Seeing People As People

I recently started reading Gabor Mate’s book In The Realm of Hungry Ghosts. It started out as a reading for class, but I’ve sort of gone a bit beyond that, reading the full book when I was only supposed to read sections of it (I know, I know, my schedule will hate me for that later). And while I haven’t finished it yet, the reason that I can’t seem to put it down is that it’s really got me thinking about how quick we are to judge people.

The examples in Mate’s book are, admittedly, somewhat extreme ones. He talks about people with intense addictions to drugs. Some of them have killed people. Some are Nazi-sympathizers. And many of them have put children (usually their own) in very dangerous situations. And yet, Mate blows me away, not only with his beautiful writing technique, but also with his desire to understand them all, to get to the root of their problem. He argues that none of these people, no matter how bad they look, are doing what they do out of pure cruelty. They do it because they are mentally ill, because they are dependant on this life-altering chemical, because they have been hurt in ways that most people cannot understand and they just need something to dull the pain. Mate strives to depict these people as people – not just as addicts, defined solely by the pain they have caused in their lives.

I think that this perspective is an incredibly important to take, not just towards addicts, but toward everyone, and it’s one that is taken much too seldom. I still remember one conversation that I had with my dad, a few months ago:

“I don’t believe,” I said, “that anyone does anything simply for the sake of being cruel. I think everyone has their reasons that makes sense to them.”

“That’s not true. A lot of people act for the sake of cruelty,” he said, but that doesn’t make sense to me. I can’t imagine anyone getting out of bed in the morning and thinking to themselves, “I’m going to kill and eat a baby because that’s the most evil thing I can do today.” If that thought does occur to anyone, then it is not for the simple sake of evil. No, that would make our world simple – that would mean that we could disregard all people who cause pain because they’re villains, and they deserve to be shut out. But instead, thoughts like that occur to people who are dealing with extreme mental illness, or with extreme pain. They occur to the people who are in most need of society’s help, not further ostracization.

And ‘evil’ is not the only term that we are quick to judge someone as when they do something hurtful or unpleasant.

We deem the person with opinions that differ from ours as ‘stupid’, without ever stopping to find out why they feel that way.

We determine that the boss who refused to give us the time off that we wanted is ‘a bitch’, because it fails to occur to us that they might simply be answering to someone else.

We dismiss that client who was a bit short with us as ‘rude’, failing to wonder if, maybe, something is going on in her personal life to make her feel and act that way.

We think we know a person based off a brief encounter with them, but we’re only getting a brief glimpse into their life in that moment. We don’t see the things that they are dealing with, the perspectives that they come from, the pain that they are suffering.

And I know, sometimes it’s hard. My life hasn’t been perfect, and I have been hurt by people – people with mental illness. People who didn’t hurt me because they’re cruel or ‘evil’, but because they are at war with their own mind on a constant basis. And, yes, forgiveness has been hard for me to find, but I always try to remember that. Because if I forget it, then it’s too easy to cease seeing that person as the flawed, suffering human being that they are – that we all are.

And that’s what I see too many people doing nowadays – disregarding other people because it’s easier that way. It’s easier to think of the person who hurt you most as a cruel monster who deserves to be punished. It’s easier to think of the person with differing opinions as stupid and worthy of being either ignored or forced to shut up. But none of that is true. And as hard a thing as it is to face, as much as it’s easier to say that some people are more human than others, that is a very dangerous way to think. At the end of the day, we are all people, and we are all deserving of help and attention because those are two things that we all need. It should be considered a right, not a privilege.

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