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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