Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Guest Blog - Empathy or Rage: Your Choice

It is my pleasure to introduce Elizabeth as a contributor to "Knowledge is Necessity." This is the first in what promises to be a lot more. So, without further ado:

I’ve been thinking about the value of empathy a lot lately. We with mental illness hope that our loved ones will understand our lot. We know all too well that our symptoms show most glaringly through our words and actions, as much as we try to keep this from happening. We do our best, and wish for understanding and forgiveness when we do or say something stupid. But perhaps while we hope for that, we could meanwhile concentrate on developing our own empathy. This just might make the world better—for ourselves and those around us.

Every once in a while I read something that makes a big click in my brain. This happened when I first read James Baldwin’s “Notes of a Native Son” many years ago, and it happens every time I read it, or indeed any of Baldwin’s work. He was one of the great American thinkers concerning race relations, or any relations, writing in the 20th century, and in this essay he talks about his first voyage out into the world beyond Harlem. He was young, with a job in New Jersey that gave him his first real taste of a racist world. It was 1943.

The main problem for Baldwin (pictured here) was that he couldn’t get served in any restaurants around him. “We don’t serve blacks,” was the constant response, yet he kept on going into these restaurants because he was a pugnacious, indignant young man, and rather than bending to the insane racist rules around him, he answered to an overwhelming need to stand up to it.

He was the one black man around him that stood up. As a result, gangs of children took to following him as he walked down the street, taunting him. He was reaching an insanity brought on by outrage.

One evening he and a white friend decided to step into a restaurant for dinner. The usual thing happened: the waitress said, with apology in her face, that “we don’t serve blacks.” It was the last straw: Baldwin really lost it, and threw a half-empty water pitcher at her, thankfully missing. He managed to run—fast!—while his friend stayed at the restaurant long enough to misdirect the police.

Later that night in his room, in shock, Baldwin reflected on the incident:

I could not get over two facts, both equally difficult for the imagination to grasp, and one was that I could have been murdered. But the other was that I had been ready to commit murder. I saw nothing very clearly but I did see this: that my life, my real life, was in danger, and not from anything other people might do but from the hatred I carried in my own heart.

What I think Baldwin means by “real life” is the life of the soul. We who have experienced searing mental pain have found ourselves on the edge of such epiphanies all too often, if only in our own little worlds. Mental illness compels us to experience moments when the clash of the insanity we feel within and see without comes to a head.

Is there any value to searing mental pain? Baldwin used his little restaurant breakdown to examine his heart, to examine the hatred within and without, and became one of the most remarkable people on the planet. He could well have lived his life in rage, and we would have lost a great voice. Coming from a white, racist world, I would not have been able to understand the racial strife around me, or root out the racist assumptions I grew up with. He has helped me to see a little more clearly.

In speaking of the racist white people all around him, he called them “innocent,” a choice of word that totally jarred me. Doesn’t he mean “ignorant”? But no, he chose that word carefully. A word akin to blameless, “free of guilt due to lack of knowledge of evil,” according to my handy-dandy on-line dictionary. Ignorant, on the other hand, just means lack of knowledge or education. Evil was what Baldwin was grappling with, both within and without.

We can’t cure race hatred through mere information any more than we can cure the damage of severe mental pain through mere information. What’s common to life-induced breakdowns like Baldwin’s and mental breakdowns brought on largely, or partially, by mental illness, is an insane clash, which we can respond to in one way or another. We can become angry and hateful and bitter and afraid, or use the experience to evolve ourselves as human beings. There needs to be a turning of the heart. All too often, these turnings are life-threatening experiences, not necessarily concerning the life of the body but the life of the soul.

When faced with the pain of injustice or a neurological crash, we can choose the automatic response of frustration and try to smash it all, or step back and decide to choose the path of empathy and try to refine our own damaged souls.

And when we mentally ill try to figure out how to deal with our own breakdowns, maybe it would be worthwhile to do what Baldwin did: consider it a gateway into more understanding of yourself, and more empathy for others.


Anonymous said...

I loved reading this. Thank you.

Elizabeth said...

Thank you! I loved writing it! So play it forward, all you can.