I recently put out feelers to people whom I lost touch with when I became ill and moved to another state. My circumstances are different now, and I’ve been wrestling with that dreaded phenomenon of fairweather friends. I can periodically muster up the courage to contact someone, although the rejection I encounter when I tell them I’m no longer working and have been struggling with depression is still very hard to bear.
I was discussing this with my old friend Drew, who's remained quite sympathetic to my plight. He reminded me that many people can't deal with someone else's bad news or downturn, that it brings up unconscious fears that somehow the same thing could happen to them.
I countered with the fact that mental disease and bad legal advice are not contagious. He ended our conversation by suggesting that I engage others in the discussion, but not to challenge them. I remember hanging up the phone and asking myself, “What was that all about?" What’s the difference? What was he trying to say?
Drew had no idea how much effort I would expend trying to answer these questions. I hoped that by understanding the distinction between these approaches I could somehow obtain a better outcome.
Confusion set in fast when I explored the word engage. The definition was easy enough: to occupy or attract someone’s interest or attention; to participate or become involved in (Oxford English Dictionary). Webster’s uses other terms that sounded just as good — to enlist; to attract and hold; to occupy; to encounter.
The etymology is the French verb engager, from the Latin gage, which means to pledge or even to pawn. Gage itself is an archaic English verb meaning to offer something as a guarantee of good faith, and is actually related to wed and wage. All nice, positive concepts. 'Good faith,' 'involvement,' clusters of words with an undercurrent of commitment, it sounded great to me.
Perhaps engaging people in our stories of misfortune or hardship could be benign, non-threatening, maybe even effectual!
But if the listener begins to feel challenged, what’s the problem? Why would this tactic steer a discomforting conversation into automatic rejection? In this word’s origin I found clues to some very negative connotations. It comes to us, through the French verb challenger, from the Latin calumnia.
To calumniate is to make false and defamatory statements about someone or something, to slander, to cast aspersions. To be just plain old nasty and evil. Ouch! But we use it all the time; it’s another one of the top 1000 frequently used words. We urge our kids to accept and meet a challenge, it’s always a major buzz words in sports events, we refer to baldness as a “follicular challenge.”
But a challenge is also a situation that tests someone’s abilities, it's a call to prove or justify something. You're issuing a demand to be answered; there can be elements of defiance and even blame. I don’t usually see these downsides to a challenge, do you? If it's such a menacing, negative concept, then why do we bestow it on people with disabilities or incapacities?
I certainly comprehend that bad news can present a negative challenge in that it naturally evokes fear and apprehension in the recipient. That's a no-brainer. So Drew’s comment was somewhat helpful when examined at this deep level, with the caveat that engage can also mean to enter into combat with, or to join in battle. Per the OED, when you challenge someone you invite them to engage in a competition, you make demands on them.
Once again, I seemed to have come full circle playing this semantics game. However, it's just one of the paradigms I’ve constructed to put my current situation in perspective. People with mental illness are like countless other factions that have fought battles for recognition, understanding, and equality over the centuries.
We’re involved in the same struggle that women, gays, and minorities have been carrying on for years, and which was so poignantly described in Kenji Yoshino’s recent book “Covering: The Hidden Assault on Our Civil Rights.” I believe that as we follow their example and continue the dialogue, as more and more of us “come out of the closet,” we will achieve the acceptance and understanding that we deserve.
And in the meantime, we can recall the words of the activist Alice Walker for inspiration: “For in the end, freedom is a personal and lonely battle, and one faces down fears of today so that those of tomorrow might be engaged.” We can challenge ourselves if it's too threatening to others, we can call ourselves to action, as so many others have done before us.
We just have to keep knocking, whether timidly or vigorously, alone or in communion, until others open the door and let us in.