You “just want attention,” Part 1

I’m worried we’ve created a culture where attention-getting behaviors

lonely-boyare seen as immature and are thus to be ignored, or even diagnosed as illnesses where “tacit ignoring” is prescribed as a “behavioral management strategy.”  Whenever someone is acting out, the response “oh, they just want attention” is supposed to give permission to others not to give it.  I’m not a doctor nor do I have training in the field of psychology so I’m not qualified to say that there is never e a time and a place for such distasteful action.  But a brand of such “behavior management” has leaked into mainstream relationships and is now accepted in commonplace interactions.  In my experience, one of the most common places this phrase is used, horrifyingly, is in the context of discussions of self harm and suicide.  First, about suicide: here are some resources and here are some warning signs.  Please take this seriously, folks.  Especially as a teenager, I remember people labeling those who mentioned wanting to hurt themselves as “being dramatic” or “just trying to get attention.”  The expected response was to ignore this “annoying” behavior and carry on with normal life.

For two reasons, this has always confused me.  First, when it comes to the arena of self harm, “just wanting attention” is one of the most hurtful assumptions a person can make.  If more people are now dying by suicide than they are in car accidents – and they are, according to an article in the New York Times published about a year ago – it seems to me that we shouldn’t be taking our chances that a person who talks of harming themselves is “just doing it for attention.”  Of course, the causes of suicide are complex, but shutting down the conversation with any form of “you just want attention” contributes to the stigma surrounding it.

Second, even if it were true that someone “just wants attention,” what of it?  What is so bothersome about a person needing to know they are seen, that their existence is noticed?  How is wanting or needing attention somehow shameful?  If you think back on your life, I would imagine there are times when you’ve really wanted attention, even as an adult, and you probably want it currently, at least from the people you love and who love you.  Who actually wants to be ignored by those close to them?  That we’ve created a society where actions performed purely for the sake of getting attention are looked down upon shows just how far we’ve come from knowing who we truly are to ourselves and to and for each other.

This culture is addicted to individualism and it’s fraying our ability to be healthy.  I’m finding this idea that “it only matters if *you* like yourself” everywhere.  While I agree that it’s important to be true to yourself, the underlying message generally attached to this is “it doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks.”  And that is a slippery slope to endorsing the lone-wolf mentality that damages so many people.  (Remember the statistics on loneliness I’ve previously discussed?)  As Brene Brown said recently on a live chat with Christ Jarvis: “If you are tied to what people think of you, you lose the courage to be vulnerable.  But if you don’t care what anybody thinks of you, you lose the ability for connection.”  It is important to be yourself and also, it does matter what other people think of you: we were created for community.  We all need love, care and, yes, attention.  The lack of these things, I contend, might be one reason self harm, suicide and depression are on the rise.

From my viewpoint, Christians have generally not had a helpful response to suicide, self harm or the possibly related issues of depression and mental illness.  Just a quick Google search for “Christians on suicide” brought up a slew of articles that all attached “sin” to the word suicide.  I didn’t have to run the search, though, to know G.K. Chesterton’s thoughts – I’ve heard these harsh and judgmental words before.

Not only is suicide a sin, it is the sin. It is the ultimate and absolute evil, the refusal                      to take an interest in existence; the refusal to take the oath of loyalty to life. The                          man who kills a man, kills a man. The man who kills himself, kills all men; as far as                      he is concerned, he wipes out the world. His act is worse (symbolically considered)                    than any rape or dynamite outrage. For it destroys all buildings: it insults all                                  women…

It actually goes on like that, believe it or not.  And so the stereotype is perpetuated, so the stigma deepens, so safety is barred and suicide continues.

A popular Christian response to depression is to read the Bible and pray more, and that if you are not joyful all the time, you’re lacking faith, perhaps not even a real Christian.  We blow off people who claim to be “depressed,” in part because that word has been thrown around so much.  Depression is not “sadness.”  Depression is not just being upset, sad or empty when things go wrong, depression is, among other things being upset, sad or empty when things go right.  It is a life-threatening condition in which one cannot by sheer force of will turn darkness into joy.  It sometimes takes more than spiritual warfare and “declaring the truth” to overcome.  Most importantly, it is not a choice.  It is not the result of a faith deficit.  And it is not easy for the person who suffers from it.  Sometimes, given the constant flood of infuriatingly bad news, it seems to me like an appropriate response.  And it deserves attention.

Of course, it would be unfair and harsh of me to paint all Christians in this light.  An article by Tony Campollo, with the exception of the ending, is more along the lines of what the church needs to hear.  To his last few paragraphs, I want to quote Thomas Merton, a Trappist Monk (among other things) until his death in the late 60s and a story Parker J. Palmer relays in his book, Let your Life Speak.  When asked what Christians should do when they are sick, Merton said, “Pray and take their medicine.”  When Palmer was deep into a major depressive episode (of which he suffered three in his life), he tells the story of a friend who came by his house faithfully every day.  This friend did not say much, but he would rub his feet, and sometimes remark, “I sense you’re in deep pain today,” which Palmer said healed his soul.  His friend waved no magic wand, nor did his friend even really outwardly pray for him all that much.  It was the touch, the words, the attention.  We are not called to fix our sisters and brothers.  Nor are we called to self protection and self comfort.  We are called to pay attention.  To potential signs of depression or mentions of self harm.  To those who are suffering.  And for love’s sake, to those around you, even if they are “just” asking for it.

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