A Spiritual Director once asked me to consider what my values would be if religion wasn’t in the picture. This question made almost no sense to me because I had been long trained in the belief that, without a religion or faith, one would be adrift in the moral ocean, incapable of consistency in his/her direction.
Nevertheless, I did my homework and pondered what I valued, even if there was no God up above telling me what to value. Some of what I came up with were very simple beliefs, nothing to write home about – I believed in fighting for my family…doing what it took to be healthy for them so my wife had a husband and my kids had a dad; I believed in doing work that felt like it contributed to the well-being of others; I believed in friendship and the power of companionship for those who are lonely or suffering…
I doubt if anyone wants to write the next best-seller based on my somewhat ordinary beliefs, but nevertheless, for me, these were somewhat earth-shattering. For the first time, I felt like I had picked my passions as opposed to being told what they were supposed to be. It’s like the difference between being a kid who plays football because he dad makes him and being that same kid whose dad leaves the picture and he finally gets to choose for himself.
And as I mulled all of this over, it became clear that I had one value that seemed to be defining the others: people, and in particular, the “little guy.” It’s certainly not earth-shattering to say that people are what really matter during our time here on earth. There are even cliches to help me drive home the point, like the bumper sticker that says, “No One Ever Says, ‘I Wish I Spent More Time at the Office.'”
But even if I was merely acting out a cliche, I felt autonomous for the first time in my life: This is what I believe in…This is what I want to center my life around…In post-modern parlance, “this is true for me” even if it’s not true for someone else.
Because of my belief in the value of people, I have gotten more than a little upset lately when people place their ideals about what the American flag stands for above the black mother of a teenage boy who has just been shot by police because he dresses like his friends do and looks like he’s up to no good. How can people fail to see that, even if you hate the protesters, their protest is on behalf of people who are oppressed, and every time one of us who is well-off and white opens her mouths to tell a pro football player to respect the flag, it’s actually an expression that perpetuates the mistreatment of black people. In these cases, we are putting ideals above human beings. Ideals should be held to firmly but only insofar as they serve individual human beings.
Then there’s the presidential election. Once again, so many people put their ideals over and above the individuals they are supposed to serve. Both candidates prey on our collective fears: of people who come from somewhere else, of the economic harm the other guy will do if he gets his way, of the possible impact of having guns taken away, or the possible impact of having hardly any restrictions on gun purchases. What’s lost in this rhetoric of fear is a collective awareness that not all immigrants are out to get us and the countless middle-ground options on gun rights that might actually help us be protected…from ourselves. We – Democrats and Republicans and Independents – forget about the human beings who will be impacted, and instead we focus on winning an argument rather than serving our fellow man as we create policy.
Truly, I’m not even trying to get you to vote for a particular candidate. I’m just saying that, sadly, most people vote based on how things are going FOR THEM. I think when you are facing systemic oppression that makes perfect sense. But the rest of us just want to make sure we are never the ones facing systemic oppression, so we vote in fear – trying to prevent ourselves from ever being the underdog.
Where does mental health come in to all of this? I think my mental health struggles have ultimately shaped this Humanism in me. I’ve often been the guy who is misunderstood but who could explain if given the chance.
I live daily with the fear that I will someday not be able to provide for my family. Whether it’s realistic or not, I imagine myself on the streets, trying desperately to find someplace safe for my wife and kids, so I’m passionate about refugees (from anywhere) and our responsibility to them.
And I can’t say that I was bullied any worse than any other kid in school, but seeing as how I was hypersensitive and had an obsessive brain that took even probably-not-directed-at-me insults to heart and stewed on them for days, I can’t stand it when anyone is bullied. If you read nothing else, please remember this: To use your advantage as a person of privilege to step on others to get what you want, you are doing essentially the same thing that the middle school bully does: he wants what he wants (for whatever reason), and he’s just going to take it, plain and simple.
The rights of all people are my passion, and there’s nothing that makes me feel hopeless quicker than watching the big guy pick on the little guy. So many don’t even stop to think and realize that they are, in fact, the Big Guy with the Advantage who might easily become The Bully. It wouldn’t be okay if it were your kid being bullied in the cafeteria, and it’s not okay when it’s someone who’s black, or female, or an illegal immigrant, or a peace-loving Muslim, a Syrian refugee either, or someone who’s mentally ill who doesn’t have access to proper care. They are all someone’s children. Just imagine they were yours.
So, in the end, I have replaced the religion of my youth with something that used to be considered a very bad word: Humanism. Yep, I believe in people, even people I disagree with. I believe that inside all of us is an overgrown child who spends his/her entire life trying to grow up – emotionally, psychologically, spiritually, and mentally. Our bodies grow up and enable us to fool others into taking us seriously, but we all know that we need copious amounts of help to make it. And when we can learn to see that everyone we encounter every dad feels the same way, we can set of values that revolves around our belief in the value and beauty of every single other person. I would call that the philosophy (religion might be too strong) of Humanism. The values of Humanism can lead us where religion often tries to take us – to a place where others are more important than ourselves. I’m not there yet, and I’ll likely never get there fully. But I hope I can get a little better each day, and by the end of my life pretty darn good at it.
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