19 April 2017

The Quality Of Mercy: When No One Cares About Crazy People

Mercy Strained

Yesterday, I wrote about the complexity of mercy, an idea that almost every mainstream religion preaches, but few of the faithful seem able or willing to practice.

I was wrestling with this idea as the tragic and unsettling story of two very different men – Robert Godwin and Steve Stephens converged in the maelstrom that is modern media and contemporary life.

Stephens, a long-time counselor of troubled youth, seeking to send a message to an estranged girlfriend, shot Godwin, who he did not know,  and killed him as the 74-year-old grandfather was leaving an Easter dinner with his family. The killing was broadcast live on Facebook's new live video channel, created, said the company, to help bring us all closer together.

There is much to consider in the fact that if the awful killing had not been broadcast on Facebook, we might not ever had heard either of their names. And if it could not have been broadcast live,  the killing might not ever have even happened. It seems that was the point.

Two days later, Stephens shot himself in the head after trying to order fast food and fries at an Erie, Pa, McDonalds.

He had said in one message that he was ashamed of what he had done. There was new information revealed today that Stephens was seriously ill, a friend, a mental health advocate,  had urged him to get help. The story did not get much attention.

There was a civil, revealing and touching conversation on my blog's Facebook Page yesterday, it went on all day and it was a good and thoughtful conversation by social media standards, balanced and civil. It revealed the great uncertainty and confusion about the idea of mercy and the difficulty so many people – including me – have when it comes to practicing it.

It is increasingly difficult for many profoundly polarized Americans to talk about so nuanced an idea – or any idea – without arguing about it. We no longer have a common value system, we are forgetting how to listen and think, there is only a left and a right. But I don't see this issue as an argument for me. It is something that is very personal, and very important for me to come to terms with.

Mercy is hard for anyone to feel, even though every spiritual leader preaches it and every major religions embraces the idea of a Merciful God. We are encouraged to forgive, to embrace what we most fear and hate, to understand what is most uncomfortable for us. Those messages have not gotten down to the faithful.

On Facebook, and all over the media, it was clear enough. We show mercy for what we like, not for what repels and offends us.


Two books have come out recently which greatly affected my thinking about Steve Stephens. Each helped me to understand my own feelings about mercy in completely different ways.

One was Anne Lamott's  Hallelujah Anyway: Rediscovering Mercy, and the other is a brilliant, searing and very powerful book by author Ron Powers called "no one cares about crazy people," a chronicle of a family – his family – living with two sons who suffered from schizophrenia.

One of them committed suicide. The other will be recovering for the rest of his life. The New York Times said that if everyone read this book, the world would change, and he was correct. It changed me.

I liked the Lamott book very much, and it was universally fawned over, as such books usually are. Who, after all, is publicly against mercy, or even asks penetrating questions about it?. That is, at least until they are called upon to feel it for a murderer.

Lamott's book was haunting and beautiful, I confess that it did read a bit like a sermon to me, something you leave church nodding your head about and forget in the unrelenting crush of disturbing news. As you know, good news is not considered news.

No one cares about crazy people was like a sledgehammer to the heart, angry, powerful, bristling with feeling and truth, unforgettable. In its own way, the best argument for mercy that there could be. Each of these books bracket the Godwin killing in the way that only books, fine writing,  and big ideas can do.

The  response to the chilling and especially  de-humanizing murder of Mr. Godwin – killed for absolutely no reason at all –  reminded me that mercy is lovely as an idea to aspire to. But the book stops well short of pleading for mercy or guiding us about how to handle the violence and mayhem of the modern world. Faith often seems to stop at the temple door and our sensibilities are offended almost every minute.

No wonder people are so angry, why so many hearts turn to stone.

It is just very easy for people like me and Lamott to call on other people to be merciful (I don't actually, people can make up their own minds about it). Powers takes no prisoners in his book,  does not ask us to be merciful to him or to ourselves.

"I hope you do not "enjoy" no one cares about crazy people", Powers, writes in the introduction. "I hope you are wounded by it; wounded as I have been in writing it. Wounded to act, to intervene. Only if this happens, and keeps happening until it needs to happen more, can we dare to hope that Dean and Kevin and all their brothers and sisters in psychotic suffering are redeemed; that they have no suffered entirely in vain."

I hope they have not.  I was wounded by the book.


Justice And Vengeance

Human nature seems to pull us in the opposite direction away from mercy when evil  strikes. Vengeance seems the more common response. An eye for an eye, said one poster on my Facebook page. Justice done.

Another complained that my suggestion that Stephens was clearly mentally ill was "speculative," he was probably just stressed,  she said, and then just snapped, and was thus completely responsible for what he did and deserving of his fate. This kind of illness is not excuse.

At the end of the message, she posted some unrelated thoughts about her dog.

Another woman, a thoughtful person, said justice was served, that was that. I replied that I could not quite grasp how justice was served when one innocent grandfather and a severely disturbed young man both lost their lives for no rational reason I could see. Healthy people, I wrote, don't just gun people down in the street, broadcast their own faces on Facebook,  and then shoot themselves in the head two days later.

"He is where he belongs," Karen wrote on Facebook, "it's sad that he stooped that low and murdered innocent people. But justice is served." In general, justice is defined as a legal or philosophical system by which fairness is administered equitably. Justice involves fair play, fair-mindedness, impartiality, even-handedness.

Did Stephens "stoop so low" or was he another broken human being, in a country where nobody seems to care? There are so many. Karen seems to know, I can't say that I do.

I understand Karen's feelings, but I can't find justice anywhere in this story, only madness and cruelty and a culture adrift.

A Wreck Of A Life

I have been stressed all of my life, it never occurred to me to murder someone for no reason and broadcast it live. The idea that stress turns us into psychotic killers is a grave injustice to stress and the millions and millions of people who feel it every day.

I seek to understand mercy and incorporate it into my consciousness. It is hard. Not always possible initially, I concede. Revenge and anger are a reflex, mercy is not.

But the more I thought about it this week, the more empathy – and mercy – I felt for Mr. Stephens. What a wreck of a life, in a sense, he was murdered as well, and by himself. And perhaps by governments and people who don't care about people like him. The story made no sense to me until I saw him as a victim as well. Then it fell into place.

Lamott is right, mercy is a powerful gift to those who can feel it.

"I can't feel any mercy for him after what he did," posted Nancy, "he murdered someone in cold blood." So is this, I answered, the standard for mercy: We only feel it for people who are good that we like, never for those we hate and fear? That is not the message of the Merciful God, who whom so many of us pray.

"I'm not sure I even recognize the ever presence of mercy anymore," wrote Lamott,  "the divine and the human: the messy, crippled, devastating presence of mercy. But I have come to believe that I am starving to death for it, and my world is, too."

Really? If we are starving for it, why has it vanished from our media, popular culture, political system and social media? If so may people are so hungry for it, why don't they feel it? Why does it appear so rarely? Why does a gifted author have to write a book pleading for it to re-emerge?

Why are so many sick and tortured people in jail, or sleeping on sewer grates, and not in hospitals or treatment centers?

"Mercy is radical kindness," writes Lamott. "Mercy means offering or being offered aid in desperate straits. Mercy is not deserved. It involves absolving the un-absolvable, forgiving the unforgiveable." Mercy, put another way, means forgiving Steve Stephens.

For anyone who is serious about exploring the boundaries and realities of mercy, I would suggest  reading both books and reading them soon,  one after the other. If you only have the time or money for one, read Ron Power's unforgettable story and plea for genuine mercy.

No one cares about crazy people.

"No one cares about crazy people" is one of those perfect,  awful storms of life coming together in a book. A gifted writer face to face with a horrific tragedy set against a profound injustice – the way in which society has long abandoned the mentally, persecuted them, left them on the streets or in jails, punished them for their illness and hated them for being so sick.

The book is a memoir of a family's struggle to cope with schizophrenia, a disease that afflicted their beautiful and gifted sons in adolescence, took one of them from them and altered the live of the other. Truthfully, it altered the lives of everyone. Powers explores at length the roots and mystery of schizophrenia, a devastating illness doctors and scientists are just beginning to understand.

But the heart of his book is the awful disease that engulfed his two sons and their family. That's the part that will get into your stomach and turn it upside down. Your heart too.

Our country, like other countries, has never really wanted to come to grips with schizophrenia, even though it is often on the news in the most brutal and unthinking of ways.

Untreated, it causes paranoia, disorientation, delusion and sometimes violence. You can see it on the news every day.

Many of the ugliest encounters police have had on those dreadful videos have been with schizophrenics. These are too often people who need to be under intense medical care, not sleeping in the street or gunned down by officers ill-equipped to understand or handle them, they are often hated and feared by a feckless public that wants nothing to do with them.

Was Steve Stepens mentally ill?

Consider the testimony of one of his closest friends, a mental health worker. Are you surprised to learn that he worked with disturbed and disadvantaged youth as a counselor for more than a decade, helping them to get help and find work? I was surprised to find this story in the Cleveland Times.

It didn't seem to show up in the stories I read about him. Oddly, it wasn't until I read the Powers book that I saw how completely the symptoms of schizophrenia fit this man who some people thought was simply evil, or "stressed."

Social workers believe that the great majority of America's homeless are mentally ill.

Punishing The Sick

When the federal government decided to end the asylum system in the 1960's, writes Powers, the plan was to fund a national network of mental health centers. The project was never funded, and hundreds of thousands of sick people were eventually released out into the world with no place to live and little or no help for their illnesses. Caring for the poor or the ill seems out of fashion politically, no national political leader even talks about it.

We most often see these people on social media or news videos, in confrontations with the police or harming themselves or others.

The mentally ill, once housed in cruel and oppressive asylums, now often end up in cruel and oppressive prisons. We still blame them for being sick. "No one cares about crazy people" is one of those rare books that will make you see the world differently, it is so honest, thorough, credible and painful to read. It is also beautifully written. There is perhaps no more poignant poetry than the cries of a shattered parent.

Reading this book this week, I recognized Steve Stephens again and again, it was at times as if he emerged from one of the chapters. The dysfunctional life, the delusions, the youthful acts of cruelty and hospitality, the demons in his head, the dementia – if I kill you in cold blood,  and for all the world to see, my girl friend will feel badly, and perhaps come back to me.

I ought to state that I have suffered from mental illness – not schizophrenia, blessedly –  for much of my life, and only recently have found my path to recovery. Ron Powers is a brave and loving prophet, he speaks nothing but the truth, and it is hard to absorb this story on many levels: as a parent, as a son, as a father, as a  citizen and as a human being.

How could any feeling person conclude that Steve Stephens was a rational or healthy human being, and cheer for his death and call it just?

Awful things happen when no one cares about crazy people. When voices appear in people's heads, children die in their classrooms, people are murdered on the streets and in their offices, families are forever broken.

Lamott calls upon us to absolve the unsolvable. Powers and his children call upon us to be merciful and humane to the sick. They need help, not jail, they need medicine, not a bullet or a beating, they need understanding, not the righteous howling of the mob calling at every turn for blood, more blood.

Pure Speculation. Just Stress.

There is no justice or mercy in the persecution of the sick, mercy is forgiving the unforgivable. On Facebook,  Bethany said it was just theory that Stephens was ill: "I believe it's purely speculative that Steve was mentally disturbed prior to the event. It seems to me that he likely just snapped."

Pure speculation. Just stress.

So yes, that is where I have landed, and as Lamott and Powers both know, there is no easy way through this, no safe and crystal-clear place to land. I do feel mercy for both of the men in this story, and I will take Powers message to heart, if we are judged by the way we treat our animals, how will be judged and measured by the way we treat the sick and the voiceless?

We are humans, all of us are flawed, anyone of us could have been walking in Robert Godwin's shoes that night or holding Steve Stephens gun and looking to get someone's attention, someone to answer the demons screaming in our heads.


I do feel mercy.

To me, the evocation of evil is not a possible or fair judgment for a broken mind. Shame on all us for turning the mentally ill into monsters. There is no justice in the death or killing of innocent people, no matter how they die. Lamott says mercy is our only salvation. I don't have a better idea than that.

This issue of mercy is not an argument for me, and I am not telling anybody else what to do or feel.  Some things just have to be felt, not argued.

All I can hope for when my turn comes to be face to face with the true nature of life,is  that there is someone on the other side, someone waiting and willing to show me some mercy.

Mercy for me, mercy for you.

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