Author: George Hofmann
Last summer, with people crying out in the streets, I learned about the need to pause and listen to each other in the midst of uncertainty and upset. As we begin 2021, with Covid-19 shutdowns dragging on and polarizing political unrest, people are clamoring to be heard again. The causes may be different, but I don’t think the raw emotion, the mood of the country, that underpins this distress is.
Underneath all of the slogans and signs, buried under opinions and blame, there is the voice of suffering. The unheard voice of suffering. People with bipolar disorder can bring a unique voice to this dysfunction; A voice that has experienced depression at depths unimagined by most people, and grandiose, manic flights of self-centeredness that both isolate a person and make them overestimate their ability to act on everything. We can draw on this experience to help temper and focus the discord tearing people apart. We can use our experience with inflamed moods to help deescalate raging debates.
Every faith tradition I have ever studied or adhered to begins with the simple truth that there is one thing that we all share in common and that is that we all suffer. One of the most difficult things we realize as we grow up, and it is re-emphasized when bipolar disorder first grips us, is that we must bear this suffering alone – for each of us suffers as individuals in our own individual way. And yet we each reach out for understanding from other people.
Sometimes it seems someone actually listens. For a moment a connection is made, until all too often the listener nods in allegiance and tells us what to do about it. However, to be truly present with suffering requires the listener to acknowledge that they have absolutely no idea how a person’s suffering feels. Or how they should best address it.
In the midst of the sirens and the helicopters and the protests in the streets, in the midst of family members and friends struggling with unfamiliar emotions, we must put aside all that we think we know better and just listen.
For the last few months I’ve been full of answers, and quick to engage people in debates aimed at bolstering my own understanding and agenda. I should have known better. I should have been listening.
Psalm 123 laments:
Our soul has had more than its fill
Of the scorn of those who are at ease,
Of the contempt of the proud.
I understand this psalm. Struggling with and successfully managing bipolar disorder I have been both at ease and held in scorn.
When I was 29, I was VP of Sales at a financial services company, collecting art, vacationing in Asia and Egypt, buying cars with cash. Then psychotic mania took hold and my bipolar disorder wrestled away all that I had. By age 40 I was on food stamps, one attic room in my parent’s house away from living on the street.
When I was at my lowest I needed someone to listen to me. When I was at ease I wanted to help others. Help them and feel good, yes, but was I listening?
There may be things that the people who protest and I have in common.
Still, I have no comprehension of the suffering of the people rioting in the streets or the people at home watching on TV complaining about them. They have no idea that they have something so basic in common. But they do, and from that we can hope for understanding. But we first must listen.
I remember, when I was at my lowest, that people would reach out and tell me “I know just how you feel.” That may have made them feel better, but it just locked me further away. They had no idea what I was feeling. They couldn’t. And they didn’t ask.
We all suffer as individuals. Even those of us who confront mental illness and grave social injustice.
Proclamations of understanding often lead to recommendations and advice that only result in isolation, unburdening the ones who are at ease from culpability and enabling them to position themselves as part of the solution. But still, people are crying in the street and people are riddled by untreated or treatment resistant bipolar disorder.
Suffering needs to be attended to, not told what to do or, worse yet, how to feel. I fear that when we seek to change things, we don’t first consider listening to those who suffer the most. In time those of us who are at ease begin to rank the suffering of others. We assign labels of good and bad, just and not just, legitimate and illegitimate.
We in my neighborhood are among those who are proud. We’re fortunate and thought to have it easy. It’s understandable to point to those wailing on the news and decide that their suffering is far worse than ours. But no one has any idea of the suffering that goes on in the houses around here.
In all houses people are ill at ease. It may beyond our comprehension that those who hold opposing views from us, those who have not fought severe mental illness through a life mixed with light and failure, may be facing challenges, too.
Unless we first make the effort to sit with the suffering of others, even those we disagree with or have contempt of, we will always be wrong.
I don’t care what you think about what happened on the streets of the United States this past year, or what you think about being told to wear a mask in public, you need to find someone who disagrees with you and just listen. They’re suffering. Just like you.
The impulse is strong to legitimize some people’s suffering and delegitimize that of others, but that’s not our place and that’s not our calling. Many of us have overcome a mind spinning out of control. We can bring great insight and inspiration to others. Yet even as I write this I sit and judge. I sit and judge even as all of those same faith traditions I’m familiar with tell me that judgment, too, is wrong.
I should know better. Just when I draw on all my experience and education and just when I think I know it all, I realize haven’t been listening. Not a bit. Everyone suffers. If we empathetically and compassionately listen to each other, if we let go of any preconceptions we bring to any aggrieved injustice, then we won’t suffer alone.
Neither will the people we listen to.
George Hofmann is the author of Resilience: Handling Anxiety in a Time of Crisis. He lives in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania with his wife, their daughter, and two poorly behaved dogs. He can be found at www.practicingmentalillness.com