I was talking to someone yesterday about religion and my mental illness came up. I could go in depth about how being very unspiritual (e.g. my book is about living without purpose or meaning) has also helped me parse out reality from non reality, but that’s a different post. But what came up that caught my ear is the standard reply that I’ve heard after telling someone that I’m bipolar, it’s “I’m sorry”.
In general, I don’t like this reply for really any circumstance. The only time that I really think that it’s an appropriate reply is when someone has a short term disease and it just knocks the person out for a few days. For instance, when my psychologist told me that he had to cancel my appointment a week or so back because of viral meningitis, the appropriate response is “I’m sorry to hear that”. It’s a way of expressing condolences and while there are follow up questions that one can ask, it suffices in acknowledging that something major but temporary happened. Also, having a cold or in this case a major disease, one isn’t sharing a piece of deeply private information. They are not existential moments that radically change one’s life.
But when sharing something more important and life defining, “I’m sorry” just doesn’t cut it. I don’t look down or fault people for saying it, I just think that it’s a weak response. My favorite responses are ones that engage in a way that leaves the answer open. Questions like “How did you feel about that?” or “How are you holding up?” or if you’re interested in what they have to say, “Would you like to talk about it?”. These questions engage, leave the answers open, and makes the person feel a little more welcome.
There’s another reason for why I don’t like “I’m sorry”, which is that it expresses a degree of pity. It doesn’t always express pity, sometimes it’s a heartfelt empathy that’s being expressed. But that’s why I bought up the other questions, they convey empathy and interest. Empathy is important to me because it establishes an equality between two people as well as an attempt to understand. Pity is a two tiered structure that repulses me. It’s set up between one person who has something or is in a privileged position and someone who is not so privileged. The privileged person pities the one who is not privileged. It also cuts off the flow of information between the two people. Pity says all that needs to be said, while empathy leaves the door wide open for a conversation and growth.
I might be reading too much into pity and “I’m sorry”, but it’s that structure between the person pitying and the pitied that irks me. Instead, I’m a fan of empathy. The idea of understanding and comprehending. And that’s a difficult thing to do and to have. Empathy comes from experience and knowledge, both of which require a lot of work and exposure. Experiences don’t come from watching reality TV, it comes from living life and making mistakes. And in the oft circumstances that one cannot be genuinely empathetic (and that’s common in my opinion, even for myself), one can try to learn more and become empathetic. And in that sense, one can grow through others’ experiences.