Over twenty years ago, I attended church in the DC Metro area. There was an older woman who didn’t quite fit in with the young professionals. It was the 1980s, and “yuppies” were the largest demographic of that ward.
This sister also didn’t resemble the established older couples either. Most mature people who attended regularly were well educated, well heeled, and well traveled. She was unkempt. Her conversations wandered. And she would get up from her spot in the front pew during fast and testimony in order to hand at least one person at the pulpit a tissue.
In the halls of church, some people called her “eccentric.” Less generous people called her a “crazy old lady.”
“Crazy” is a word that I hear applied in a number of ways:
“Trying to install these blinds is making me crazy!” “If Sister Waters thinks that I’m helping with the creche exhibit again, she’s crazy.” “There was a crazy person on the train, talking to himself.”
Calling someone “crazy” simplifies a complex social situation to some version of “my way of living is the norm; your way of living is wrong.”
I was talking to a sociology professor last week about the democratic debates. She noted that one of the candidates was not crazy; she was primarily mismatched to the setting. In another setting, she would be called inspirational.
The professor explained that even if a person does have a formal diagnosis of a disorder or syndrome, labeling people “crazy” is a feature of Ableism–a form of stereotyping, a form of prejudice. It’s reductive.
I had a student who was criticized about being a mechanical engineering major. He finally decided that his gregarious nature was better suited to being a business major. Quite frankly, he was bullied out of the major. There are engineers who are highly social. They often make good managers of other engineers. He wasn’t crazy. But as a matter of survival, he changed majors and relabel himself: he was just in the wrong context for his interests, aptitudes, and growing skill set. I have a t-shirt that applies to him.
“Throw me to the wolves, and I will return leading the pack.”
Failing to conform is just one use of the word “crazy.” People are sometimes labeled “crazy” when they fail to regulate their emotions or their thought processes.
Is the “crazy” person you encounter overwhelmed with external stressors such as too many responsibilities and not enough resources?
It’s stressful to shop at Walmart during a busy time of the week. I witnessed this situation about two years ago. While waiting in line for one of the eight self-service registers, I could see several shoppers ask for help from one of the employees overseeing these registers.
She was having trouble responding to people who were impatient, critical, and not following the instructions on the register. It was probably late in her shift.
She was young, in her early twenties most likely. She dyed her hair black, increased her fair skin with white foundation / powder, darkened her eyes with thick eyeliner, and added several silver facial piercings. I suspect that some of the customers were sharp with her because they focused primarily on her appearance and not on the stressors emerging in that time and place.
The cashier’s speech grew sharper. She was ready to cry. There were a dozen people in her work area—some snapping back at her, some frozen trying to decide how to respond, and some detach, perhaps imagining themselves on a tropical beach instead of in a long, tension-filled line at Walmart.
Then one woman—old enough to be the cashier’s grandmother–left her shopping basket on the floor to speak to the cashier, “You look as though you are having a really hard day. This is a demanding job. Can I give you a hug?” The young woman’s shoulders relaxed, her face softened as she accepts the hug and even returned one. She was now ready to help others in a more focused and patient manner.
Is the person being labeled as “crazy” doing something outside of their skill set?
I was at Lowe’s yesterday for the third time that day, trying not to yell or cry about the blinds I had just purchased and tried to install myself. I am not mechanical. My spatial relationships are incredibly weak. Everyone has this experience of trying to do something beyond their skill set–whether it’s public speaking, participating in a new sport, or trying to assemble something from Ikea.
And I had external stressors with work, family, and church that I’m not going to list. I also have internal stressors: personal challenges, weaknesses, and bad habits that I am also not going to list here. My other posts at Segullah gesture to my own challenges substantively enough.
I was trying not to call myself a “crazy lady.” And I was trying not to project my shortcomings onto the Lowe’s employees by calling them incompetent. In a shrill-yet-apologetic tone that was increasing in volume, I said: “I know that I am throwing off negative energy. I believe that this ill-fitting blind is the result of a communication break down, and I’m trying to be objective and cooperative.” One cashier gave me a comforting pat on the back.
Is the “crazy” person living with a diagnosis such as anxiety, depression, borderline personality disorder, or bipolar disorder?
When someone has a physical disability that is very public, there is some social pressure (and laws) to encourage us to accommodate: o hold a door open for someone in a wheelchair or to approve building designs for ramps and elevators. If I had a physical disability, maybe I would be reporting, “No, people don’t get it. It’s still not enough.” But people with invisible disabilities (whose clinical symptoms can be misread by others as selfish or antisocial) benefit from accommodations, too.
I can do better. When someone acts in a way that isn’t appropriate to the setting, I should help them rather than hinder them.
“Be kind for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle” Ian MacLaren
One of my childhood friends later became a single mom of two busy boys. She was also going to college while working as a waitress. On top of that demanding situation, she lives with a diagnosis of manic-depressive disorder. Understandably, she had trouble from time to time managing her emotions or focusing her thoughts and behavior. It just made her life harder when people threw a label on her, criticized her, or ignored her. Nevertheless, she muscled through.
Now that she’s a grandmother with an empty nest, she has more resources and a wealth of personal experience. She often speaks at firesides at the invitation of her stake president. She uses her gift of public speaking, her years as a high school educator, and her own experience meeting challenges (and at times failing to met them) to raise awareness on how people support others who have bipolar disorder–or anxiety, depression, etc. She explains how she’s learned to seek several avenues of support: seeing a licensed medical professionals who can provide 1) medication and 2) talk therapy, 3) cultivating positive family relationships, 4) maintaining good physical health (nutrition, sleep hygiene, exercise), and 5) maintaining a relationship with the divine.
Is understanding and compassion the stopping point when responding to people who are statistical outliers (odd, unusual, erratic)?
Of late, I’m making an overt effort to do more than drop the term “crazy” from my vocabulary. I’m also trying to go beyond offering compassion (which verges on pitying people) or even putting people on the inspirational pedestal (which places unrealistic expectations on them). I’m seeking to embracing the gifts of those who don’t conform so that we meet as equals. Everyone has something to contribute. And I always benefit when I embrace their gifts. Always.
Currently, the screensaver on my phone is this quote below by Jacob Nordby. He is an advocate for artists (in the broadest sense). But I apply his quote even more broadly to anyone who is labeled as nonconforming for any number of reasons:
“Blessed are the weird people: poets, misfits, writers, mystics, painters, troubadours, for they teach us to see the world through different eyes.” Jacob Nordby
Remember the older woman from DC, the woman who offered tissues to those bearing their testimonies? I was still attending that ward when she passed, so I was able to attend her funeral. One of the ward members spoke tenderly of this sister and explained how she used her limited resources–like the widow with her mite–to lift and support others. He was earnest in how he narrated her value as a member of the ward.
It’s been too long for me to remember the scriptures he used. Nevertheless, I keep thinking of this sister when I read Paul’s sermon on The Body of Christ. Perhaps the eulogy included a verse or two from 1 Corinthians 12. Let me close with just two verses, taken from a very rich context:
“And those members of the body, which we think to be less honourable, upon those we bestow more abundant honour. . . .That there should be no schism in the body; but that the members should have the same care one for another” (1 Cor 12:23, 25).