If you’ve read the comments on my blog, you might know Dyane Leshin-Harwood. She’s bipolar, like I am, and has written this song. Watch and enjoy. (Don’t worry; I have plenty to say afterward.)
These lines stood out to me:
Don’t call me bipolar ’cause it’s not my name
Can’t you see I’m a person, there is no shame
Often, I see people who allow something to define them. It may be a mental illness or a physical disability. It may be the secret shame of something they did in the past. It may be something that someone else did to them. Whatever it is, it dogs their footsteps, nipping at their heels, biting, snarling, threatening, until it overtakes that person’s life. In their mind, they have become that Thing and only that Thing.
Yet no one is defined this way.
As usual, I was reminded of a book. (Shocking!) In this case, two books.
One’s the children’s classic The Secret Garden. If you’ve read the book, you remember Colin Craven, the sickly son of the owner of the garden. The owner is a hunchback, and his is convinced his son will become a hunchback, too.
So Colin has grown up into a ten-year-old boy who lies in bed all day, every day, and gets whatever he wants, and orders everyone to do whatever he wishes, all the while convinced that he is getting a lump in his back. He searches for this lump every night. It is all that he thinks about. A lump means the beginnings of a hunched back, and a hunched back—well, Colin thinks he might as well die.
His cousin Mary sets him straight:
‘You didn’t feel a lump!’ contradicted Mary fiercely. (. . .) ‘Turn over and let me look at it!’ (. . . ) ‘There’s not a single lump there!’ she said at last. . . . ‘If you ever say there is again, I shall laugh!’
No one but Colin himself knew what effect those crossly spoken childish words had on him. If he (…) had not lain on his back in the huge closed house, breathing an atmosphere heavy with the fears of people who were most of them ignorant and tired of him, he would have found out that most of his fright and illness was created by himself.
Colin’s secret fear has defined him. In his mind, he is going to be a hunchback, and that is all that matters. He won’t try to venture beyond his bed because other people might stare at him for his hunched back, of course—a non-existent hunched back. He is sick, but it only defines him because he allows it to define him.
The second book I remembered was A Lesson Before Dying by Ernest J. Gaines. After Jefferson, a young African-American man, is wrongly convicted of murder (by an all-white jury) and sentenced to death, all he can focus on is one thing: in his closing argument to the court, his defense attorney calls him a hog. He couldn’t be guilty of murder, the attorney tells the jury, because he’s dumb; all they had to do was look at his face and see this for themselves. “Why, I would just as soon put a hog in the electric chair as this.” The whites, even the one defending Jefferson, believe a lie, one that stigmatizes others based on their skin color.
Jefferson focuses on that one word: hog. If he looks like a hog, he might as well be a hog, he reasons. So he behaves like one. “‘I’m a old hog they fattening up to kill,’” he tells his visitor, the local teacher Grant Wiggins.
His grandmother asks Grant to help the doomed man. “ ‘I don’t want them to kill no hog,’ she said. ‘I want a man to go to that chair, on his own two feet.’”
There’s no question of a last-minute reprieve. This is 1940s Louisiana; the verdict is never in doubt. Grant can do nothing to save Jefferson from the electric chair. He can only help him see his true worth and learn a few lessons himself. He tells Jefferson that he and the black community need him to do one thing: disprove the myth of white supremacy by dying like a man.
Later, the white prison guard, Paul, comes to tell Grant about the execution.
‘He was the strongest man in that crowded room, Grant Wiggins,’ Paul said, staring at me and speaking louder than was necessary. ‘He was, he was. I’m not saying this to make you feel good, I’m not saying this to ease your pain. (. . .) When Vincent asked him if he had any last words, he looked at the preacher and said, “Tell Nannan I walked.” And straight he walked, Grant Wiggins. Straight he walked. I’m a witness. Straight he walked.’
Jefferson wasn’t the only one who learned a lesson. The lesson of the worth of a person, regardless of skin color or station in life, has broken down the barrier of prejudice.
- Jefferson was no longer just a “black” to Paul.
- Paul is no longer just “one of them” to Grant.
- Grant is no longer just a “black” to Paul, but someone he wants for a friend.
There are huge differences in these three scenarios, of course. Dyane and I do have an illness, unlike Colin, who is mostly ill from his fear of being ill. And Jefferson never has been a hog, no matter what his defense attorney says.
But we all need that reminder that our true worth doesn’t lie where society says it does. Humans are so much more than one word, a diagnosis, a lie from the mouth of a so-called defender.
We are beautiful, complicated beings, made in God’s image. That’s what I believe. But even if you don’t believe in God, at least believe this truth:
We are more precious than words can express.
Two random notes:
Note #1: If you haven’t read A Lesson Before Dying, you must. It’s labelled on Amazon as “women’s fiction” (probably because it was in Oprah’s book club) but it’s not a book just for women. Powerful read.
Note #2: Dyane has written a memoir about her postpartum bipolar experience that will (we hope) be published in fall 2016. Stay tuned.