In the last year I have entered what seems like a whole different world. It is a world of “The Other.” It has been strange, unpredictable, unsettling, frightening, full of emotional earthquakes, beyond all reason, eye-opening, anger-stirring, empathy-producing …and a stimulus for many, many questions that most often don’t have answers. I’m talking about the world of mental illness.
I saw a man wandering stark halls with very short, jerky but determined steps, as if he had some important place to go. He was bent slightly forward at the waist and stared straight ahead with intense blue eyes. I don’t think I ever saw him blink. He wandered into the room where we were sitting, came right up to me within a foot of my face and just stared, stared and stared right at me. Awkwardly, I said, “hello.” He said nothing in response, there was not the slightest change in his face or posture. There was no sense that he really saw me, though his eyes were open wide. Then the caregiver came and took him away.
I saw a man who was quite bent over and held his head at an angle, looking up. He walked up and down the hall, trying every door handle. I was sure he was trying to get in to steal something. I never saw him go in a room.
I saw a woman locked in a room with terrified eyes like a caged wild animal. She had been physically combative with staff and security and was ready to fight off any other living soul that came near her. She perceived everyone as a threatening enemy. She kind of clawed at the walls and then cowered in a corner.
I saw a very clean-cut man with perfectly oiled and combed hair and neat clothing. He sat staring for hours at a television screen which was only displaying the titles of songs being played on that music channel. But there was no music, or sound of any kind coming from the TV. Once I saw him doing a kind of jogging routine, barely moving his feet but steadily, if extremely slowly, moving down the sidewalk.
I saw a woman pace the halls back and forth, never saying a word, with a constant look of subtle suspicion on her face. It was not fear, but just a look as if she were a spy in a strange and dangerous foreign land.
I saw a very unkempt and dirty man walking the halls, yelling obscenities and indeterminate gibberish at no one in particular. He sounded angry and looked dangerous even though you couldn’t tell what he was saying.
I saw a woman in a wheelchair who could never find the bathroom, though she had lived in this house for years.
I saw a woman with way too much makeup, applied in the wrong places like a child who couldn’t paint within the lines. She raced up and down the halls.
I saw a man always sitting in the same chair, away by himself but where he could see everyone else. He had the kindest smile on his face and always waved when you passed by. He told me one day, “You gotta do your best every day. You gotta keep a positive attitude.” He could barely walk.
At first I was very unnerved by these people. For sure there was some behavior I don’t even want to write about here. These are the kind of people who, if I saw them coming down the street, I might cross to the other side or at least keep my head down or eyes fixed straight ahead so as not to engage them. They were too unpredictable. What would I say? What could I say? Would they have a sinister motive if they confronted me? Their conditions raised in me so many thoughts…and sometimes subtle, sometimes not so subtle, judgements against them.
I am ashamed of this now.
And why? What has changed in me? This is hard for me to understand and explain, but I do know one thing that has made a deep impact:
I learned that the man who stared at me with the unseeing, piercing, crystal blue eyes was a professional soccer player from Europe in his youth. He sustained brain damage from hitting so many headers in the hundreds of soccer games he played.
I learned that the bent over man checking door handles was a former “fix it” guy who still went through the motions of trying to see how something worked mechanically.
I learned that the silent suspicion-filled woman was actually Russian and couldn’t speak any English. She was doubly isolated in a silent world.
The unkempt man shouting obscenities had been a poor farmer who fell off a tall piece of machinery he was working on, and fell to the ground, landing on his head. He had been living at this house where I met him for 4 years and I was told he would never hurt a fly. And he loved animals.
The woman in the wheelchair has cancer as well as dementia.
And one of these people is my wife.
Everyone has a story. Everyone has a history. Everyone has a family. A childhood. A series of experiences, some good, some bad. I think most people have experienced some kind of trauma or loss in their lives, certainly some more than others. Good things happen to bad people. Bad things happen to good people. Why is this? Can we really know, this side of heaven? With so few answers to these kind of questions, how do we proceed? How do we view “The Other”? How do we interact with them? How do we deal with all the uncertainties?
I don’t know. All I can say is I have been reduced to a kind of compassion I’ve never experienced before. I have learned that if I just look at a person’s outward appearance and behavior, I will see them as objects to defend myself against. If I learn some of their story, I can get at least a bit of a glimpse into their humanness and relate to them there. I no longer see them quite so much as “The Other.”
1 Corinthians 13:12
For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.
Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
About the Author
John has been an essential component to the life and development of CitySalt since 2004 and, presently, serves as an associate pastor with a focus on prayer, discipleship and spiritual direction in addition to being a regular part of the teaching team. He and his wife, Laura, have been married since 1977 and enjoy their family of three children and three grandchildren.