Today I went to get my hair cut. I spent my lunch hour in the salon with my young and friendly hairdresser giving my locks their six weekly snip. We talked about what was going on in each other’s lives, including the very recent release of my latest book. I bought some overpriced conditioner and paid $145 for the spruce-up of my look. I walked out the door, checking my iPhone, public service lanyard swinging jauntily and wearing the lovely top I bought last year for a function at Parliament House. My hairdresser had complimented me on my pretty top. I felt good. I looked forward to my afternoon of responsible, paid work. It was a ten minute walk back to my shiny office building. I waited at the pedestrian lights and noticed an old homeless man standing just in front of me. I hate to say it but I was instantly filled with unease. He smelled a little. He looked like a prospector from gold rush, 19th Century California. What if he asked me for money? Should I give it to him? I weighed up the pros and cons or giving this man some unimportant coins from my Italian leather purse.
Yeah, I’m not painting a very sympathetic picture of myself am I? Fortunately I stopped my judgmental train of thought in the time it took the light to go green. ‘He’s you.’ I said to myself. ‘Be nice.’ Of course the man wasn’t actually me but he could well have been for my life has not always been as affluent as it is now. Twenty years ago I was a prisoner, Fifteen years ago I was living in supported housing for young people with serious mental illnss and ten years ago I was an aspirational newly published author trying to escape the drudgery and alcoholism of my public housing estate.
My reflection on my terrible judgement of the old man got me thinking about a lot of issues but mostly the fact that we do not know where our choices will take us. For me, had I chosen to spend time with the wrong friend at a critical moment in my journey, say a former prisoner or drug addict, I might have ended up in prison again and spent my life as a completely different person. I had a good friend from amongst the alcoholics of my public housing estate in the mid 2000’s . This woman had been an alcoholic for a long time. It came to be all she knew. Her path to addiction had started with losing a baby and was cemented by her husband trying to murder her and leaving her with inconsolable grief and post-traumatic stress disorder which she medicated with beer and gambling. Knowing this makes it almost impossible to judge the woman for her addiction, poverty and dependence. All my public housing neighbours had a similar sort of story to tell.
So when Jeanette the Judgmental of Canberra comes along and meets people likes the homeless man today and casts judgement on them – they are smelly, possibly dangerous, want money etc – she is not being very charitable. This fate could happen to all of us given the right circumstances. In fact I spent some time in a state of unstable accommodation and homelessness myself when I was younger. Can you imagine 41 year old me looking at 24 year old me and crossing the street because the younger me looked dangerous and smelled and had holes in her clothes?
When you extend this out, as an Autistic woman with a mental illness I share a lot with many others with similar diagnostic ‘labels’. Some of these people have had almost identical things happen in their life to me but they have reacted differently. The qualities I have which make my unlikely life possible are unique to me, as anyone’s qualities are unique to them. For example I have a mental illness which includes an affect (mood) component. I can be very depressed. However I also have an absurd amount of motivation. So when I am depressed, peripheral things like cooking healthy meals and tidying my house fall by the wayside but I channel the remaining motivation into being able to go to work and do a good job. For many people with depression, there is precious little motivation at all when they are depressed and their meals wouldn’t be healthy, their house would be a mess AND they might not be able to consistently attend or perform well at work and therefore lose their job.
One of the reasons I hate myself a bit when I am uncharitable to others who have apparently not made such an outwardly ‘successful’ life as me is that I am making assumptions about them without knowing their circumstances. I know that is a terrible. thing to do, for all our personal qualities plus the experiences we have shape our life and often there is a very fine margin between a good and a poor outcome.
There is one very dangerous thought that pops into my mind sometimes and that is ‘if I could do it, why can’t you?’ This is the worst thing for me to think. It is not compassionate, or understanding or even accurate. No two people are alike. Of course I want a world where people on the Autism spectrum and those with mental illness have a positive life, a meaningful job, fulfilment, stable accommodation, enjoyment in life and so forth. But if those things don’t happen we can’t blame the individual for not achieving their potential. We have to support people to achieve their goals and aspirations. If they don’t, blaming them for it is unhelpful. It is better to understand a person and work with them to succeed rather than being guided by the narrow lens of our own experience.
And I know that all our lives are fragile and precarious and we constantly need to support ourselves and others. We don’t know what might happen tomorrow, next week or next year.
So I treasure what I have and when I see myself sitting in judgement, impressive in wig and robes, gavel ready to condemn another human, I just utter the age old refrain to myself ‘There but for the grace of God go I’ and try to be nice and understanding instead,