The Existential Crisis of Losing the Enemy

Arjuna saw them standing there: … kinsmen on both sides, each side arrayed against the other. In despair, overwhelmed with pity, he said: “As I see my own kinsmen, gathered here, eager to fight…I am beside myself, my mind reels…Though they want to kill me, I have no desire to kill them, not even for the kingship of the three worlds, let alone for that of earth.”

                                                                                    Bhagavad Gita 1:28-35



Someone shot a gun and within moments dozens of people were dead and hundreds were injured. Within a matter of days someone looked at me and said that people like me should be on a registry, people with a mental health diagnosis shouldn’t be allowed to own firearms.

Later a friend posted some “facts” online about mental illness statistics and violence and gun control and…well, I’d like to be specific but, honestly, it was all a rather confusing mess of heaped together unrelated numbers trying to make the point that mentally ill people are violent and somehow the problem behind U.S. mass shootings.

“Fuck you.” I said.

“We are not violent.” I said.

He told me not to belittle him. He told me that, since the majority of perpetrators in these cases are all said to have a mental illness, surely we must make that part of the conversation?

“You just belittled an entire community of people,” I said. “Don’t police my tone.”

And, “Yes. white shooters are generally assumed to be mentally ill, whether they actually are or not. Just like brown ones are assumed to be terrorists and black ones are assumed to be thugs. Letting the media do your thinking for you is how you end up in this stigmatizing position in the first place.”

And through a long conversation, which wasn’t always that antagonistic, he came around, which, frankly, shocked me and gave me some hope for humanity but, who am I kidding, have you even seen humanity lately?

Social media had a widespread conversation about the breadth of the harassment and assault problem that faces women. The women who cared to, and felt able to participate, posted “me too” to signify that they, too, had been the victim of sexual assault and/or sexual harassment within their lifetime.

Many women posted “me too,” many others posted long threads outlining the dozen ways in a day they add extra layers of protection to simple activities like walking to their car or working their jobs. Other women wrote angry, fed up posts asking why we were being asked to step forward in some victimized stance and show our scars – where were the men this time?

I saw some men. Not the kind, generous, “I believe you and I will fight with and for you” types that others encountered. I saw men who were angry at this movement transpiring in front of them; men who wanted to change this narrative to include their experiences and their voices. I encountered men who were the voices of patriarchy in action. And then I encountered a particularly vile Facebook post laughing at the entire idea of the thing from one of my own assaulters and I nearly broke in two from the sickness of it. I deactivated my personal account.

There is more of the same but you get the idea.

I am caught in the sometimes painful crosshairs of my personal intersection right now, a woman with a mental health disorder living in a world that diminishes women (though denies it) and freely and openly discusses their prejudicial beliefs about mental illness.

But there’s more than my own personal pain to this story. Because, while I have not lost my experiences, I seem to have lost my enemy.

For so long I’ve had a belief system in place to protect myself against this stigmatization and prejudice. I have actively fought and worked, as much as I am able, on the side of the oppressed, fighting the oppressor. But education and knowledge threaten my easy equilibrium and now I am left dizzy as I wait for the world to right itself again.

Dizzy and without an enemy to fight.

As a collegiate psychology student (this year  enrolled in ‘social psychology’ and the ‘psychology of prejudice and stigma’) and as a social psychology nerd in general who listens to even more psych podcasts for fun, I understand my now former enemy all too well.

I have a full grasp on the process of categorization which leads to schemas which leads to stereotypes which leads to stigma and prejudice. I understand the difference between implicit and explicit. I know the ways in which people wish they were better but aren’t (and sometimes don’t even know that they aren’t).

I understand that this process is one that happens without our consent and without our ability to prevent it. Our only say in the entire system from birth to adulthood is to step in at some point along the way and begin the hard work of recognizing our biases as they rise up in us and choose to relearn schemas to replace bad stereotypes.

I see and acknowledge the role that a misguided culture plays, the impact of mass media that is far beyond anyone’s personal control, generation upon generation upon generation of effect that will not change overnight, no matter how much we will it or call each other names.

I cannot turn my fury upon a person who is not under their own control, who could not be wholly even if they thought to try. I cannot call them enemy even if they are my oppressor. I can only have compassion. In fact, if anything, the whole world has suddenly become the target of my empathy and I don’t know where to turn my attention first.

And yet, there is is still rage (slowly shifting to sorrow). There is still the rampant need for equality.

This, my friends, is what is called an existential crisis, when your worldview shifts and you need to find a new one by which to define yourself.

I am halfway there. But I assure you, it is the least comfortable thing I have done in a very, very long time.





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