Shame and Regret: The Sting of Social Stigma

First posted in August 2012 Shame And Regret: The Sting of Social Stigma has more of a wallop five years later than four years earlier. We as a race must get something out of persecuting the disenfranchised and marginalized friends, family’s, lovers, idols, and heroes. Maybe we ought to look inside ourselves and find that kernel of fear. Then erase it. And then get back to being compassionate brothers and sisters.

 

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Why are we ashamed by what we do?  We do what we choose to do because we stand to gain something.  Yes, some people are forced, say at gun point, to compromise; some are coerced through drugs and alcohol; and yes, some actions are purely altruistic (ashamed of philanthropy?).  It’s my opinion that consciously withholding or denying or lying about our actions is caused by fear.  Not a generic fear, but a two-tier fear.  The first tier-fear: judgement by others is beyond your control; but the second tier-fear: consequence sits squarely in your lap, and which, by the way, you’d already equated as a potential cost of your unprecedented action.  We all know this simple truth: We have absolutely no control over the actions of others.  That said, we can remove the first tier-fear: judgement by others; we now find ourselves staring down the steely barrel of culpability: we encountered a situation, measured consequence against benefit, and toed the line or stepped across it.  So shame and regret were considered well before we pandered to our hunger, thirst, or warm body (emphasis on warm).

The best possible precursor to a mental illness diagnosis was, until 1973 its own mental illness: homosexuality.  Coming out as a gay man taught me the valuable lesson that there will be people who can’t distinguish between my sexual orientation (which places me in a specific group) and who I am (in general terms) as a fellow human being.  Having learned that lesson years ago I was well prepared to face similar discrimination based upon my mental orientation, i.e. mental illness, e.g. bipolar disorder.  And yet, what is there to be ashamed and regretful about?  Don’t carry the burden of Shame or wear the shackles of Regret; never apologize to anyone irritated by what you have, especially if what you have is a medically recognized disease.

Recently I conducted a thoroughly non-scientific giddy-up poll which asked: What diseases do you think you’d be ashamed to admit having?

Answers?  Anal warts, vaginal herpes, syphilis, gonorrhea. . .what?  Anal warts? Venereal diseases? According to our non-scientific poll of middle-aged men and women, they said that carrying a sexually transmitted disease is the only other human affliction besides mental illness that they would be ashamed of having and which also carries with it a damning social stigma.  STD’s are the result of risky and unsafe sexual activities engaged in by choice. Does mental illness really belong in their company? Really?

Shame and Regret are burdens that those who choose to remain ignorant and judgmental should shoulder.

Not me.  Not you.  And certainly not the neighbor, best friend, Richard Dreyfuss rdreyfuss2
parishioner, bowling buddy, Ryan Phillippe, phillippeprom date, recipient of the first kiss, Girl Scout, Teddy Roosevelt (yes, really), Girl Scout Leader, Sinéad O’Conner, full back,  Metta World Peace ,
mettapeace offensive line coach, movie star, Burgess Meredith, Opera Star, Ronald Braunstein, famous orchestra conductor, infamous commuter train conductor or any one of the other 25% of our world’s population. How about the other 75% of the world’s population loosen the reins of their prejudice.

I Reckon, It Was My Reckoning

PLEASE NOTE: BnB has 190 posts. I doubt you’re going to rummage around in the basement of my blog, so I’ve decided to bring a handful of posts forward and mention why these are some of my favorites. Like: My Penned Invention of the Pen Invention (because I had fun writing it); or, The Start starring Wile E. Coyote (because this was my first post and of which has received 138 comments); or this one I Reckon, It Was My Reckoning (an early attempt to illustrate a dire consequence when you barter your character for wealth, fame, power and career). I hope you enjoy it and, as always, I invite you to leave comments.

 

It was now, right now, right now as you read this, exactly four years ago, that I stood in front of an old, caged teller’s window and watched The Principle Clerk place the Scales of Character atop an antiquated green-marbled counter.  His craggy index finger moved slowly down a ledger, then stopped; picking up the ledger he walked to the back where small drawers were stacked thirty feet high. Looking near the bottom he opened a drawer, plucked out a box, then returned it, plucked another, returned it, and after five attempts in four different drawers he removed a box, closed the drawer, snapped shut the ledger and returned to the front.  

“That drawer was really packed,” I said to relieve my tension.  

“That drawer is all you,” he said, “You in different lives; there’s quite a bit of you; more is better than less; you didn’t squander character; admirable.”  From the

From the box, he lifted a small parcel and placed it on the counter beneath his barred window. Looking at me above his spectacles he said, “You’ve got to open it and verify that everything’s there; that there’s nothing missing, and that it meets with your satisfaction; once you’re finished, close it, tie the string, and then pass it back to me under the barred window.” Then leaning in, within whispering distance, he looked left and then right to check if anyone was within earshot and whispered, “Almost everyone expects more; don’t be surprised; a bit is withdrawn each time you barter truth to self,” then he turned and went about his busy work.

Hands shaking, I untied the bow, peeled back the paper and gazed upon five brilliant, transparent, and twinkling jewels.  Immediately I felt absorbed or better, renewed; I felt capricious and peculiar; I looked eagerly for paper and pencil so I could describe it; I felt shy and naked; every ploy and deceit and means were displayed. I folded the paper atop the jewels, tied a knot in the string and called for the clerk.  “Everything in order, sir?” he asked.  

“I assume so,” I replied absolutely uncertain as to the truth of my answer.

“Excellent,” he said, “Now, let’s take a look at where you stand,” as he carried my box back to the Scales of Character.

“On the left,” he started to explain, “we place your parcel, that is, what remains of your character,” he says as he delicately places my parcel on the brass tray.  “On the right,” he continued, “we place the whole of your Lifetimes represented by these incremental weights.  The target for which we aim is that the left side, You, outweighs the right side, Lifetime. The objective is that one’s Character can outlast one’s Existence.” 

“And what does it mean if the right outweighs the left?” I asked hesitantly.

“Many things,” he said after taking a deep breath, “and one which you must choose. But before we talk about that, let’s see where you stand,” has said quietly, turning back to the scale. I tried to peer through the closeness of the bars of his window and watched as he carefully selected the right-side weights and placed them delicately in the elevated tray.  With each weights placement, he paused momentarily, allowing the scale to stop moving before he proceeded.  When he placed the second to last weight on the tray the right side sunk significantly but remained higher than the left.  “Not too bad, not too bad at all,” he said over his shoulder, “that weight is what does so many, so so many people in.”

“One weight left. . .” my comment exposing my nervousness.

“Yes,” the Clerk said, “but it represents the last decade,” he said as he placed it on the scale causing the left side to rise above the lowered right side.  

“Out of balance,” I mumbled, defeated.

Turning, he walked to the counter and studied me before speaking.  In a voice resembling that of my conscience, he began to explain, “There are people that stand where you’re standing and their left side hit bottom long before I stacked the weight. They knew what it meant before I started my explanation.  And for those people, there are no options: There’s just one thing to do. But it’s not the thing that’s hard to believe, it’s knowing that they won’t know when. That by overdrawing their Character account they lost the privilege of forethought.  Now they spend their time oblivious to all the choices of life, they’re left behind; indecisiveness caused missed chances, lost opportunities, and the upstarts, the less deserving were handed promotions. And they continued to fall further and further down their chosen ladder. And on his way down all of the trappings associated with bartered success fell too like leaves or thin branches: their wives and children and grandchildren. Here we call that damnation.”  He checked his watch and placed a sign directing people to other windows, walked back to a coat tree, grabbed his hat and coat and stood next to me.

“You stopped by at a good time.  You didn’t wait thinking the ship would right itself. You abandoned the inclination to compromise.  Compromise depletes Character quicker than any other life choice; compromise also happens to be the easiest and most benign.  And yet Character is the most coveted virtue by people besieged by empty character overdrafts and find themselves pleading for, but being denied protection. This persona non grata will happily promise anyone anything to convince the unwitting to give it up; let it go; who cares; nobody will see and who cares if they do; everyone else does it; it’s just for a while; come on we’re friends. And before the new initiates know it, their high-rolling days are over; they’re marginalized; they’re alone at any bar on any street and in that part of town; no wingmen; no gaggles and gaggles of girls gathering and giggling; no brunette with Azurite eyes. Those seeking devotees have already begun to feel that Life is no longer a Miracle but a rubric to be endured for all time. Not celebrated or explored or shared or even predicted.  The damned chides those with Character but those with Character cannot hear their heckles. You see, it’s not that those with Character won’t listen. They have listened. It’s the damned that didn’t listen and sadly they’ll be the only ones that will listen.

“But here’s what’s going to happen to you:  You saw that you’re a wee bit short on Character to last your Lifetime. Maybe you traded it, sold it, or gave it away. So you’re going off-line for a few years; to recharge; to reenergize; to rediscover curiosity and creativity; to stop, take root, sprout and expand; to see not simply look; to listen and understand not just hear and obey; to get back to the business of your life; to be you to the end.  Expect people to identify you as crazy, loony, out-of-your-head and off your noggin, a victim of mental illness; they may even identify you as a kind of nut case; a specific type of lunatic; because, they’ll say, if Crayola can have five different reds and blues and greens, then why can’t the mentally ill be as colorful! Let it be, let it wash ashore like the tide; you’ll survive. That pinch of Character you might need to navigate life will be available and parsed out.  Now, once that door opens and you cross that threshold your entire life will fall apart.  You won’t know why you won’t remember here or me. That is until one day some years from now when it’s time for your turn at the window you’ll recall a sort of Déjà vu clerking behind the window.  And being one of Generous Character you may even tell this story using your own voice which mysteriously fell silent twenty years ago just like mine did twenty years ago. And maybe the middle-aged man standing in front of your window will have more Character than Life remaining. And then both of you can walk out that door over there.” 

“What’s it say?” I asked, careening my neck in order to see. 

“There’s no need knowing now,” he said as one strong hand went to my back and the other hand to the lock. “Besides,” he said turning the knob, “Time just eats you up,” as he nudged me, waited, then with considerably more strength he nudged me again with more purpose, and then he barked loudly and snarled like a teased-to-mean junkyard dog waving that craggy finger at me, “Now, get out!” he snarled, “Twenty more years until I can go through that door marked “To Trains.” Then with great conviction, he pushed me into the street followed by doors slamming and deadbolts being thrown. When I turned back I saw an empty, fenced-in lot among pitiless faces deep within a strange city when my eyes shot open early this morning.

Kindness Serves the Souls of Strangers

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“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”    Plato
“Kindness is the language which the deaf can hear and the blind can see.”   – Mark Twain
“Offer kindness without reward knowing that someone will return that which you offered another.”   – Henry Van Dyke
“You cannot do a kindness too soon, for you never know how soon it will be too late.”   – Ralph Waldo Emerson

I want to thank those of you from around the world that were generous, hopeful, and kind in spirit to send my brother Get Well cards. Thanks to you he received hundreds of cards which surprised him and stunned the hospital.

When asked by nurses “who do you know?” He thought for a moment then said, “Me brudder!”

The Dead’s Etiquette: Returning To Sender

Self-designed stamp for the return of mail to sender.
Self-designed stamp for the return of mail to sender.

Emily Post let me down. Abby offered a half smile. The Post Office just stared at me.

My question was always the same: “At what point can I stop stamping to return my deceased brother’s mail?

Just last week he received a stack of mail three inches high! Perhaps they’re thinking of him as Deadbeat rather than Dead.

He died four months ago at which time I rented a P.O. Box in my neighborhood and had his mail forwarded to it. I designed the “return deceased” stamp. And each step was more painful than the last. With each envelope I was reminded that at some point in my recent past my brother for 58 years disappeared. Poof! Extracted like a tooth, and like an extracted tooth a hole remained reminding me that something had occupied that hole, something I took for granted as permanent.

I still cry when I’m reminded that he’ll never return as though he was exploring the far reaches of dense jungle. And with each damned envelope which I mannerly stamp “Addressee Deceased,” I ache with longing which tumbles to tears then swells to a contemptible bitterness toward companies which mechanically spit out statements completely void of sympathy or understanding or humanity.

I think it’s time to treat their mail like my best friend brother was treated: simply disappear.

There’s Cold and then there’s Cold!

THERE’S COLD . . .

001-pondsCold cream, the cold shoulder, cold as ice, having a cold, Cold War, stone-cold dead, cold sores, knocked-out cold, cold (sexual disinterest), cold feet, cold turkey, cold water man (a Scot that doesn’t drink alcohol), cold cuts, cold storage, catch a cold, “…has a cold…” (politician, diplomat, or executive is fired), cold air, quit cold (die suddenly), cold fish, cold snap, cold as a cucumber, “blood runs cold” (profound apathy for others), cold blood, cold storage, cold cereal, cold sweat, cold front, cold comfort, “cold hands, warm heart” (lovey-dovey idiom), “cold, hard cash” (nothing’ but greenbacks003-coldone (US currency printed in green on one side starting in 1862; aka “Legal Tender”)), “feed a cold and starve a fever” (axiom first used in 1574 as a remedy for fever), “a cold one” (euphemism describing an ice-cold beer), “… she’s a cold one (or, cold tart)”, (disparaging expression used by a refuted suitor when describing a woman disinterested in his unmannerly advances), “cold as a witches bosom [sic]” (vague expression of “cold” in varying contexts), cold, hard facts (1. Empirical Data generally used in the sciences for unquestionable facts; 2. My mother’s off-handed remark whenever I 004-coldduck1was dumped by a girl (implying “. . . silly boy, you’ll never get a girl so face the facts . . .”)), cold case (police investigation which remains unsolvable after exhausting every lead), cold plate (recipes served cold), cold duck (originally invented in Detroit in 1937 and was based on a German legend. The recipe calls for one part Mosel wine, one part Rhine wine with one part of Champagne,002-coldshwr2 seasoned with lemons and balm mint.), knocked cold, leave out in the cold, out cold (unconscious, intoxicated, sound asleep), stop cold, take a cold shower (an often futile attempt to quell the hormones associated with lust). 

AND THEN THERE’S COLD . . .

004-below01“Cold enough for you?” I kept an eye on my thermometer all yesterday. The temperature remained steady at -13º F which coincidently is the precise temperature of ice cream. I’ve lived in the Northern Hemisphere all my life, so I’m very familiar with the winter season: days are shorter, sun remains low on the horizon, a cloudy and snowy day is likely to be warmer than a clear day (clouds capture heat and the sun’s too low on the horizon to radiate warmth added by clear skies which allows ground heat to rise upwards), all dogs love snow, we all wish for a “White Christmas.”

006-lifebelow0“If you don’t cover your ears and nose they’ll be the first to freeze, next will be your fingers and your toes,” At -13º F frostbite can begin immediately to susceptible parts of the body such as: tip or whole nose, ear lobes, fingers, and toes.  Common warning signs include: progressing numbness and a loss of sensitivity to touch. The affected area will also tingle or feel as if it is burning. As the condition worsens, the pain begins to fade or eventually disappear. Frostnip (which I experienced only yesterday on my right hand)) is a superficial freezing of the outer layer of the skin which turns white as blood circulation decreases, then stings, and becomes quite painful. Frostnip can occur during vigorous outdoor activity and you may not be aware of it until you stop exercising. 

001-sledding2“Come in from the cold!” was a chorus sung ritually during winter by my aunt that babysat for us. She knew what was coming when I refused to wear the childish, insulated, and nylon snow pants. So she kept vigil at the window which overlooked the school yard for that first warning sign of a child wearing cotton pants and sliding and falling into drifts of snow. I never noticed that my wet pants quickly yielded to the cold. Suddenly my bottom half was encased in ice which would stick to my legs. Every step home felt like pen knives were being poked into my legs, my bottom, and my feet. When I stepped into the house and started to undress my aunt hurried to stop me, then quickly placed me right in front of the heat register and turned up the heat. Then she handed me a cup of hot cocoa saying, “Drink that cocoa slowly because as those pants begin to melt, so will you. And honey, you ain’t felt anything that hurts like that!” Then over her shoulder as she walked away, “And tomorrow those snow pants won’t look so childish!”

001-girlwithdog1 “It’ll be a cold day in hell!” before I cross the street to schmooze. The other night I saw a leggy woman walking an equally leggy dog wearing a unitard (the long-legged dog was wearing it not the leggy walker, who’d resemble an Olympic swimmer languidly strolling down a snowy sidewalk on a blustery eve). I and my dog crossed the street beneath the guise of doggy introductions. After they’d had their bouts of butt-ery I finally asked the woman, “what on earth is your dog wearing?” Her Tsk, followed by the 180 degree hair toss followed by a voluminous, lung-filling sigh told me that our humorous repartee was chilly when her answer was dipped in the patronizing tone fondue, “Why, it’s a Unitard, of course; cold dogs are a reality. They’re all wearing them in Lincoln Park. But I suppose way up here in . . . in Roger’s Park . . . “ to which I interjected, “Lady, are you lost? This is Edgewater where, believe it or not, our dogs wear fur coats in winter and in summer we relish our hot dogs!”

Thank You, Doctor . . .

There was a time, oh, not so long ago that friends Michelle and Peter and Nick would remember that I sat in a chair in a public forum and wept because I never became a doctor.  Friends recommended nursing, but on my first day my instructor, wearing one of those origamitized hats mentioned the adjective caring in hundreds of examples.  By the end of the day I’d grown so weary of the word caring I returned my shiny new mules and knew I didn’t have the dedication to the lives of total strangers simply because your unyielding care and uncompromising affection for humanity seemed as close to grace as most of us will ever know.

I’ve been very lucky to have been able to continue my 20 year relationship with my primary care physician.  In 20 years we’ve both learned a lot about each other: he more so of course, especially with those physician distributed x-ray glasses (and we thought they were some manifestation of a cartoonist’s imagination) because how else could doctors have the degree of insight simply by engaging in an innocent conversation.

I’ve been thinking lately that all these men and women who voluntarily step up to education and raise their hands so strongly, so surely, and so hopefully that witnessing that depth and degree of service to strangers must be one of the most moving examples of humanity stepping into a life where their life is secondary.

Why they do this happily, proudly, compassionately in order to be in the presence when most of us aren’t gussied up for prom astonishes me and thanks God for loaning humanity a few hundred thousand angels to leave Heaven and come to earth (by way of unimaginable hours pouring over manual after manual after manual and I can’t even remember 3 things to buy at the grocer’s), then share their own type and degree and experience of the comfort they know to be true once we let go and become fine examples of colorful balloons rising higher and higher and out of sight but not out of mind.

To all those selfless and defenders of the weak or ill or mentally compromised or children or any other of the millions of disenfranchised a mere thank you will never repay your kindness. But maybe God’s set up a 401(k) for you in heaven.

 

 

One More . . .

3-One

5-One

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One more trip to the doctor.

One more admission of humiliating symptoms.

One more physician‘s persevering uncertainty.

One more hunch about drugs even after repeated failures of 6 week trials.

One more hopeful bottle of toxins to ingest.

One more set of side-effects to endure.

One more crippling debility: Illness’s strong swing of a sharp ax into the pulp of my dignity cutting deeply.

One more intentional assault leaving me with a staggering and teetering propriety.

One more debility before I’m disqualified from sovereignty; stripped of my liberty, freedom, and independence, my self-reliant character reverts to childhood, a time of absolute dependence for survival.

One more obedient abdication of my extinct identities and forthcoming dog’s age.

One more no more.