April 2018

Wednesday, February 3, 2016


Two weeks ago in my Social Work class, a fellow student challenged my use of the word "incarceration" to describe the history of people with mental illness. I was surprised by his exception to my language because expose's like Geraldo Rivera's 1972 documentary about Willowbrook, a state school for people with mental disabilities in Staten Island, New York, established a clear history of such incarceration. More recently, in 2014, The Treatment Advocacy Center reported that 15 percent of people in jails and 20 percent of those in state prisons had a serious mental illness. At the time, that meant that 356,000 people in jails and prisons had mental illness. 

My classmate spoke from the point of view of a clinician who had had a frustrating day, when he followed a client with mental illness around trying to make sure the client didn't hurt himself or someone else. He told us that he had called the police and someone else, too. 

He was "challenging the narrative" that he said prevented us as a society from putting people in a place where they couldn't get out so that we could take of them. 

This classmate talked a lot about ways that people with mental illness are different than "we" are. I stopped talking once he started, but I typed a few things he said: “People with mental illness don’t see the world we see….They don’t see the world like we do." Another classmate pointed out the assumptions he was making about who was in the room and the danger of creating an "us" and "them." 

After class, a classmate a with mental illness diagnosis told me how painful this had been. I talked with the instructor and asked her to address the able-ism, something I have witnessed before in this school and have heard stories about but have never seen or heard about the able-ism being addressed. 

Before class the next week, the student who had divided us all into a camp that didn't include people with mental illnesses sought me out because he wanted to understand my thinking.  He asked about what had been so offensive. We had a good conversation, and I had a lot of respect for his initiative. He said that he would apologize to the class, and when we began class he did apologize. 

One student offered that he didn't think it was "that bad," and when it seemed that no one else would speak up, I offered that I had found it offensive. This group of students doesn't know me well enough to know that I am seldom offended. In fact, I don't think I've said the words, "I thought that was offensive" in this school before. But I now feel discounted as a person who is too sensitive. I don't know if that's true. That's just how I feel. 

Later in the conversation, another student said that he didn't think it was a big deal either, and he just wanted the class to stay on topic. (There aren't many guys in the class: maybe six and fifteen women, so it's interesting to me that mostly the guys were speaking up. I don't know what others felt, but I felt like we were choosing teams for pick-up basketball and no one wanted to be on my team.)

Because I'm taking classes at a different pace than most students, this group of students is new to me though they know each other. There's an odd vibe in the room, a simmering tension, that has some source I'm not aware of. 

The experience of what felt like others discounting a painful experience reaffirmed for me the importance of the work I've been doing the last few years to try to increase the teaching and understanding of people with disabilities in this school. It reminded me of the importance of language and of the way that language both reveals how we think and shapes how we think. 

Sunday, when Barb, a lay leader in our church, talked about language, her comments resonated with me. She made me think that I've been making assumptions about being unable to help people who are homeless because there are so many things I can't do since my surgery. Her talk made me think about things I might do, like lead discussion groups or writing groups that help form communities of support. After all, I did these groups for years with teenagers (the groups were called classes), and now I do groups with elders, most of them experiencing memory loss. 

Barb's talk gave me a framework for understanding my own experience and hope for new understanding--my own and others'. She spoke about language and compassion and being. 

Barb said that I could share her comments on this blog. I'll bet you'll find them brilliant and compelling like I did.

Suffering, Compassion, and the English Language by Barb
I teach English to a man twice a week, and about a year ago when I first started meeting with him I noticed he used the word “suffering” a lot.
For instance he said, “A woman at the park threw Frisbee and it hit my son. Accident. She kept saying ‘Oh, sorry, sorry’—she was really suffering.”
Once when I mentioned to him that I was really bad at some thingslike dancinghe nodded sympathetically and said, “Oh, yes, you suffer!”
After a while I figured out that he understood that “to suffer” means “to feel bad,” and because there are so many ways to feel bad, there were many ways to suffer.
I must say though, the whole thing made me feel differently about suffering—I suddenly saw that everyone suffers. I became aware of the many small aches we all carry around all the time: emotional and social pain, feelings of regret, meanness, sadness, inadequacy—we do all suffer. This idea made me feel more at one with my fellow suffering humans. Instead of a divide between those who don’t suffer and those who do, I felt that I was a part of a world of suffering souls, and each person’s individual suffering then becomes a matter of kind, and degree.
Now, some of us certainly suffer a lot. I stay overnight at a homeless shelter twice a month, and the guests at the shelter—they lack a home, yes, but also are sometimes hungry, wet, or cold, often have health problems, are estranged from their family, and they have little support or encouragement from friends. Not to mention all the other kinds of human pain that I mentioned before, that we all carry around. So, I want to be compassionate—and “compassion” means to “suffer with”—
so, how do I do that, exactly?
Well, teaching English without formal training as I am, I’ve had to teach myself about English grammar, and so I’ve been doing some reading. One interesting essay I read said that, “The English sentence demands a subject, even when there is none.” For instance, to describe the weather these past two months, the past continuous verb “was raining” would be perfectly clear to us all, but grammar demands we say, “It was raining.” It. Nothing happens in an English sentence without something, or someone, doing it. Every effect demands an agent, a cause—someone to blame.
The essay also said that doing is important in English. When we meet someone, we say “How do you do?” and then we ask, “What do you do?” On the altar, we say, “I do!” — And when we see a problem, we look for something to do about it. Our grammar compels us to act in a linear way: effect/cause, problem/solution. This framework can be useful, but it’s NOT a universal way of seeing the world—not even necessarily Christian (Jesus, after all, didn’t speak English) and the essay argues that the grammar of our English language reinforces linear thinking and actually changes the way we think and act.
So sitting at the homeless shelter on a morning, having coffee with a fellow suffering person, there’s that impulse to find the cause of the suffering. Who or what is to blame for this person’s situation? Likewise, there’s a temptation to search for a solution to their problems—suggest a fix, a better course of action. But these linear impulses are not the most compassionate acts.

A weary soul embarking on another hard day might just need a simple moment of safety, warmth, and comfort. So, I stifle my questions and suggestions. Instead I offer up an undemanding silence. Oh, stories bubble up within it sometimes; I might hear about hard times, big plans, small disappointments—but often, morning’s quiet instead.
The profound thing I have discovered is, that it is in this small quiet moment, that a space is made for the presence of Christ. Here we are, two people—two suffering souls—drinking coffee, remarking on the rain, and God sits with us! Jesus knew how to heal with a bit of bread, a touch to the eyes, by calling someone by their own name. And in that friendly threesome, I discover that Christ heals us both together, my own small sufferings also, and we both walk away changed and warmed by the moment. That’s compassion.
So, today my prayer for All-Of-Us-Who-Suffer is that we seek out compassionate moments with other suffering souls, and that we too may discover Christ sitting there with us.

Immanuel, Alleluia, Amen!
As Barb said, her understanding of the way that grammar frames the way we talk isn't necessarily a Christian understanding. Some of my best teachers in this arena are of other faiths or agnostic or atheist, but this vision does offer for me some understanding of the way I've always thought and the ways I'm learning to challenge those ways of thinking.
Once again, brain tumors have been my teachers, and my fellow students and Barb are my teachers, too. 
And once again, I feel lucky for new ways of seeing the world. I hope that's not irritating. 
Love to you. 

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