physics or chess club. He wasn't even in the band or chorus. But he lived far out in the country and had to ride the bus, so extra curricular activities were difficult. Some might say he didn't fit in.

Losing your Desire to Aspire

David Brooks, a conservative New York Times columnist has delved into the root-cause of mass shootings in America. There seems to be two vulnerable periods; adolescence and the twenty-somethings.

He says, "If you have six adverse childhood experiences in your life — some sort of abuse, some sort of loneliness, some sense of betrayal — it's hard to get a sense of self-agency.

Everything's recoverable, but attachment patterns, early trauma, a sense of if you've been betrayed enough, then long-term thinking doesn't make sense. So I would say the desire to not aspire — and you can rationalize that away — probably comes from some sort of wound, an injury, in people's lives."

For me, my adolescent disruptions did not qualify as trauma. I fit in pretty well. I did well in our 4-H program, which bridged my transition to town-school. Sports gave me a base of acceptance for my interests to broaden. The band room was right next to the boys' locker room and I stopped to visit with the band director on my way to football practice. I liked music and he got me started playing the trombone. In my sophomore year, I got the Most Improved Musician of the Year award and as a Junior, I went to Hawaii with a chorus group.

I felt pretty stable, maybe even a little cocky. I had the desire to aspire.


How Must I Behave?

Holistic Management's core driver asks, "How must I behave to create a functional ecosystem, a sound economy, and a whole community." In our families, our schools, and the extra-curricular activities of our children, we can listen to their interests. We can tamp down our tendency to create little clones of ourselves and encourage our sons to play in the band, rather than be a linebacker or a saddle-bronc-rider like we were. We can encourage our daughters to play soccer rather than take Home Economics IF that's their interest. Maybe our child likes to play chess, so we can help get a chess club started in the community.

Ask how we can nurture a desire to aspire?

Becoming a Shooter

Brooks summarizes that the disenfranchised young, white, male, captures a theme for domestic shooters in our country. Maybe it's the bullied that never gained enough traction to become the bully, so they resort to guns. I wonder if Billy the Kid was bullied? He only killed 9 but claimed 21. What if he had an AR-15?

The shooter in El Paso had right-wing leanings, while the Dayton shooter came from left-wing politics. The greatest domestic terrorist act in America fell in Oklahoma City at the hands of a Catholic, Timothy McVeigh. Lee Harvey Oswald wasn't a mass shooter, but he came from that twenty-something void. He was a Marxist, but a former U.S. Marine. The point is that religion or politics don't determine, who will be a domestic, mass killing, shooter.

Some say mass killers are mentally ill. Of course, a mentally stable person would not engage in a mission that will most likely be suicidal. So that's a cop-out. What caused the mental illness? The evidence suggests mass killers in our country are disenfranchised, young, white males. Why is it rare for people of color, or women to engage in this sick sport of shooting defenseless, unsuspecting civilians?

I got through my identity crisis in High School, but then we leave the familiar world in which we grew up.

Community and Change

Holistic Management teaches us that social dynamics are complex and self-organizing. None of us stay in high school forever. Some may cling for a while but eventually, we move on. Our stable world fades and we find ourselves in unfamiliar surroundings, with a simpler, less stable identity.

My family moved away from my hometown in western Nebraska and I felt like a cheatgrass seed looking for a place to land. We wintered on the Laramie River and then moved to the short grass prairie north of the Cheyenne River. In three years I may have gone to town a dozen times. I huddled and like an annual grass, lived from season to season, without rooting down.

Behind this instability was a solid, loving family, and a rancher identity. My sisters brought a friend home from college and we were married right before moving to a new ranch in the foothills of the Southern Wind River Mountains. Being a husband, then a father, broadened my identity. A bit.

Then change happened… again. Over the next couple of years, my dad died, my wife left, and I went bankrupt. I went into a downward spiral. I was that disenfranchised, twenty-something fledgling that spawns shooters. I lost my desire to aspire.



My attorney, Mike, gave me a video of Morris Massey giving a talk on "What you are is where you were, when" Here is a newer version of the 1970's version I watched.

The basic premise suggests that our core values are locked in at about ten years old. Whatever is going on in our world, when we are but a mere child of ten years old, shapes our values and our decision making for the rest of our lives.

I was ten in 1966.

  • A cold war with the Soviet Union was measured by a race to the moon.

  • Walter Cronkite brought Vietnam war casualties, blood and protests to our little black and white tv nightly.

  • Cuban missiles and tensions lingered.

  • Red China and the spread of Communism propelled us to dive under our school desk during drills.

  • The Nebraska Cornhuskers lost to Alabama in the Orange Bowl.

  • I was the son and grandson of respected cattle ranchers in Nebraska's Sandhills.

I specifically remember my tenth birthday, on the Dan Hill ranch south of Gordon, Nebraska. After I blew out the candles, my grandmother said, "Just think, in another ten years, he will be 20." I couldn't even imagine. My reality was solid. I knew who I was.

Massey's hypothesis continues. Our values will never change… unless… We have a significant emotional event.

My perfect storm of death, divorce, and bankruptcy had me in the middle of that event. When your world falls apart, the trauma and pain bring a very clear message, "I was living a lie."

Surviving that realization requires a reset of our values. To keep living a lie means we become a tyrant, a drunk, a psychotic, or in some rare cases a mass killer.

In my 20's, without a father, without a wife, without a ranch, and doubting my ability to be a father, a bully stalked me.

The Players

Bullies pick on the weak, the outcast, and the vulnerable. Some encourage the bully. Maybe they fear the bully will turn on them, so they stand to cheer and encourage the bully to oppress the defenseless. But more than any other factor of why bullies gain traction rests at the feet of the bystander; those who stand by and say nothing. Those who see someone belittling and oppressing another and yet do nothing are responsible for the snuffing of human imagination and contribution. Their inaction also supports the continued cycle, as the bullied become bullies.

As I struggled to regain my balance, each of these characters passed through my life. I look back and wonder if I could have become a shooter. That's extreme and I don't think that was in the cards. However, the story of my struggle for resetting my identity may apply to others in their teens or twenties. Maybe there will be one less shooter.


Lost and Confused

I was in a bar flirting with a cute bartender. The tall, dark, cowboy strode into the bar.

I nodded, "How ya’ doin'?

"Better than you." He had a gruffness to his voice that made him even more ominous than his size and reputation. He had been a rodeo cowboy. "I see you wearing that Sweetwater belt buckle that you won against all of those pansies."

The bartender was embarrassed for me. "We are closing sir, so I'm sorry, you must leave."

"I'll see you in the parking lot." He said, as he strode out the door. I followed him out and slinked into my car, as he continued to taunt me.

"Yeah, you're a big shot with those pansies down on the Sweetwater. I'd be ashamed to wear that chicken-shit buckle." He scorned.

I started my engine and headed home. I was scared of him.

Another neighbor, Tom, encouraged the bully and told me about it. "I told him that he might be a hotshot rodeo cowboy, but you could double hock a calf and drag him to the branding fire better than he ever did. Boy, that made him mad! He’s comin’ after you." He laughed so hard he choked.

Stepping Up


But my neighbor Bill, a slightly built guy, who filled a room with his joy for life, took a different tact. He knew about this situation and he had been a friend with this bully for many years.

He explained, "He was a quiet, mild-mannered kid before he got into rodeo. Somewhere along the line, he changed." 

I wonder if maybe the bully had been bullied somewhere along the line?

Bill organized the annual round-up dinner in the fall.  I was driving some cattle up the County road and he stopped.

"How about a drink?" He said, as he got out of his truck and opened the cooler. "We're having the round-up party Friday night, sure hope you can make it.

He got back in his truck and I tipped my Walkers and water, "Thanks for the drink!"

"Sure, and by the way, I didn't invite him." He laughed. It was kind of a wink, knowing that I needed to know that.

The next spring, I was filling up in a gas station. A different Bill whipped his truck of the hiway and pulled alongside. He was built like a fire plug and had an infectious laugh. “We’re having the nut fry Saturday night at the Merc. Be there!” he said as he spun out.

These two Bills kept drawing me into the community. More importantly, they refused to encourage the bully, or be a bystander. They made sure I knew that I had a place. I had no reason to be a shooter.

Community Development

David Brooks says, "I think. . . we form a community, and then we live in it for a little while. Then somebody offers us five bucks an hour to move somewhere else, so we go somewhere else. So to me, it's the act of not inheriting community but forming it, and then leaving it, and then forming it again that creates the creativity of this culture."

This describes Holistic Management and our Social Resource Base. We don’t inherit a community, we form it one decision at a time.

The 20s have become for many a brutal time, that they don't quite know what their purpose is in life. They don't quite have the skills to get out of the wide-open options. They're afraid of closing off options, because they're not quite sure who they are. We've produced a society that's made being 25 phenomenally difficult, in part, because you're in the most supervised childhood in human history until 21, and after that, you're released into the complete void."

No Bystanders Here

My neighbors helped me fill that void with ways to contribute. I became an officer in the Cattlemen's group and pushed some boundaries. I asked my neighbor, Clyde, if an edgy position I took was ok. He said matter-of-factly, "Sure, you're on our side."

As confidence gained, I met the bully head-on. My friend, Matt, and I went to a bar to catch up over a beer. Suddenly, the bully was in my face, "You get out, I won't have you around me and my friends."

He was with Doug. I kept my eye on him, but talked to Doug sitting at the table off to my left, "Is that right? Do you want me to leave?"

Doug laughed, "Aw heck, Tony. Sit down and let's all have a drink."

"Thanks, I believe I will," I said as I sidled over and pulled out a chair.

The bully strode over and looked down on me. "You sure as hell ain't sitting down at my table, get the hell out!"

"Doug invited me for a drink and I'm having one. You can either sit down and join us or leave," I tried to hide the shaking in my voice.

"You're all a bunch of pansies. To hell with you." He quipped as he left.

He never bothered me again.


Resetting Values

As I came out of this reset period, it was around 1988. What was going on in the world then?

  • Russia begins withdrawing troops from Afghanistan.

  • Osama bin Laden formed Al-Qaeda.

  • US accepts immigration of 30,000 US-Vietnamese children.

  • US Supreme Court votes 8-0 that Jerry Falwell cannot collect for Hustler parody.

  • Florida State beat the Nebraska Cornhuskers in the Fiesta Bowl.

  • I completed my two-year term as Fremont County Cattlemen’s president.

  • I graduated from Wyoming’s Kellogg LEAD program.

  • I completed and implemented my first Holistic Grazing Plan. 

It was perfect timing to learn about Holistic Management’s value based decision making process as my values were being reset. For the first time, I could see how my cowboy skills could be applied to improving the ecosystem that supported my livelihood. I had purpose greater than me.

Build Resilience through Diversity

The world today seems much more complex than when I was in my 20's. But I think the same principles apply. Government isn't the answer, but it can blunt the tyranny of the majority.

My friend and hired man of 25 years is a Shoshone. Pee Wee told me that when you are an Indian, you can't be president, you can't be a cowboy, and you just can't be much.

His reasoning might suggest why we don't see women and people of color become shooters. If you don't have it in your dreams to achieve, then you aren't offended when it doesn't happen?

Brooks says we don’t inherit community. But it’s not that. We don’t inherit status, or role, or position. That’s entitlement. Entitlement provides an undertow current, dragging us, as a diverse culture, back into the depths of simplicity. A simple arrogance breeds resentment that we didn't get the promotion, the job, or the position. Protecting those who feel entitled contributes to the problem. Coddling the entitled will kill the desire to aspire for many in our communities.

Space vs. Coddle

David Brooks continues, "Nietzsche has a phrase: ‘He who has a why to live for can endure any how.'

And I would say that people get better at living, that in their 50s and 60s they get out of their own way. The sort of monster of self-regard diminishes… and that's the recipe for happiness."

For me, it was the older men in my community that provided me space to find my balance. They did this without coddling. I needed to own my own "why."

Too often we coddle those needing a reset. This can do more damage to community dynamics than standing by and letting bullies run rampant. Coddling allows the entitled to skirt past a chance to build character. Bullies crush those struggling for a reset.

Just as a diverse plant community will capture more sunlight, we need a diverse community of people to capture imagination, creativity and gain productivity. After knowing Pee Wee, it became clear to me that affirmative action helped our nation develop diversity, even though I had been against this type of government action. Government programs can open more pathways through student tuition programs.  But public support will fall flat unless we have support from people in our community making space for those with less, without coddling, like the men around me when I was in my 20's.

Tribalism isn't the answer, because our world is too diverse of a place. Partisanship isn't the answer, which has paralyzed human creativity and initiative in our country. Big government, tribalism, and partisanship, rely on bullies to tamp down imagination and human creativity. These and other acts of exclusion are the mass killers of the diversity needed to make solid decisions at the soil surface. An engaged diverse community will provide space for the desire to aspire.


Tony Malmberg4 Comments