Sickness and Empathy

Like most everyone I know, I spent a good part of yesterday watching the news, crying and feeling useless. The massacre at Sandy Hook is crushing. It, and the reactions to it that I saw on my social media feeds is what has inspired me to write this blog, but I’m not going to talk about it specifically. I want to speak in generalities because the topic I’m going to address is not specific to Sandy Hook and I don’t want to make it about that one specific incident.

“She’s so sick! I hope she burns in hell!”

“What kind of sick bastard could do that? Death is too good for him!”

These are some of the reactions I notice from people each time something tragic happens that can be blamed on a person. Those events always involve hurting other people often in large numbers or in especially brutal ways. I get it. When someone does something horrible, especially something that hurts other people, we hurt for the victims. It angers us and we want to vent that anger. What’s more we don’t understand it and that scares us. Or, it does me anyway. But here’s the thing… if someone is sick, can they truly be blamed for the results of that sickness?

If you believe in evil and you can dismiss a person and thus their actions as being evil, that is one thing, you might very well want them to burn in hell or think death is too easy a fate for them. However, if you believe someone is sick then how fair is it to blame them for things their illness causes them to do? No really, this is not a rhetorical question, I really want to know what you think because I’m still struggling with the answer myself.

No one would blame a person with a physical ailment for things that ailment causes, so how different should it be for people with mental diseases? People don’t chose to be sick. The same way no one chooses to become diabetic  no one wakes up one morning and goes “You know what I’d like? I think I’d really like to suffer from paranoid delusions.”

To be fair, multiple sclerosis (just picking a random physical ailment here) has never, as far as I know, caused anyone to shoot another person. Or stab them. Or kidnap them. Or rape them. Hurting other people seems to mostly belong to the domain of mental illness, but still, if we are willing to accept that mental illness is an illness don’t we then have to accept that ill people can’t be held to the same standard as well people? Shouldn’t that increase our empathy for them, not decrease it?

It’s freaking tough though because who wants to feel empathy for someone who has done horrible things, whether or not we believe they are fully responsible for their actions? Um, not me. But, when I think about it for long enough, part of me does.

Part of me, a big part, is still filled with anger, confusion, fear and hate, but part of me, a small part, really does feel bad for the perpetrator of these sorts of things. What we see is the explosion that happens once a long fuse has burned down, we don’t usually see the struggling, the pain and the unhappiness the perpetrators have dealt with because of their illness often for years and years.

I was hoping that in writing this blog I would come to some clearer answers about how I feel about these questions about empathy, culpability, responsibility and tragedy, but I haven’t. I’m hitting ‘Post’ on it even more conflicted than I was when I started. I do know one thing though, the world has more than enough anger and hatred in it, so in the future, when horrible things like what occurred at Sandy Hook Elementary school happen again I am going to try to respond, not negatively toward the perpetrator, but positively toward the victims. How about you?

“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ To this day, especially in times of ‘disaster,’ I remember my mother’s words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world.”

~ Fred Rogers


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6 thoughts on “Sickness and Empathy”

  1. My heart breaks for the parents whose families will never be the same again. I hope every school in America tightens their security. We’ve improved at my school, but we have a long way to go. It’s chilling to think the same thing could happen anywhere, anytime. Plenty of sickos and psychos out there — with family and friends enabling them instead of getting them the help they need. But Mr. Rogers was the man, so thanks for that quote!

    1. Mr. Rogers was the man wasn’t he? I don’t think I appreciated him well enough when he was live. In my defense I don’t think I was super grown up when he passed, but still… It’s unfortunate how many people and things we (or I) don’t appreciate until their gone. And I feel like I’ve gone off on a tangent here but then again, maybe not. Maybe not.

  2. That is very true. I suppose the problem lies in the fact that many physically ill people are obviously ill, whereas mental illness is much harder to diagnose and also see.

    At the same time, I think there’s an aspect to it of people using mental illness as an excuse to do whatever they want while refusing to be helped. (Not always the case, I know, but it’s there.)

    I mean think about it. The day we stop holding sociopaths and psychopaths accountable for killing innocents, many will die, because when it comes to responsibility, the killers will just say: “don’t blame me, blame my emotional shortcomings.”

    1. I think that it’s possible to believe sick people aren’t responsible for the results of their sickness and still recognize that actions have repercussions. No one is suggesting that dangerous people be left to run loose through society.

      Also, you’ll forgive me for saying, but the tone of your response implies to me that you don’t really believe people who are mentally ill aren’t responsible for their actions. And that’s fine. I’m still sorting through how I feel about it too.

      I think when I posted this blog originally I was struggling with the language. How as a society we tend to call perpetrators of shocking crimes ‘sick’, but we don’t mean sick as in unwell, we mean sick as an insult. And that, to me, is a problem. If we’re going to remove the stigma from mental illnesses, we need to stop using sickness as an insult.

  3. I am very glad you posted this! I know people that deal with very difficult health problems, physical and/or mental health. Both lead the body to be often completly out of control. Its kind of like a fuse blew and you are not yourself anymore, because of many years of suffering. The body can only take so much. I am not defending the perpetrators in any way, i am just saying, often they do not know what they do.

    1. Thank you for replying 🙂 You’ve provided me with more food for thought.

      I think the tricky thing, as one of my other commenters pointed out, is that as a society we feel like mental illness is often used as an excuse. It’s something that is thought to be easily faked — which is a valid position to take, I think. But as you say, it’s not always faked. Sometimes, often (I believe) it is very real and in those cases, I don’t believe it’s fair to treat ill and well people the same. The responsibility for their actions ought to be apportioned differently.

      That’s as far as I’ve gotten in coming to any conclusions about this topic, but I think it’s progress. I’m starting to sort out how I feel about it anyway.

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