“Well, if I were in that position…”, I started.”You are just so self-centered”, interrupted my friend. “Not everything is about you.”
Well, my feelings were hurt, of course. But she was right. My mode of analyzing the world is to think, “In his place, this is what I would think”, or “In her place, that is what I would do.” Depending on how much slack you’re willing to cut me, this can either be called empathy, or self-centeredness.
This post, I’m afraid, will be even more self-centered than my usual.
These days, it seems like there’s news of fresh slaughter every day. And more often than not, the killer is mentally ill. I agree completely that people who kill other (completely innocent) people, are all crazy at a very deep level. But the point remains that all those news headlines make things very difficult for people trying to erase the stigma of mental illness. This scholarly article begins thus: Research suggests that mass shootings can increase mental health stigma, reinforce negative stereotypes that people with mental illness are dangerous and violent, and influence public policy, all of which can undermine treatment and recovery [.] But if the public can handle it thoughtfully, these media reports bring up critical points such as the easy access to guns in the United States vs. the relatively difficult access to mental health care.
So, yes, I worry about the broad societal impact of all this. But I also think about how I should react personally.
After all, if I cannot empathize with a mentally ill person, who can? But however logical this may be, it also seems impossible to me. I could never in a billion years imagine murdering somebody. (In fact, I wouldn’t even get a gun, but that is mainly because I’m so clumsy that I’d surely shoot myself in the foot.) That person can be nothing like me, I tell myself. He is a criminal. I suffer from an illness. He’s hurt so many. My illness has never made me hurt anyone.
But right there is where I fool myself. What I’ve put my parents, my sister, my husband, my dearest friends through during the lowest lows of my life — if that isn’t hurting them, what is? But surely that’s completely different from being a mass murderer, you will say. It is. But here’s the catch. I never wanted to cause emotional hurt to my loved ones — I just couldn’t help it. It was my illness manifesting itself, like the body feels warm when you have fever. And what if, imagine what if, these people couldn’t help what they did in the very same way? My whole being recoils from this thought. No way anyone should give such a cop out to rapists and murderers. And so, on the abstract plain of this large societal issue, I avoid coming to any conclusion.
But like most other problems in this world, this one refused to remain abstract. When I was young, I was good friends with this girl. I mean, not jeena-marna-sang-sang (living and dying together) friends, but sitting-next-to-her-in-class-and-chatting-everyday friends. Then we discovered that she was a kleptomaniac. I promptly shunned her. So did everyone else, but I was supposed to be a “good friend”, right? True, at that age, perhaps I wasn’t supposed to have the maturity to know how to handle such a situation. True, at that age, few are brave enough to associate themselves with such messiness. But…
A few weeks later, my own mental troubles came into the harsh glare of public view. It was my turn to be shunned. And, to tell you the truth, even though the argument of immaturity applied just as well to them, I never forget the behavior of those “friends”. I never hurt anyone, I thought, so why would I be punished? But really, she had just pilfered a few trifles – clothes and so on. Did that actually hurt anyone? I don’t think so. Time passed, scabs formed, the surface wounds healed. We were all friendly enough. But the chance to experience true, deep friendship at that stage of our lives had passed, both for her, and for me.
I was (and am) deeply ashamed of not being there for my friend, at a time in her life when she needed friends most. And suddenly, after all these years, I was forced to contemplate how genuine my repentance was. I found out that someone had done something terrible. This time, the victim – a person I care deeply about – was undeniably hurt. The perpetrator was someone I had considered a close friend. A mental health professional explained his condition, adding that the incident would never have happened if he had received treatment in his childhood, like he should have. He wasn’t mental competent to be blamed for the act.
I didn’t care. I was horrified. I never ever wanted to see him again. I talked to people who didn’t know him (I told myself they would be objective) in order to reinforce my point of view. Of course he was the scum of the earth! Of course no-one decent should associate with him! Of course he should be turned in to the police right away! And then, the victim forgave him. Not just on the surface, but truly forgave him. She is a bigger person than I am. So, I took a deep breath. I saw him again. I was kind to him. Someday, who knows, I might even come to think of him as a friend again.
I still avoid conclusions on the abstract plain.