Sunday, August 25, 2013

Talking someone out of the big bad

Antoinette Tuff talked a gunman out of killing police officers and getting killed himself. She did it with calm, with carefully-chosen words, and with sincerity. In interviews, she has said she meant it when she told the gunman she loved him. She's also credited her words to two things: the training she's received from her church regarding how to counsel people in distress, and God.

I celebrate this woman's abilities in that horrific situation. I wish she gave herself more credit - I wish she didn't believe that a magical, invisible friend took over her body in that moment, because, for people that may be trying to believe in that but have doubts about their faith, they will very probably find themselves despondent when such a moment comes and magical invisible friend is no where to be found - and that happens far, far more than believers will admit, because it just doesn't make for a compelling TV interview.

Interesting to note that Ms. Tuff did NOT use references to God or spirituality in that moment of crisis - she did not say, "You're in God's hands and he will make it better for you", for instance. And it's a good thing she didn't, because such statements can actually further inflame someone emotionally. Such references could very well have lead to tragedy.

If you are interested in learning skills to be able to deal with immediately stressful, even dangerous situations when someone is experiencing a mental health crisis - the person is in a moment of despondency, and may hurt him or herself or others - there's a Mental Health First Aid course you should check out. It's a 12-hour certification course that takes two days to complete, and the certification lasts two years. It's available in the USA, in Australia (where it was developed originally) and some other countries. It won't teach you to cure mental illness. It will teach you to deal with a crisis situation where a person is having an emotional breakdown, to help them get to a place emotionally where they will be willing to accept appropriate assistance, and it will give you the information you need to direct them to that immediate assistance. My Mental Health First Aid training was very much on my mind as I listened to Antoinette Tuff. I listened to her put into practice so many of the practices suggested in that training.

Compassion and empathy are not the unique, proprietary domain of people that believe in a god or gods. Also, some people tap into such feelings easily; others must work to cultivate those feelings, particularly in times when another person angers, humiliates or threatens them.

All of this has made me think about a scenario I've played a few times in my mind: of getting kidnapped while doing work in a developing country. Could I make statements, with sincerity, or with the most convincing performance that I was sincere, to someone intent on doing me harm? Could I humanize myself to a person intent on doing me harm? I know I wasn't able to do it when I faced a situation where someone was trying to kill me - he's now on death row, having killed someone else. I survived because I ran. And, no, I still don't think about that person with kind thoughts.

Still, I work to cultivate my compassion and empathy. I look for opportunities to be kind because I know that, most of the time, the immediate result is something positive: a smile, another person's gratitude, a good feeling for myself, etc. It's much harder to generate those emotions when those immediate results are no where to be found, when opening yourself up to doing something nice opens you up to an insult or being taken advantage of. It's hard to show compassion or empathy when someone is being a jerk - or a threat. I won't even suggest that, when the neighbor's teen son wakes me up at midnight with loud music that I'm feeling any compassion or empathy AT ALL. And even if I rehearse a scene in my head where I smile and ask, I often still end up with the Look of Death and make a demand. And then I feel awful and can't get to sleep because I'm tee'd off.

But I keep trying. It's easy to recognize the differences between myself and someone else, and often much harder to recognize what I have in common with someone who believes I should have less legal rights because I'm a woman rather than a man, or because I'm not a member of that person's religion, or believes it's okay to rape children or kill animals for fun. It's been impossible at times to force myself to think about someone who wants to kill me seeking happiness in his/her life. I know that every person has known sadness, loneliness and despair - but I also know that there are people that delight in the pain and suffering of another human being. The only way I can tap into any feeling of compassion for a person bent on hurting others is to think of them as severely mentally ill and, because of that severe illness, incapable of knowing happiness. Because I do believe that happiness is out of the reach of a person that delights in hurting others. Triumph, conquest, domination - these can feel good, no question, and I enjoy such at times myself, particularly during Scrabble. But I really don't believe they are, alone, a path to happiness.

That's how I work on cultivating compassion and empathy. How about you?

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