Antoinette Tuff should be everyone’s hero. Last week, she stopped Michael Brandon Hill, a violent and desperate young man, from following through on an apparent planned mass shooting in an Atlanta-area elementary school. Tuff had been trained in crisis response, but otherwise, on the surface, she was not the perfect person for this job. She’s not a law-enforcement officer, a negotiator, a social worker, or a counselor. She’s a school bookkeeper.
How did Tuff stop Hill? She did three counter-intuitive things: she went straight to God for help, she refused to surrender to fear, and she made a compassionate connection to a person she easily could have disdained.
No one knows for sure exactly what motivated 20-year-old Hill, who described himself as mentally unstable and needing medication, to go to the elementary school that day with an assault rifle and a bag of ammunition. But it was clear he was a young man in pain and despair, who had made a horrific choice to act out his own agony in violence against innocent people.
This is scary stuff. Hill is an example of the rare person who expresses mental illness in violence against others. No one can blame Tuff for being afraid. And she certainly was; she told a police dispatcher, “I’ve never been so scared in all the days of my life.” But she chose to let her legitimate fear motivate her to calm and wise action. She did not allow her less rational fears–like the fear that people with mental illness are reptilian monsters impervious to human connection–to overwhelm her sense of compassion for the young man who stood before her. Because of her faith, she decided to let something else motivate her that day.
Fear is our most common–and frequently our first–response to people with mental illness. But for most people, mental illness is not a catalyst to violence. For most people affected by mental illness, their condition makes them more vulnerable, more likely to be victims of violence themselves. Our fears usually are based not in real threats, but in our own misunderstandings. Because we don’t understand why a person’s behavior is abnormal, we feel afraid. Because we have heard a lot of stories about people with mental illness victimizing others, we feel afraid. But most of the time these fears are irrational. If we stop and think about what’s true, we can realize that unlike Tuff, we are not truly threatened; our fears are born within ourselves. We can choose to evaluate our fears and reconsider them, think differently and see symptoms of illness as what they are, rather than what Fatal Attraction and Psycho told us they are.
Along with fear, we often allow ourselves to be ruled by a temptation to dehumanize people with mental illness. We automatically dismiss them as deserving less dignity than we do, or even as subhuman. We can choose instead, as Antoinette Tuff did, to see people whose thinking is disturbed or disrupted, and respond to them with compassion and respect for their humanness, the very thing that makes them like us. For their tremendous and undefinable value as creatures lovingly made in the very image of God.
Does a more rational and compassionate response mean we simply overlook mental illness and its symptoms, pretending people don’t need treatment or special accommodation? Not any more than the needs of other people who face limitations. Do we ignore a real threat to safety? Absolutely not. We must examine our fears to see whether they are founded. If they are, we are responsible to take action to ensure safety, doing so in a way that recognizes the person God made them to be. But if our fears are not legitimate, we must push ourselves to overcome them. And whether afraid or not, we must extend kindness and compassion. All our dealings with people–regardless of their quality of mental health–must begin with basic dignity, respect, and kindness. Must acknowledge that they are people like us–more like us than we probably want to believe.
In Walter Wangerin’s Ragman and Other Cries of Faith, he shares a story of two encounters with gas-station attendants–one whom built him up and one who left him demolished. From these experiences, he shares this lesson:
“You say: ‘But how can I serve the Lord? I’m not important. What I do is so common and of little consequence. Anyone can do what I do.’
“But I say to you: ‘Every time you meet another human being you have the opportunity. It’s a chance at holiness. For you will do one of two things, then. Either you will build him up, or you will tear him down. Either you will acknowledge that he is, or you will make him sorry that he is–sorry, at least, that he is there, in front of you. You will create, or you will destroy. And the things you dignify or deny are God’s own property. They are made, each one of them, in his own image.’
“And I say to you: ‘There are no useless, minor meetings. There are no dead-end jobs. There are no pointless lives. Swallow your sorrows, forget your grievances and all the hurt your poor life has sustained. Turn your face truly to the human before you and let her, for one pure moment, shine. Think her important, and then she will suspect that she is fashioned of God.’
As Antoinette Tuff did, we must always look to God for help and guidance; only God knows the mysteries of the human brain and truly knows the people we are behind our neuroses and artifice. People are much too precious for us to handle on our own.
© 2013 Amy Simpson.