Tuesday, September 06, 2016

Misunderstandings Only Make Matters Worse

We've made lots of progress as a people, but those of us with mental illness are still often feared or labeled as crazy. In the course of my life, I don't think I've asked too much of other people. Never wanting to be pitied or handled with kid gloves, I have asked one small concession of the world. I've wanted to be understood. If I can't be seen as a child of God, I'd rather be avoided rather than insulted or dismissed out of hand.

Understanding comes from compassion and empathy, which seem to be in short supply these days. Observe the comment section of any online discussion and one sees the worst, bitterest, most deliberately hurtful parts of humankind. We once believed that technological advances and innovations would advance the best in everyone, but the exact reverse is often the case. We can now communicate with each other in rapid time, have access to information and communication at a lightning-fast tempo, but it appears that, more often than not, we have remaining no real regard for others.  

A story from my own life: years ago, I saw the inequalities between the sexes and recognized the injustice present. I observed that men and women weren't yet equal and wanted to make changes. And believing that surely I could, provided enough training and elbow grease, might educate myself and spread the message, I began to read and then actively contribute my written words to the movement. In doing my research, I came across a young adult feminist website entitled Feministing. For the sake of greater personal growth, even though it was surely difficult from the very start, I put myself under the microscope immediately.

The pressure to be the best and most observant person I could be was frequently trying. Activist groups often fall into the trap of a Salvation by Works approach, valued as they sometimes are for methodical hoop-jumping and conformity. Taking the matter to heart and in the proper spirit is a challenge, which is why this frustrating paradox presents itself over and over again. It's easy to get hung up on rules and protocol.

A movement that is, at least on one level, careful not to box itself in by exacting orthodoxy or rules of conduct expected more of me than others. Even now, if I have ever wavered a millisecond from what passes hypocrisy, in some corners, I can be easily placed back in the stockades. But this is the risk I run, and I know it. I have worked hard, but I'm always fearful I will lose every ally and supporter I have won in a decade-long process of activism and self-discovery.

And this isn't just true within Feminism or any other organization and clustered movement of like-minded individuals. It is equally true for everyone who simultaneously takes on the identity and language of Christianity, especially in front of a liberal audience. Many of my readers can be generally skeptical of organized religion in any form, transforming me into the living incarnation of defense attorney, the ardent apologist for the cause. The labels we assign to ourselves aren't important to us, until, of course, they are.

In the course of this looking inward, I recognized with time why many women do not assign the label of feminist to themselves, and why even more men run away from the classification and button badge. I suppose the easiest path for me to follow would have been to back off, disavow myself from previous statements, and lessen the pressure to be perfect. I could have flip-flopped easily and choked the foul deed down. But I haven't done this and the bulls-eye on my back remains.

I'm committed to an ideal that would put women and men on equal standing with each other. Implicit in this understanding, however, is the knowledge is that every sentient being is imperfect and at times even hypocritical. Religion teaches us that we must forgive ourselves first. Only then can we begin to forgive others.

Among some of who might read my words, I recognize that my life story and my beliefs can push the envelope. The God talk, biblical citations, and religious language I use may be off-putting or even alienating. I take a risk. I am cautious not to favor one side over another. Sometimes I see myself in the same light as Jimmy Carter, a man who wore his religious convictions on his sleeve, even though he was aware that such a public display made many people very uncomfortable.

I was judged from the outset and didn't start off well, I really wasn't able to get off on the proper footing. Timing was part of the problem. I found myself in the middle of very intensive trauma therapy (badly needed, but extremely emotionally wrenching), which left me raw and frayed. I began reaching out to people I didn't know very well, clamoring for help and assistance. Since then, I have blocked out much of those times, both deliberately and unconsciously. In a healthier state, I would have kept many things to myself and tried the patience and tolerance of others much less.

What I expected is not what I received. Instead, I was treated to a variety of different responses and reactions from other people. Many of these, in hindsight, were counter-productive to my journey. A few were sympathetic and understanding, which is the ideal response anyone can receive in circumstances like these. Unfortunately, some could only see my vulnerability and extreme honesty in unfavorable, jarring terms. Negative adjectives were often thrown about regarding my behavior, which was eccentric in the best of times.

Since then, I've tried my best not to label others with mental illness more severe than mine as weird, strange, or creepy. That's only fair. If I really want to live my Quaker faith, I will strive to see that of God in everyone. But even before I had made the conscious decision to re-embrace Christianity, I rarely felt any need to cut people down to size who were guilty only of being chronically ill. Those of my own generation are often more accepting and understanding of mental illness, and I'm thankful for that. I trust anyone who reads this will see things on those terms.
As for myself, I'm grateful for the people who knew I was unwell, didn't judge me harshly, and guided me to health. At times, I remind myself of the founder of my faith, George Fox, who also suffered with periodic bouts of depression. At times he shut himself up in his room, too mentally and physically exhausted to do much else. Other times he pursued a haphazard course, bouncing from person to person, seeking a lasting cure for his maladies.

I imagine that others must have treated him much as I was and have been in my own life. Some gave him treatments to try, steps to follow, procedures to consider, and general guidance. Fox tried each of them; none were successful or satisfactory. That is, until the voyage of final discovery that made him, as it is often quoted, leap for joy.

I still want to be seen as a good male ally, a feminist crusader for justice. Challenging myself to see the Divine in others requires my participation, too. But even with the best of intentions, I cannot undo the damage that certain people, especially men, have caused in some. I can be understanding and stand in solidarity, but the hard work that needs to be done cannot be undertaken wholly by me. I would not hoist that banner skyward if I could. That work is not entirely mine.

I could be callous and ungenerous very easily. I could push victims aside in similar ways, labeling their behavior out of bounds. I could wash my hands and ignore their stories. But I choose not to, just as much as I try to remain under the microscope. This is hard work. Everyone has trigger points, boundaries, and sensitive parts to them. From time to time we stumble upon them, then do all we can manage, which is to apologize and make note of it in our minds.

It is a great tragedy that victims of abuse with ample reasons not to trust others are left holding the bag at the end. I've had my own share. I hope God will put the proper words of comfort and understanding into my mouth. Everyone recognizes that in seeking to help through our words, we may unintentionally offend or insult others who are struggling with their own inward journey towards health. I pray that my own ignorance will not cause harm to others, even if my intentions are noble and well-meaning. Hatred and anger is easy. Taking the high road is not.

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