We have a cultural preoccupation with not letting people die.
Conservatives focus that obsession on being against abortion and euthanasia. Quality of life be damned: The conservative platform includes cutting welfare and getting rid of government controls. But if someone is dying and wants to do so in dignity, they can’t. And if a pregnant person feels they can’t raise a child properly, too bad, figure it out or put them up for adoption.
Liberals focus that obsession on issues like suicide prevention. We cluck that stories like Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why, based on the novel of the same name, glamorize teen suicide and might lead to copycat behavior. We create programs to tell teens and others that we care.
Hold on, kids, don’t do it. It gets better. You belong. These are well-intentioned initiatives. Depression is a vicious disease, and for people watching on the sidelines, there’s a crushing sense of hopelessness. I suffer from depression myself, and I know several of my students who do. My personal experience with depression doesn’t give me easy solutions for those students. I also know that there are other students who are struggling and who don’t trust me enough to discuss it.
It is understandable that people would respond to that sense of hopelessness by wanting to blast a message to the world: You all matter. Don’t kill yourselves. You are loved. You belong.
For me, though, these messages often have an effect different than what’s intended. I don’t feel comfort from the idea that a relative stranger thinks they love me. I feel sad that more people don’t take the time to walk up to me, personally, and get to know me, personally, and tell me, personally, that I’m worthwhile. In that order.
Earlier this year, for Random Acts of Kindness week, my school put notes on random lockers. “You’re important!” “You make the world better!” I don’t know the effect they had on the students. I felt lonelier.
Messages that cannot have individual sincerity because they’re not directed at any specific person lead me to feel like it’s about making sure there are no blips, no absences from the string of humans that are supposed to be in our environment. It’s a replacement for individualized caring in a world where deep-level social connections have been broken down and replaced by social media friend counts.
I’m listening to Public Image Ltd as I’m writing this, and a timely lyric just popped through my headphones: “Eveyone loves you until they know you.” For me, this is a voice from the heart of depression.
Anonymous notes aren’t going to help that.
“Okay, Mr. Crankypants, what do you suggest?”
I can’t make definitive suggestions. I’m not even saying that these initiatives are inherently bad. It’s probably helped quite a few people to hear “it gets better” during dark times. But for those of you who, like me, respond with, “And what if it doesn’t?”, I can share my perspective. If it helps, wonderful. If it doesn’t, so be it.
We all have suitcases full of emotional crap we’ve acquired over our lives. When I’m in a room with thirty students, there are thirty-one suitcases full of crap. Some of these suitcases are big, some of them are little. Everyone’s crap has a different smell and a different consistency. There are always similarities, there are always differences.
I can never truly know what you’ve gone through, or what you’re going through right now. What I can do is realize that, as humans, we’ve both had dark times. I can tell you what I’ve gone through, and you can decide whether it’s even remotely close to what you’ve gone through.
When I started out as a teacher, I would start one-on-one conversations with students who were in emotional distress with, “I know how you’re feeling.” The response was consistent: “No, you don’t. You haven’t lived my life.”
Most of my students have come from much different backgrounds than I have. While I was poor for a small part of my early childhood, most of my life has been spent as middle class. I have always been white; most of them have always been POC. I have usually lived in the suburbs; most of them have usually lived in the inner city.
The first time someone I knew well died, I was in sixth grade. It was a grandfather figure. I tried to explain why I was sad to my teacher, and she misunderstood. Her attempt to understand was so sincere, and she tried to bond with me by sharing my misery, but she couldn’t even get basic details right. It made an impression on me that teachers often try too hard in the wrong ways.
Meanwhile, many of my students have experienced violent deaths of multiple people close to them. A few months ago, I was at a playground with my son and saw another youngster wearing a t-shirt with a picture of a young adult and words to the effect of “RIP Big Cuz 1998 – 2016.” These shirts are far too common in some parts of Detroit.
No, I don’t understand them. I haven’t lived their lives.
So I switched my strategy: I don’t know exactly how you’re feeling, but I’ve felt terrible too. We all have suitcases full of crap. Some of them are bigger than others.
It works for me because it’s my truth. Students are more willing to talk to me now, too.
If I don’t know you, I have no idea whether you’re loved specifically for being you. I hope you are. You probably are, even if you don’t know it.
I know there are people who care specifically about me, and who would wonder where I’d gone if I weren’t there anymore. I know there are people who don’t know me anymore who do indeed wonder how I am. For me, knowing that is far, far more effective than an anonymous “you’re loved.”
I can’t tell you that you belong. I’ve had to leave jobs, and even careers, because I didn’t belong there. How do I know I belong anywhere? I’ve had times where I’ve felt like I belonged, but not right now. I survive because I have a son that depends on me to survive, but at the moment, I don’t feel like I have a tribe.
I also survive because it could get better. It might not. It could get a lot, lot worse. But it could also get better, and once I leave the show, that’s it. I won’t find out.
I have never been one to be supported by palliative clichés. So if you truly do care about me as a person, feel free to check in with me once in a while. Otherwise, please don’t.
And I’ll try to return the favor.
Photo credit: Pixabay