“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle, (including you).”
Friday, February 7th marked the twelve year anniversary of the death my father. That Thursday in 2002 he was here preparing for outpatient surgery, and just as suddenly and inexplicably, he was not. While I usually stray away from the emotional shout-outs on Facebook other than birthdays and weddings, I felt compelled to tag my mom in a status and let her know how grateful I was for the strength and love she’s shown and has shown over the past twelve years—the going at it alone in the aftermath of his death, continuing on as the mom of three children age 16, 10, and 3. As I have a few short months before I become a mother myself, I think back to that February, the days and months that followed, the years now that have passed, and have no idea how she managed. Keeping it together while seeing everything fall apart, what a hard battle indeed.
I write about this because I think there are a lot of loud public battles that are being fought and need to be talked about more– Katie wrote about the battle of leadership and inclusion how it’s not for sissy stuff, and then there are the private, quiet battles being fought, the personal ones that people don’t talk about, and keep to themselves. I’ve never written about my father publicly on Cincibility—it never seemed appropriate, or necessary, or anyone’s business, until today.
This is a post more about personal battles, and the need for all of us to be kinder to each other than we’d prefer, or kinder to each other than necessary.
Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s death has been making the news since he was found dead of a drug overdose this past week and the blogsphere, media outlets, Facebook feeds and other talking heads have been commenting with their two cents incessantly. Questions range from, How did people not see he had a problem? to Is addiction really a disease? And of course the Who cares that another celebrity is dead? rhetoric that pops up each time.
I read one poignant editorial by no less than Russell Brand (who knew he was an intelligent, well-written man?) detailing his own personal addiction with drugs and alcohol and his day to day battle to stay sober. (If you haven’t read it, I highly recommend you taking the time to regardless of your thoughts about addiction.)
The same day I read a Facebook status from someone I know that said something to the effect that addiction isn’t the same as cancer, and if you wanted to see a real battle look for someone who didn’t bring it on themselves. The status has since been deleted after a colorful commentary that ranged from the “I know! I’ve never had the urge to try heroin… WTF?” to the “Perhaps you don’t understand that addiction is a disease.” to the “We can’t save everyone, seems like he brought this on himself though…” It was a curious status, one that gathered controversy immediately, and I’ve been thinking about the qualifiers of “real battles” ever since. What constitutes a “real battle”? Who is worthy of our empathy? Should we the ones to judge someone else’s pain? Is it fair to use our experiences (or lack of experience) as a measuring stick for the amount of empathy another person deserves? Who makes these rules?
I wrote about my friend Phil about a year ago, and out of respect, left the details of his passing ambiguous. At the time it didn’t seem to matter. When I wrote the blog post it was a random Monday night, months after his death with no significance to the date, no current event reminiscent of his death. It was just a post about the reminder of a friendship that had ended, how we come to collect people “like rare coins or trading cards” and how and if people are remembered after they’ve gone. It was a sad unfortunate occurrence, the death of an otherwise promising man, husband, father, and friend.
Given the status questioning if addiction is worthy of the same sort of empathy as cancer, I’ll say it—Phil had an addiction, one that was hard battled, privately, and deeply personal. He died because of this.
I woke up Thursday morning to a status on Facebook from a friend stating that her mother had died after a multi-year battle with cancer. It wasn’t unexpected, and she had been updating her friends over the past week or so with statuses about her mother’s progress and the like. Her mother had been in hospice and she knew that time with her was dwindling. On Thursday morning, a hard battle fought over many years, now over.
It is hard for me to see one battle as worthy of empathy, and another battle deserving of a response of shoulders-shrugged you-brought-this-on-yourself. Both battles have ended lives, leave families behind, both leave lots of questions, both leave a hole in the lives of people who loved them.
“Soon I could no longer see where I ended and the pain began” Brand wrote about his addiction, narrating one particular day. Reading the line again, I’m reminded that of course it’s not always cancer, or addiction, or death that everyone is battling, but the simple nuances of navigating the day to day—not being able to see where YOU end and where PAIN begins. The blurriness of self and battle; the isolating difficulty that is just being, sometimes. Phil’s sister reposted the Russell Brand article commenting perhaps it could help just one person seek help, or “at the very least, people can step down off the judgment throne for a moment of clarity” about what other people are struggling with.
Three weeks ago I got a series of texts from a friend asking me to check in with someone we both know about my supposed treatment of them. There were hurt feelings over a situation I wasn’t aware of, things taken personally, supposed slights I hadn’t noticed I had done. All this lead to some bad feelings and growing resentment.
I sent a long email, explaining my hard battle over the past fifteen months and hoped that this gave some context that might explain the perceived slighting. My avoidance of her, l wrote, wasn’t imagined. I had been avoiding her (and other people, too) and my distancing was one way to keep my sanity. My lack of conversation was definitely personal – but not about her, but entirely about me and the fifteen frustrating months I’d had with doctors, medications, constant appointments, and disappointment. During that time, I could not see “where I ended and the pain began” and the pain became all-consuming.
I have been having some resistance to our latest series as a staff at Starfire. You’ll recall we’ve done Mindfulness, Asset Based Community Development, Appreciative Inquiry, Facilitation, Design Thinking, and Empathy over the past year to continue learning together and learn new depths to our work. Now, we’re working through the Six Conversations of Peter Block. During one such conversation the question, “what is a crossroad that you are at?” The vagueness of the question was obnoxious to me and I felt myself wanting to immediately reply to whomever was in my “small group of people I know the least” that it was none of their business, and their crossroads were certainly none of mine, especially to people we didn’t know well. What business is it of theirs to know “my crossroad” and how presumptuous, Mr. Block, to assume someone should want to share by design with strangers?
And, unapologetically, I do still feel that way. But that’s part of the problem of why some battles get empathy, and others get written off. People we know the least don’t know our battles, unless they are obviously messy or public and visible, and we keep it that way on purpose, our own protective fortress of pride. A durable coat slipped on for social occasions, taken off only in the privacy and comfort of our own homes. Unfortunately, people who know us best also don’t always see these battles either.
“The pain accumulated and I began to tell myself the old, old story” Brand writes of one particularly difficult afternoon resisting the urge to pick up. And while there may be some people reading without personal experience who are struggling to see addiction as a disease, we can all nod to a particularly difficult battle we’ve raged within ourselves and relate. How often have we sunk ourselves into the pit of our “old story”? How hard it is to claw your way up with dirty fingernails out of that pit once you’ve fallen there?
Addiction. Adulthood. Cancer. Community. Depression. Disability. Divorce. Family. Finances. Foreclosure. Growing Up. Health. Identity. Infertility. Jobs. Kids. Life. Love. Neighbors. Parents. Today. Tomorrow. Siblings. Work. Yesterday.
Within us all is a battle we’re fighting, either the memory of one twelve years ago that still triggers us unexpectedly with painful reminders today, or a newly sworn battle we’re raging through.
Why do I resist small groups with people I know the least when the questions are personal and open-ended? Because my story is long, and difficult and has split ends, and so is yours, and so does yours. And we’re not always kind to each other as strangers, as “people we know the least”, and we’re not even always kind to those we know (and love) the most. Am I worthy of your empathy? Are you worthy of mine? Will we judge each others’ pain? Is it fair for me to use my experiences (or lack of experience) as a measuring stick for the amount of empathy you person deserves? Are you going to measure my pain against yours? Will you scoff at my experience, point out a “real battle” from which I can learn?
In small groups, I think to myself– I don’t need to “know what I think after I’ve heard what I’ve said.” I know what I’m thinking without saying it. I am an expert of my own thoughts, lived them, and I don’t need to say them to you, if I don’t want to. And you know what you’re thinking, you’ve lived with those thoughts, and maybe you don’t need to say it to me, either, if you’d rather not. But I remind myself of what I wrote last year:
“For so long I’ve carried the story that it wasn’t my place to ask. That our story was one of nondisclosure. But not of nondisclosure to each other, but to ourselves. It was none of my business; laughter, jokes, and ignoring whatever was going on what was exactly we needed from each other. I guess in hindsight, we were probably wrong about that.”
What we need from each other is to be kinder than necessary, for everyone, (yes, everyone) is fighting a hard battle, including you.