Mind the Hazard Lights

I should be embarrassed to admit this, but it wasn’t until I became a driver myself that I knew what the hazard light button was. I remember noticing it for the first time in my stepmom’s little red Civic, the newest vehicle I had ever been in and thus the epitome of technological advancement in automobiles. I saw that red triangle button on the dashboard among dozens of other doodads and whatnots I didn’t understand, but the imagery of it was such that I instinctively knew it meant “DANGER”. This could only mean one thing, of course: an eject and/or self-destruct button. Like Batman. I was always very careful in the front seat, afraid that I might inadvertently hit it while changing radio stations and send us both flying into oncoming traffic. This story doesn’t really have an application, I just wanted to share it.

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I was reminded of it when my own daughter asked a few weeks ago what the red triangle button meant. “They’re for when you have a problem, ” my husband explained, “so people know to move away from you.”

This struck me.

My husband is the most selfless person you’ll ever meet, so this isn’t a reflection on his character, only on what the hazard lights have come to mean: when did “I’m in trouble” become “move along”? Hazard lights are intended to alert the other drivers that something has gone wrong with the car or driver, that they can’t go on as normal or at the same rate as the others on the road. Their distress signal has become an annoyance to others. Rather than pulling over to offer help, the other drivers see the blinking red lights and move off to the side in an attempt to get past them quicker. We see the trouble and worry only about how it affects our commute.

I once sat on the side of a highway for more than 6 hours with my hazard lights blinking. 6 hours. I’d experienced a tire blow-out going 70 miles per hour and miraculously maintained enough control to safely come to a stop on the shoulder, yet I did not have the knowledge, skills, or tools to change the tire. I made phone calls until my cell phone died (the car charger was still years away from being common), I missed all of my college classes that day, I was starving, exhausted, scared, frustrated, angry. I waited and waited while hundreds of cars passed me by, not one stopping to offer assistance. Could they have been a crazy axe-murderer who wanted to chop me into tiny bits? Sure. Those exist anywhere. But could they also have helped? Yes. But no one did. Despite the very obvious signs I was giving that I needed it.

“But Jennifer,” you say, “I don’t have time to stop and help a stranded motorist!” Well, friend, I can promise you that the stranded motorist probably didn’t have time to be stranded themselves. They had work and appointments and responsibilities still waiting for them, too. How much faster would they get to where they were headed, how much faster would the flow of traffic be restored if someone took the time out of their own schedule to just help?

“But Jennifer,” you say, “I don’t know how to fix a car!” Well, friend, sometimes just having someone there with you can ease the stress of a motor emergency. My stepdad was in a car accident a while back, a bad one. It was raining and he was alone, trapped. I can’t imagine how scared he must have been, let alone hurt. The wreckage made it impossible to reach his cell phone to call for help, he must have been there wondering if anyone saw, if anyone noticed, if anyone was coming, if anyone would help. Alone. Until some wonderful Samaritan took it upon themselves to climb in there and keep him company, keep him calm, until help arrived. Someone took a detour from where they were headed, got out into the rain, and comforted someone who was very much alone. Someone saw the hazard and responded.

You probably see by now that I’m not just referring to car troubles.

It applies across the board to life. The depressing social media shares, the mother juggling groceries and children in the parking lot, the elderly neighbor who can’t start their mower, the overweight first-timer at the gym who can’t figure out how to start their machine. People need HELP. Hazard lights are blinking all around us. Yet all too often we just rubberneck the wreckage, slow down long enough to see how bad it is, thank God it wasn’t us, and move on. We glare at the man whose car won’t start in the middle of an intersection, as though he didn’t already know he was inconveniencing the people behind him, when getting out to help him push the car would be much more impactful. We silently judge the single mother who can’t pay her bills when a helping hand, a tank of gas, or a night of babysitting would be much more helpful. We hate the way our depressed acquaintance makes us feel so down when they’re around, when helping them feel better when we’re around could be the difference between life and death. The mom you’re scoffing at for using formula – did you offer her breastfeeding support? The man you’re taking cell phone pictures of because his pants are slipping down – did you tell him and save him the embarrassment? The friend whose marriage is crumbling – have you offered an ear or just observed the wreckage? The relative who is battling a disease – have you visited, listened, helped, or just thanked God it wasn’t you?

People all around us need help, every day. It could be as easy as sharing a post from a friend’s business or as involved as taking in a family.

“But Jennifer,” you say, “I’m having car trouble, too.” I know, friend. Depression and anxiety are all around us. Financial struggles, relationship battles, health troubles, existential crises, kids, school, work… we’re all struggling. I know. And sometimes all you can do is climb inside the broken-down car and cry together. Acknowledging someone else’s struggle does not negate your own. There’s no way to measure who has it worse, nor should there be. We’re all in this together, all traveling the same road, and we all benefit when someone in need is helped.

There’s an actual, documented phenomenon known as the Bystander Effect. In a crisis, individuals are less likely to offer help to a victim the more people there are around. Seriously. The MORE bystanders there are, the LESS likely anyone is to offer any help. Victims will wait and wait for help that doesn’t come because everyone around them assumes someone else will do it. It’s mass apathy. It takes someone taking charge and giving specific instructions to specific people to get anything done. You can’t just yell, “Somebody call 911!”, you have to point to a person and say, “YOU, call 911.” While I’ve seen this portrayed several times on the always-accurate Law & Order: SVU, I recently witnessed it first-hand. I was in a situation that required police interference, and people just stood there. Watching. Some were in disbelief, some had their cell phones out to video. I had to be the one to call the police, because the bystander effect was in full force.

This idea, this stopping to help when others don’t, it’s important enough to have made the Bible. In Luke 3 we’re told of the Good Samaritan, the man who stopped and offered assistance when so many others before him didn’t. Jesus Himself offered up everything He had for the good of all of us. You may not have riches, you may not have influence, you may not have extra time, but if the Son of God can offer Himself to help everyone, even the jerkiest jerks and the buttiest buttheads, who are we to just keep on driving by? When did “I need help”, when did “love your neighbor as yourself”, become open to interpretation, prioritization, and impassivity?

We cannot live this way. We cannot allow our dependency on others to rid us of any responsibility. We cannot see flashing hazard lights and shrug because they don’t affect us. People need help, WE need help. So what are you going to do about it?

Loving the Mentally Ill

*originally published July 2016, updated June 2018*

I’ve written, deleted, and re-written this blog for months. It’s a tough subject, and it’s hard to be honest without offending, or encouraging while still being truthful. But in light of everything that’s being said about the recent suicide of a beloved actor, I need to write this. Again.

You see, not much offends me. Things anger me, confuse me, sadden me, sure. But not a lot hurts my feelings. But I’ll say it: I’m offended at some of the reactions to the death of Robin Williams. Straight-up offended. As if it’s our place to pass judgement on a man’s death. As if our opinions on the circumstances surrounding his life and death hold any weight. As if our own experiences give us any modicum of expertise with regard to the experiences of another. I’ve seen a lot of people who claim they overcame depression, so someone else should be able to, as well. As someone who has battled depression and anxiety for decades, I still have no ounce of justified judgement towards someone fighting a similar battle. I’ve seen even more complete misunderstanding and disregard for mental illness. The fact is, depression is an illness. Sometimes it’s temporary, like post-partum depression or seasonal affective disorder. Sometimes it’s based on circumstances, like bills or illness or difficult relationships, and can thus change with the situation. Sometimes, though, it’s chemical, it’s through no fault of the sufferer, and it’s STRONG. Chemical depression CAN be overcome with prayer, but just because it isn’t sometimes doesn’t mean the person suffering has no faith. It doesn’t mean the person is weak, just as requiring insulin says nothing about a diabetic, other than the fact that they’re diabetic. Depression is a symptom of a chemical imbalance that must be corrected and observed constantly, or else it will quickly overwhelm. Depression is an ILLNESS, not a choice, not a lack of appreciation or contentment, not a weakness or a fault, and it most certainly is not selfish.

Ahh, selfishness. This is what so many of the judgements I’ve seen seem to get caught up on. The selfishness of the sufferer who chose to end their life. Does suicide affect so many more people than just the one who decided to take their life? Absolutely. But how quick we are to forget that mental illness affects the family and friends of the sufferer in life, not just in death. The loved ones of those who are mentally ill have long been experiencing pain, yet we rarely – if ever – check in with them and consider how they’re affected. How quick we are to dismiss the suffering of the depressed or mentally-ill person, alive or otherwise. We overlook the lifetime of far-reaching pain until it makes headlines.

I’m not here to argue the theology of suicide, nor do I believe that death by one’s own hand brings about a poetic release or freedom, but I will say, LOUDLY, that mentally ill persons do not think logically. You and I can think logically, yes, and using our serotonin-producing, non-muddled-up brains we can look at the circumstances surrounding someone’s suicide and decide that it wasn’t worth it, it wasn’t that bad, or they were selfish cowards. But just because something doesn’t seem to make sense to us doesn’t make it untrue. Just because you’ve never been so overwhelmed by darkness that you thought death was the only life for you DOES NOT MEAN it did not appeal to someone else. In discussing mental illness recently with a friend, she said that mental illness “gummed up” her brain, and it was the best description I’ve heard yet. Your brain may work, firing on all pistons, using logic and reason and recognizing cause and effect and multiple escape routes. But a mentally ill person’s brain does not. I need glasses to see clearly and you may not. This does not mean that because I need help to see, your eyes are better than mine. It means I need help to see. All of us, mentally ill or otherwise, have the same need and dependence upon the same chemicals and hormones to maintain a sense of balance and happiness in our brains. Really, we’re all a slight shift away from suffering, so who are we to pride ourselves over those who need what we need but can’t seem to naturally produce what we can?

I’ve lived my whole life with mental illness in the form of a bipolar mother. Is it hard? YOU BET. Do my struggles with her illness change her? In no single way at all, ever. It’s been a long road, and a very difficult one. Sometimes she does things that just make no sense… but they don’t have to. Just because I cannot empathize with her suffering does not mean her suffering is any less real. My confusion does not heal her. My frustrations do not heal her. Even my hurt does not heal her. Because SHE CANNOT HELP IT. No matter how much I want her to not be mentally ill, it won’t change the fact that she is, so I can either love and embrace her as she is, or I can live life constantly disappointed. A few times, in her darkest of days, she has even tried to hurt herself, and as a young girl who did not understand mental illness, I was offended. My feelings were hurt, I was mad, and I thought her selfish. But just as a thirsty person will drink, a mentally ill person will do what their body is telling them to. Someone with Tourette’s or Parkinson’s cannot control every movement their body unwillingly makes any more than a mentally ill person can control every thought or action they take. Cop-out? To someone who does not have understanding or empathy with regard to mental illness, maybe. The fact remains that no matter how hard it is to love someone who is mentally ill (and it’s okay to admit that it’s hard), our suffering does not negate or outrank theirs.

Robin Williams, specifically, also dealt with addictions many times during his life, further proof of his suffering, his inability to control himself, his inability to behave like a “normal person” or think clearly. Robin Williams suffered a great deal more than any of us will ever understand, even those of us who have battled the demon of depression and stepped back from the ledge just in time. The truth is that we don’t know what he was going through. We don’t know what he thought or felt or lived or saw. We do know that he made us laugh and cry and quote a lot of movies, and we should be grateful for the impact he had on our childhoods. But we should not and CANNOT pass judgement on the very last choice he made, no matter how much that choice hurts us. Because it hurt him, too. Because it may have been, in his gummed-up brain that just wouldn’t submit, the only choice he had.

This has  been a bad week. Earlier in the week we awoke to the (far too detailed) news of designer Kate Spade’s suicide. Today it was celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain’s decision to take his life. Once again the comments abound – “What did SHE have to be sad about?” “He was rich and famous, why would he want to die?” “Her designs were so colorful, I never would have known she was depressed.”

Again I say, nearly two years after first writing this post, that suicide will never make sense to us, those who are left behind. It will never appeal to us, those whose mental state is not gummed up, clouded, those of us who do not hurt just being awake. Their reasoning will never make sense to us, but it doesn’t have to. We aren’t owed an explanation. We are expected to care and be kind human beings. Let Kate Spade’s bright bags and Anthony Bourdain’s zest (pun intended, he would have rolled his eyes) be a reminder that we cannot always see mental illness, we definitely cannot predict mental illness, mental illness is not a stereotype, and mental illness is real.

You know someone who is suffering, I promise you. You may not know they’re in pain, or you may roll  your eyes at their frequent posts you deem to be attention-seeking or overly dramatic. It could very well be the person you least expect to be hurting. That’s the thing about depression – it’s not just sadness, it’s pain. Having every comfort in the world doesn’t preclude someone from experiencing pain, and as you know, pain cannot always be seen.

No one is ever too rich, too bubbly, too healthy, too young, too famous, too privileged, too religious, too smart, or too anything to hurt. No one is ever too anything to struggle with depression. And none of us are ever enough of anything to pass judgement on any other.  If we continue to publicly pass judgement and name-call those who are suffering from mental illness, especially those who are no longer alive to explain their pain, we will make it even harder for someone who needs help to have the courage to speak up, reach out, and get what they need. Stop making it NOT okay for someone to suffer. Have some sympathy and maybe save a life.

 

Related: The Righteous Wrong – The Flawed Handling of Mental Illness in the Church, You’re Probably Wrong About Anxiety, Measuring Others’ Pain

Are You Makin’ A List, Checkin’ It Twice?

Last night, while doing the final before-bed Facebook scroll, I saw about 4 posts of ladies referring to their list of Perfect Man Attributes. You know the list. The list of qualities that your future husband HAS TO HAVE, that you pray over and ask God for and measure every guy up to (until you meet one who is just so flippin’ cute that you want to bend the “rules”). You totally made one in middle school. And another in high school. And one after every church camp. Maybe when you got to college. Maybe after watching The Vow or something, I don’t know. I TOTALLY had one. And not just a puny list, it was accompanied by a drawing, colored in with map pencils, and ranked by importance. This fictional man that I prayed so earnestly for had blue eyes, dark hair, was 6’4” (I’m tall, the struggle is real), played baseball (not because I was an avid sports fan, but because I was a lustful teenager), and loved Jesus with his whole heart. My husband of more than nine years DOES have blue eyes and dark hair, but he doesn’t wear baseball pants, and, while taller than me, is not 6’4”. Does this mean that God did not honor my requests, that He wasn’t listening? No, it means my list was stupid.

I am a wedding photographer. I’ve lost count of how many couples I’ve had the honor of photographing, but I do know that I have not photographed a SINGLE bride and groom smiling, holding up their checked-off lists, giving a thumbs-up. I also have a degree in counseling, and I tell ya, either I missed the day our professors went over comparing lists in premarital counseling, or the topic just was not covered in the Marriage Preparedness and Strengthening units.  Jacob didn’t consult his checklist when tricked into marrying Rachel, he just knew that she wasn’t Leah. I don’t know how the phenomenon got started, but I can’t find anything to support it.

Don’t get me wrong, us gals deserve good things. And yes, God wants to give us the desires of our hearts. But how about instead of creating a list to mentally compare every guy you meet to, you compare every one to Christ. Does he love? Does he extend grace? Is he chasing after the Father? Consult the checklist in 1 Corinthians 13. Is he patient? Is he kind? Does he rejoice in wrongdoing? You are not shopping for a car. You are making yourself available to someone who you will spend your life with. Don’t set up parameters that can come and go like trends, measure him by the Word of God. Jesus would never slap you around. Jesus doesn’t get drunk and blow the rent money. Jesus doesn’t care about swag. God said He would never leave you nor forsake you. THAT’S what you need until you are parted by death. That’s someone who will stick by, in sickness and in health.

I have had several friends who have met incredible men, but were hesitant to pursue a relationship because of a deal-breaker from their list. “But he has a child from a previous relationship.” “But he has a giant face tatoo.” Listen, I would hate to think of how many times I would be deemed “unworthy” because of how I fell short of a list my husband may have dreamed up. Thank God He doesn’t count me out because of my mistakes. Thank God He doesn’t count me out because of ways that I don’t measure up. Stop worrying so much over the present circumstances of your ideal husband, and start praying over his future. Stop daydreaming about his physical qualities and start praying over his HEART. Don’t worry and fuss over the things he does before you meet him, but begin praying for him as your HUSBAND. Pray that he would exercise wisdom with your finances. Pray that he would lead your future family after God. Pray for your husband, not for God to make the hot guy who brings his guitar to youth camp INTO your husband.

But you know what list you should make? Make a list of the qualities YOU want to have as a WIFE. Pinterest has made weddings so romantic, but after that one single day, you’ll be a wife for the rest of your life. After you’ve found the guy, you’ll need to make it work every day after. Make a list of qualities you’d like to exhibit and pray over THAT. Compare to THAT. Will you be a patient wife? Will you support your husband in any career he chooses? Will you speak kindness over him? Will you publicly cheer him? Concern yourself with BEING the right person more than FINDING the right person.

God knew you before you were born. He knit you together. You are His masterpiece. The same goes for your future husband. God made him long before you put pen to paper. Open yourself up to Him, trust that God knows what He’s doing. In theory, if you are looking for The One, then every single man you meet but ONE will be him. Billions of no’s. Billions of Not The Ones. Don’t be discouraged. Don’t waste your energy and set yourself up for disappointment by comparing every man to a list. Pray for this unknown man’s heart, pray for God to prepare yours, and open yourself up to His will.