To Walk in Another’s Shoes

Warning: This is a rant of sorts. I admit it. I rarely do this (beyond anywhere but in my own head). And perhaps I am guilty of doing what I am saying others should not do. I get the irony. I do. But here goes …

I am one to believe that no matter what difference of opinion may exist, people ought to set aside judgment and simply walk alongside those in grief. It’s naïve of me, I know, and perhaps it is born of my own experiences, the times when I have felt so alone and abandoned, and subsequently shocked by the insensitivity and abrasiveness of people I may or may not know. My belief system leads me to surmise that, apart from sheer ignorance, people who hurt others the most are the people who themselves are hurting the deepest. Maybe their pain displays as arrogance, bitterness, indifference, or outright assault either verbally, emotionally, or physically. It is heartbreaking to me to see this type of reaction by people who more often than not think they know a situation in its entirety, even though they’ve only caught glimpses of the most peripheral details. From there, right-and-wrong and black-and-white judgments and declarations abound, and the lack of gray (and grace) leaves little to no room for compassion or mercy.

The recent suicide of Matthew Warren, adult son of California pastor and author Rick Warren, is a sad example of this situation to me. I have never read any of Rick Warren’s books, but out of curiosity, I went on a few websites to read comments in response to articles about the Warren family and Matthew’s death. Knowing that mental health issues play into this, I was very interested to see what I would find. Setting aside the fact that this could easily be my family – or yours – I am dismayed at those who are using this grievous situation to speculate, to mock, and even to gloat. Some may blame this on our celebrity-worshipping culture, and the fact that many feel justified in drawing their own conclusions because they read an article or heard what someone said about some hot-button issue, so they feel warranted in making their ill-informed proclamations. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s part of the equation.

Admittedly, I didn’t stick around to read all of the comments; there were just too many. There were those who expressed sadness and support, but it seemed they were greatly outnumbered by those who blamed the parents, blamed their faith, blamed reasons that were admittedly speculative at best. I won’t go into the details because they really are mere speculation. But I will say that I was most taken aback by those who mocked the family, as well as those who felt they had a right to demand more information (as if this family’s grief is any of their business), and those who intimated that Matthew’s struggles with depression were just an excuse for him to be selfish enough to take his own life. Really? To make such blanket statements, to presume that you know the details of, or what is best for, anyone else’s life is sheer arrogance at best. Truth be told, most of us are having one heck of a time just trying to keep our own lives in order. How dare such pronouncements be made upon a grieving family simply because they happen to be more well-known than our own.

As a parent who has walked the path of mental health issues (both my own and that of my children), I find this appalling and offensive. Living with mental illness (however brief or extended the experience may be) can be a living nightmare. To simply wake up and fight to put one foot in front of the other, to dread the thought of going to bed because it leads only to waking up and wondering if your daughter will be dead or alive in the morning, driving your desperate teen to the Emergency Room for psychiatric care, or being forced to call 911 because the child you bore is suicidal and raging … I have lived these things and more. No amount of denigration or finger wagging from those who demand to know details, or think they have it all figured out, does anything to help anyone. Ever. These things are added violence to the already swirling mayhem that for some is daily life.

It takes courage to walk alongside those we love in the best of times. When depression or other mental issues are present, we must gather together more courage than one person alone can possess. We must ask for and accept the courage and hope of those willing to loan them to us, of those willing to bear us up when we are barely able to crawl. Shame on those who think they can render a verdict about a situation in which they are not intimately involved. And at the same time, my heart breaks for you who behave that way; I am sorry you are so wounded that upon seeing another human soul or family in pain, you cannot muster enough kindness to offer a word of sympathy. Or at least keep your mouth shut out of respect. I suspect this is the very thing you want and feel you have not received, either from the ones you harass or from someone significant in your life. And this makes me sad for you.

Some people are still so stuck in the dark ages about mental illness. Why are they so reluctant to admit that there are some things that are beyond our (and their) control? Why the reticence to simply say, “Sometimes things are awful and scary and hard, and we just do our best to love each other through them”? Perhaps because acknowledging that it can happen to others means acknowledging that it can happen to you, too. Knowing that some things are so grievous and difficult that they can actually cause death … this is a terrifying concept, but it is real. Sometimes treatment works, and sometimes it does not. And whether you want to believe it or not, many people wrestle with that truth every day. We are sorry if it scares those of you who have never experienced it, but we ask that you not condemn those of us who have simply because you may not fully comprehend it.

Instead of judgment, a good and courageous start in response to the struggle of another – whether stranger or friend – is compassion, which can be defined as “a feeling of deep sympathy and sorrow for another who is stricken by misfortune”. Compassion is simply imagining what it would be like to walk in another’s shoes, then responding with empathy. I believe we all long for this most basic of human connections, but our woundedness and fear can make us reluctant to give it.

Compassion is a powerful weapon, one that we must use to fight against the stigma of mental illness as well as many other societal ills. It is one weapon that is, ironically, inherently devoid of violence.

 

© Monica Simpson and Help To Hope, 2013

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21 thoughts on “To Walk in Another’s Shoes

    • Thank you. I am honored that you think so. Perhaps hell hath no fury like a mother’s when she feels her family is under attack, either directly or indirectly. I read your post on this issue, and I feel you expressed yourself very well. I appreciate your honesty. Keep writing. It’s important.

      • Your words made more since than anything I have read tonight.
        Everyone tells me I am so selfish to think of suicide, since my botched up Prosate cancer surgery last may. Is it really not a reasonable alternative to consider ending the pain when the doctors don’t give you much hope.

      • Johnny, I am so saddened to hear of these very real and painful challenges you are facing. I do understand depression and hopelessness and the dark places they can take us to. I have been to those very dark places myself.

        I believe that your thoughts are not coming from a place of selfishness but of deep and abiding pain, pain in every sense of the word. I also believe that your life has great value, just as I knew my husband’s did during the time he was fighting for his life. He did not survive that fight, but every moment and every breath of his still held great value, simply because life has inherent value.

        I would venture to say that those who say you are being selfish really are experiencing their own fear, and they don’t know how else to process it. I invite you to look through the Resources page on this blog, Johnny. I can’t say there is a magic wand to make your body, mind, and spirit feel instantly better. (I wish!) But I can say that there is encouragement for you as you are adjusting and living with these daily difficulties. I honor your pain and struggle. I encourage you to reach out to those who can help and walk alongside you. In the meantime, here are a couple of sites specific to your medical issues that I found for online support and discussion that may be helpful to you:

        http://www.mdjunction.com/prostate-cancer
        http://www.inspire.com/groups/us-too-prostate-cancer/discussions/

        I will continue to hold you in my prayers.

  1. I think it’s mostly sheer and total ignorance that leads people to be so callous. When my fiance killed himself, 3 seperate people said to me, “what did you do to him?” I’m not sure why there is such a lack of compassion in the general public. I suppose maybe it’s because as an evolutionary trait, it doesn’t really suit “survival of the fittest”. And in the end, I’m not sure the population, as a whole, can over come their base natures. We see many instances of people rising high above it, but far more often, we see the animalistic, “rat race” mentality.

    I remember after 9/11, some people were so hyper critical of the victims who jumped from the buildings. They looked down their noses at them, said they were weak, condemmed them to burn in hell. That just proves to me how so many people have absolutely no ability to walk in others shoes, and also, how little they understand human nature, even their own. wonderful post, thank you.

    • I am so sorry for your loss, Carrie. As widows (or “unmarried widows”, as you are) we just hear all kinds of stuff, don’t we??? And in my experience, many of us develop a “Black Widow Humor” to deal with it. There are much worse coping mechanisms, so I’m okay with the gallows humor. 😉

      I suppose there are a myriad of reasons that people act or respond in the ways they do. I agree that ignorance is a large contributing factor, maybe not necessarily in a way that people choose to be ignorant, but simply because they have so far been spared the experience of such trauma so it’s totally foreign to them. And then they can say dumb and hurtful things. I think our society has little tolerance for things beyond one’s control (which is, in fact, most of life on this earth). So when those traumas do occur, many simply push them away instead of stepping in to feel the pain and learn from it. I believe that fear has a lot to do with that.

      It seems to me that, ironically, those who choose to fully enter the brokenness and pain are those who are able to develop the most compassion. And our culture absolutely does not promote this practice. Some of the kindest and best people I know have been wounded deeply, but have allowed their experiences to soften them, not embitter them. It takes work, as I would imagine you well know. It takes a lot of effort to learn to look past our own noses, and compassion is a costly and painful attribute to develop. I don’t know that many people are willing to “do the work”, sadly. (Just my own observations and opinions, of course.)

      Thanks for reading.

    • Thanks, Carrie! Wow – I am less than 96 hours in to this whole blogging thing, so I’ll have to put some thought and work into this. Plus, I’ll have to find 11 other newbies to pass the award to! Please forgive my lack of knowledge and technical skill … I’ll get to it though, I promise. This is a good challenge for me, and a lovely honor to be sure. I’m a bit speechless. (Ask anyone who knows me, and you’ll know that’s a big deal.) 😉

      I enjoyed reading your answers, and appreciate the questions you have posed for your ‘awardees’. Time to get my old brain cells in gear. Hope you have a good day ~

      • take your time. I took over a week for my “return nominations” I wanted to nominate the best new blogs and really do a nice job. I had a blast with it, and can’t wait to hear your answers, new questions, and check out the new blogs you find. 😉

  2. Many thanks for your empassioned and eloquent plea for understanding and compassion for those dealing with mental illness. I’m continually appalled by the cruelty found in some people’s understanding of God – what a horrible and lonely place they must reside in. Keep speaking out – your words can be a beacon of hope and healing to those who believe (because they are told) they’re not good enough, faithful enough, God-like enough.

    • Thank you; I appreciate your adjectives (empassioned and eloquent); I really feared -and still do- that it would just sound like an angry rant. Some things are worth getting angry over though, and I feel this is one. Thanks for your encouragement. I very much hope to do just what you described.

  3. Wonderful insights and encouragement here, Monica. People like ot blame others for a lot of reasons, I suppose, but in large part I think it happens because it’s easy. It’s at least easier than the heavy lifting it takes to try to really understand what someone else is going through.

    By the say, if your post is a rant then it is one of the most constructive rants I’ve ever read.

    Tim

    • “(Blame is) at least easier than the heavy lifting it takes to try to really understand what someone else is going through.” Agreed. As I’ve said before, compassion is costly and painful to develop. But look at the dark places that a life without compassion can take someone …

      Thanks so much for reading and for the good words and thoughts, Tim.

  4. I am re-posting your article. The insensitivity of people who evidently don’t know better and haven’t walked in the shoes of mental illness is disheartening. What you have shared is very well written and comes from the heart. I hope it will touch other hearts as it has mine.

    • Tina, thank you so much. I am honored that you re-posted this. It is indeed a humbling thing to have your words reach into another’s heart. It is even more so when those words are then shared with others.

      I am encouraged to know that there really are plenty of people who see the person behind the news story (or the grocery story cash register, for that matter), and choose compassion over judgement. Compassion is a great healer for all involved.

      Thanks for reading and for your kind words,

      Monica

  5. Pingback: Some People are Stuck in the Dark Ages About Mental Illness | Writing for Life

  6. Someone reblogged this, which led me to your original post. I am a Social Worker in general mental health and what you touched on is accurate: Blaming the victim for the crime unfortunately runs rampant in our society. When my mother’s boyfriend committed suicide, she was also blamed, what a sad world it is when we are held accountable for the actions of others beyond our own control. Also, Brene Brown, who is my new found hero lol, discusses vulnerability in depth, and i think you would enjoy her discussion via TED Talks. Best of luck to you!

    • Cathy,

      I am sorry for your family’s loss. Death of a loved one is difficult enough without blame and ignorance coming from others. It still amazes me when people make such crass comments about things which they either know nothing about, or which don’t concern them at all.

      Brene’ Brown is great! I have actually watched her 2nd TED talk, but need to set aside a chunk of time to watch the first one. (The second one is shorter!) Glad to hear your recommendation.

      Thanks so much for your comment,

      Monica

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