The literary journal “Creative Nonfiction” just came out with a book, “Show Me All Your Scars: True Stories of Living with Mental Illness” and I thought, why don’t I have an essay in this book?
Here, I admit to a little narcissism as well as a little mental illness.
I do not in anyway want to undermine the seriousness of mental illness in this country. The depth and breadth of suffering of those dealing with severe mental illness cracks my heart. The healthcare industry that neglects those with diagnosed mental industry cracks my heart. The fact that there is an extreme narcissist running for president also cracks my heart. But, there are degrees: severe and extreme seek to distinguish “us from them” but there is no us and no them.
After the domestic terrorism, the massacre, the 998th mass shooting since Sandy Hook, we must realize that even those of us who decry the deaths, the bigotry, the hatred, have become inured. It takes some number of days for us to recover: four people killed, we get over it in half a day. 50 people killed, might take us a week, but no matter, we rage on Facebook and like each other’s enragements and then go to the pool and swim laps or the park and swing on swings or back to work where, at any of these places, a man with a machine gun could walk in and blow us to bits. We watch shootings on TV. We can picture Al Pacino waving his machine gun at us saying, “Say hello to my little friend.” We think we know what it means to be at the wrong end of the gun. Maybe we also think we know what it’s like to be on the “good” end of the gun. We’ve pictured ourselves shooting the guy who cut us off at the intersection of Fourth and 22nd Street. Maybe we can see ourselves as the “good” guy, who, with his gun, takes out the “bad guy” with our ever-faster bullets or better targeting scope.
This ability to picture ourselves on the big screen, at the center of the battle, is a kind of narcissism. Thin and pure mirror. Two dimensional.
The flipside of narcissism is empathy. Picture yourself on the ground, the police trying to identify your body. Picture yourself with a bullet shot through your spine. Picture your mother getting the phone call that you were in the club that night. Picture your mother’s cheeks, the way they collapse into wrinkle. Picture your mother’s eyes, clouded. Picture your kid waiting for the kind neighbor to pick him up from school because you’re no longer around to pick him up. Or take him to taekwondo. Or make him lunch. Or sing him to sleep.
Narcissism is like watching yourself on a picture screen. You get labels like Good Guy and Bad Guy and Hero. With empathy, things aren’t so two-dimensional. Even the police hero who shoots the shooter is still the shooter. At night, you don’t sleep, seeing the surprise in the eyes of the man who was the shooter but, in the moment that you shot him, became a shocked kid who wondered what the hell he was thinking. Shot out of his craziness for the moment. Shot out of himself into the momentary empathy, now that he has been shot, that he too is just like them. A victim of a bullet.
We all must be a little crazy—still able to go swimming, go to the movies, to the park to the club—in the aftermath of this bigger craziness. Maybe we think by writing our senators and congress people we have built a kind of prophylactic. “I wrote my representative,” as kind of bullet proof vest.
It is the provenance of the truly mentally ill to walk around as if they are someone else: schizophrenia, Messiah complex. Maybe the devastatingly mentally ill have something to teach us. Maybe, like reading books and learning history, extended periods of imagining yourself in someone else’s shoes isn’t only crazy but is a kind of crazy that can get us out of this mess to learn there is no us versus them. There is us in Kindergarten and us in the movie theater and us on campus and us at the gay bar. We are simultaneously pulling the trigger and in the line of fire. Only we, by recognizing we are an ‘us’ and not a they, can put the gun down.