Forget Empathy. Dignity!

FROM STIGMA TO DIGNITY

My website’s tagline is “moving from stigma to dignity.” My marketing firm had warned me, “Alfredo, be careful. That line will determine if people keep reading.” I chose this message with bold intentions. “Empathy,” “acceptance,” “understanding,” “support,” or “inclusion” were not enough. I wanted much more for the mental illness community. I longed for “dignity.”

I admit that there is a flare of pomposity to dignity. But, as Aristotle taught, moral deficiencies find balance by stressing their opposite. So, centuries of humiliation towards the mentally ill require a small dose of arrogance. Moreover, differently from acceptance or inclusion, dignity points to self-worth. It emanates from us. More than accepted, dignity is respected. It moves us to walk with our heads high.  

THE DIGNITY CHALLENGE

I first realized our “dignity challenge” while speaking about my bipolar journey to a group of high schoolers. I received training speaking on mental illness by one of the leading mental health national organizations. Our trainer explained that the objective of our presentations was to educate others about mental illness. Education was the key to ending stigma. Education was the pathway toward normalization.

 I stood in front of the students, and a thought crossed my mind, “I don’t want to convince the lonely student struggling with mental illness that she is normal or must be accepted. I want her to know that her struggle makes her wise and that she is the owner of magnificent potential.” At that moment, I realized that beyond education, I sought inspiration. Beyond inspiration, I sought wisdom. And beyond wisdom, I sought dignity.

If the mentally ill community desires dignity, it must change its message. The end goal of our efforts must transcend educating or dispelling misconceptions. In the teaching of the great British Philosopher Isaiah Berlin, we want to transition from “negative” to “positive” freedom.” Negative freedom consists of severing our external chains. Positive freedom entails much more. It calls for flourishing and thriving.

Eliminating bias and achieving normalization are platforms, not destinations. Empathy as a pathway toward acceptance is worthwhile. However, the experience of mental illness has too much to offer to remain in the land of passive inclusion.

FROM VICTIMS TO WISDOM

Our message ought to be that our experience of mental illness is pregnant with the most precious wisdom. Beneath our suffering springs a fountain of life lessons ready to coach society toward meaning. Our high schooler must not just feel accepted but must internalize her role as an agent for good. Mental illness must become a symptom with wisdom at its core.

The stories we share about our struggles elicit empathy. However, wisdom achieves much more; it empowers us. Wisdom elevates us to a place of equality and dignity. And unless we spell out the wisdom embedded in our stories, they will remain anecdotal. They will elicit ephemeral inspiration. We must resist telling our stories in public platforms for our catharsis. That is flirting with self-pity.

Instead, we must stand before the world with a sense of purposeful wisdom. Once we shine through our wisdom, we will achieve more than “normalization.” We must aspire to become teachers of courage, resilience, and hope

WASTED WISDOM

Like many of you, I have spent time in a psychiatric ward. During those long days, I experienced the most profound and wise conversations with other patients. Where does all this wisdom go after discharge? Who will ever teach what it is to lose your freedom as you fear losing your Self? Why haven’t we made our case to the corporate world as leaders on stamina, motivation, and persistence? Who will convey all we have learned about facing uncertainty and controlling anxiety?

We must move from fighting rejection to establishing a valuable presence. Connecting with others will emerge when we engage in a dialogue based on our mental illness value proposition.

We, the mentally ill, must claim our place in the marketplace of ideas. We can’t relinquish our societal obligation to articulate and disseminate our unique experiences.

ENDING SELF DECEPTION

Our illness is deceiving. It whispers that we are less than others. We must resist that self-deprecation. Our first move toward redemption is the dignification of the Self. That paradigm shift will occur once we see ourselves as masters of wisdom.

During my last hospital visit, we had workshops on “how to control anger” or “learning your conflict style.” We may have been better served by adding, “what strengths have you learned about yourself last week at the ward?” We are learners and not just objects needing fixing.

WRITE A NEW JOURNAL

We write all kinds of journals. We must add a mental illness wisdom journal. In it, we must keep track of our struggles, not just in a narrative form but as a compendium of life wisdom. Ask yourself after a depression:  what can I teach the world about a journey through darkness, perseverance, endurance, and redemption? What can I teach about a painful wise part of the Self others can’t access?

Friends and family tried to dissuade me from calling myself a “bipolar rabbi.” “Alfredo,” they said. “You will stigmatize yourself.”

This is my answer:

I call myself the “bipolar rabbi,”

Because both are my source of wisdom

Because I’m proud of who I am

Because I want to be an open and fearless advocate for those with mental illness

Because I want to connect with you who seek spiritual strengths

Because I want to inspire you to add to your diagnosis who you want to be

Because it’s who I’m

You are wise. Uphold your dignity.

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