Loving Better: Cancelling Stigmas
Loving Better: Cancelling Stigmas

Loving Better: Cancelling Stigmas

Reconsidering who is or isn’t loveable as a part of personal, spiritual, and social growth.



For those not already in the loop, our family has nine cats. You heard/read that correctly, nine. All of them are rescues and most days we wouldn’t trade any of them. They all have unique personality quirks that endear them to our family and they bring a lot of joy and comfort along with the dander and shed fur all over our clothes. 

Most days, they all get along beautifully. They have their tribes and their play partners based largely on age and size. They all sleep somewhere close to 22 hours a day, and they make sure playtime is coordinated so that they’re not all running through the house at exactly the same time. Still, there are moments when a couple of them don’t get along and one of those moments happened last Sunday morning. It was still dark so I didn’t get a chance to see who it was. I heard a hiss, and the next thing I knew there was a large cat stampeding across my face in panic. 

Immediately, I felt blood in two places, my left cheek and the corner of my right eye. My eye! Now I was the one panicking! I ran to the bathroom to see how bad the damage was. The reality was that the scratches were superficial, but if you’ve ever sustained any kind of eye injury you know it doesn’t take much for your eyelid and the skin around your eye to change color, making it look as though you’ve walked into the wrong side of a right hook. The injury may be insignificant, but the stigma that comes with an altered appearance isn’t, and since we’re all masked up for the moment, eyes are the only part of us anyone notices. If our eyes are messed up, people are going to question how bad the rest of our bodies might look! I can’t leave the house in a mask looking like this!

Adding to the admittedly humorous-sounding event is an experience from a little over seven years ago when I had my first cataract surgery. As I was lying on the table wearing nothing but a surgical gown, waiting for the local anesthesia to kick in, one of the attending nurses noticed some bruising on my arms and legs. I knew the bruises came from my lifetime curse of being one of the most clumsy people on the planet, but she didn’t know that. With all concern and seriousness, she leans over and quietly asked, “Are you safe at home?” 

Ever since then, any time one of us has a clumsy moment that results in bruising, we tell the other, “I’m not safe at home!” and last week’s cat mauling definitely falls into that “cat”-egory. [Go ahead and moan at the pun. I’m a Dad. I’m used to it.] In this case, the nurse was showing legitimate concern about my health, but there have been other times people have looked at me and let certain stigmas take control. 

When I had really long hair was probably the most obvious. Dressed in black, especially in the winter, the whole look resulted in a stigma that kept a lot of people away. Being a photographer who shoots art nudes carries a stigma with it that we may not be trustworthy. And I’ve written before about the stigma my current relationship has caused. 

Everyone I’ve ever met is subject to stigmas of different kinds and the response is universal: they suck. So, why do we tolerate them?

***

Stigmas have been around almost from the beginning of humanity. Abrahamic traditions tell the story of Cain murdering his brother Abel and one of the punishments for Cain’s crime is that he is given an undescribed mark so that he will always be noticed no matter where he goes. Now, there the myth kind of falls apart because, allegedly, there aren’t any other humans yet created except maybe for his own sisters. Who was going to notice him and know the meaning of the mark is a significant plot hole in the story, but we’re going to let that go for now because what’s important is that right there, at what might best be considered the mythological beginning of Western Civilization, we have a deity creating a stigma on purpose and we’ve had them ever since.

Historically, stigmas have served a number of purposes. They defined tribes, religious beliefs, political affiliations, contagious diseases, occupations, and levels of academic achievement. At the same time, though, they’ve also facilitated a lot of hate, a variety of phobias, mountains of discrimination, and resulted in war, murder, disenfranchisement, and exclusion. They’ve included choices such as hairstyles, body modifications, and certain types of clothing, but also include matters over which no one has a choice, such as the color of their skin, their ethnic history, their gender and sexuality, and mental health status.

Stigmas are intentional biases that are set in place by a controlling portion of a limited society. Ministers set the stigmas observed by church members when they declare an action to be a sin. The popular kids in high school set the stigma of who is and isn’t cool. Media sets the stigma for what traits or behaviors are or are not acceptable to their audience. As a result, anytime one changes from one type of society to another, there are different sets of stigma that they may feel required to observe.

The study of stigmas gets rather complicated as well. There are six dimensions of stigma across three types of stigma all of which are influenced by different kinds of deviations affecting the stigma. While the stigmas may sound simple, their underlying roots can run so deep across so many different elements of a society that unraveling them completely takes years of research. And that research is subject to stigma itself based on where it was published, how much the researchers paid to have it published, and how many peer reviews agree with the findings. Even the world of science is not exempt from its stigmas.

Inevitably, stigmas affect societies in negative ways; not just the people on whom the stigma is placed but the entire society. One of the most dramatic we’re currently experiencing are the stigmas around COVID-19 and the vaccinations being rolled out. Stigmas around who is most likely to get the virus, what types of behavior might result in getting the virus, and who is responsible for spreading the virus have been present pretty much from day one. Long-standing questions about the efficacy of vaccinations of any kind have been amplified in relation to the various COVID vaccines and their being rushed through development. NONE of these stigmas help! They prevent people from taking the care they need, they prevent people from being protected, and they propel the spread of the virus at a time when we’re all done with it and wish it would go away!

We are so awash in stigma I could spend the better part of an hour sitting here trying to list the most dominant ones and still not get through them all. Stigma is something we are comfortable with because it is a way of telling ourselves that, no matter how bad things might be, at least we’re not like them. What we don’t realize is that, without exception, we are them.

***

 One of the things I find interesting is that one of the most long-standing stigmas across time is associated with the disease leprosy, a disease where bacteria attacks nerves under the skin resulting in swelling and a loss of feeling. One of the most common symptoms is skin flaking off but if left untreated it can result in paralysis and cause the body to actually retract fingers and toes. 

Almost from the moment humans learned to associate symbols with words, they’ve been writing about their fear of leprosy. It’s mentioned in both religious and secular texts. People who had it were not only barred from society in general but had to verbally warn people passing nearby that they had it. For centuries there was no known treatment and no understanding of what caused it in the first place. Some societies considered it a curse from whatever deity they worshipped. Some thought it was transferred from a mother to her child as a sign of infidelity. 

The long-standing stigma against people with leprosy is so great, that even after vaccines were developed to cure the disease, the World Health Organization officially changed the name to Hansen’s Disease, after the doctor who discovered the bacteria causing it,  in an attempt to help remove the stigma. Today, Hansen’s Disease is primarily found in Brazil, India, and Indonesia. More than half of cases are found in India among some of the world’s poorest people who have no access to healthcare. Cases are rare in the United States, less than 200 in 2018, and those were primarily limited to Arkansas, California, Florida, Hawaii, Louisiana, New York, and Texas. Still, as rare as it has become, just saying the word leprosy causes an instantaneous reaction.

One of the common scripture passages for today’s Xian liturgical readings continues Mark’s account of Jesus’ early ministry and in Chapter 1, verses 40-45, he recounts an interesting event where a person with leprosy asks to be healed. The language used is interesting, but the deed is done and in a seemingly odd turn, Jesus tells him, “Dude, see that you tell no one anything.”

Of course, the dude tells! Mosaic law required him to go to the priest and show himself clean before he could be reintroduced into society. The first question the priest is going to ask is, “How did this happen?” The now-former leper didn’t seem inclined to lie and the next thing you know, everyone knows that Jesus can heal the most stigmatized disease of the time. The effect was so bad that now Jesus had a stigma on him. He had to be snuck into town. Mark doesn’t explain why, whether it was because all the area lepers would crowd him, or because local politics created problems for him not following medical code, but not even Jesus or Muhammed or Buddha or the Dude himself has been exempt from stigma. 

As bad as Hansen’s Disease and COVID-19 and Ebola and other frightening diseases may be, it is the stigma that does the greater harm. Stigma prevents people from seeking or having access to sufficient care. Stigma prevents research from being funded. Stigma causes highly communicable diseases to spread faster. And stigma makes it difficult for doctors to gain access to remote regions of the world where new diseases often begin. 

Falling prey to stigmas may be one of the worst moral mistakes humans make and because we’ve been doing it for so long, a large part of the time we don’t realize we’re doing it.

***

We’ve been talking for a while and I’ve not mentioned love a single time, have I? What do stigmas have to do with love? The answer is that our misunderstandings of love and love’s purpose have created their own set of stigmas that prevent us from loving people the way they should be loved..

Many people, especially those raised in a Xian tradition, likely grew up being told that the Greek language has three different words for love: Philos, the love we have for family, Eros, the romantic love we share with another person, and Agape, which is most correctly translated as a universal love that is generally unqualified. I have some bad news for you: you’ve been fed some misinformation and we’re about to correct that right now.

Ancient Greek actually had six words for love. In addition to the three already mentioned, there was Ludus, which is a playful, flirtatious type of love that, in contemporary society, we often brush off as not being sincere, Pragma, a long-standing love that develops across years’-long relationships; think of the couple who’ve been married 50, 60, or 70 years;  and Philautia, which is self-love. Many Greeks, such as Aristotle, divided Philautia into two separate parts, one which leads to narcissism, and the other the kind that leads to self-improvement. Aristotle’s statement was, “All friendly feelings for others are an extension of a man’s feelings for himself.”

There are multiple stigmas around love, but the misinformation that resulted in equating Agape with a love for God or a love for others because of one’s relationship to God may be one of the worst. There is a song written in 1978 by Bill and Gloria Gaither that is built on this very stigma. Its lyrics say, “I can risk loving you, for the one who knows me best loves me most.” In other words, if I didn’t have this God thing going, I probably wouldn’t love you.

Can we see the damage in that stigma? We don’t need for our emotions to pass through someone or something else. We don’t need the permission or influence of a deity to love someone of a different color, someone who is gay or trans, someone with tattoos on their face, or someone who has chosen to be a single parent. The fact is that if the only reason we claim to love someone is that we think a deity demands it, we don’t love that person at all

Instead, perhaps we would do better to look at the love shared between the three central characters of The Big Lebowski. Sure, they fuss at each other, argue with each other, and the way Walter treats Donny reminds me of some sibling conversations I’ve heard. In the sum total of the picture, though, they love each other not for any reason other than they choose to do so. It’s not weird, it’s not odd, it just is. No stigmas, just love.

We also need to drop the concept that Agape means that we have to love everyone. Part of what is lost in translation is the exceptions that were inferred in the Greek and still apply now. You don’t have to love those whose immorality violates the humanity of others. You don’t have to love those who murder without care or remorse. You don’t have to love those who commit acts of violence in an effort to exert dominance or power. You don’t have to love those who would deny your existence or your equality or any portion of your personhood. 

For too long there has been this horrible misinformation that one should “love the sinner, hate the sin,” but that is not what Agape is. Agape is a generalized, overarching love for humanity itself, putting those who would commit acts of violence against humanity outside the bounds of its reach. No one is required to love the person who orders insurrection. No one is required to love the person who attacks a police officer with a flag or kills him with a fire extinguisher. No one is required to love the person who kills an unarmed black man. No one is required to love the person who abuses their spouse or children. 

Instead, Agape sides with the victims. Agape demands we intervene when we see people being abused, such as the Uyghurs, the Rohinga, or the children down the street. Agape demands that no lives matter unless black and indigenous lives matter.  Agape demands justice be served not only on those who carry out seditious crimes and violence against humanity, but those who ordered, planned, and perpetuated those crimes. Agape says that we are all born deserving of love,  but when you put yourself in a position of hating others, you put yourself outside the bounds of that love. No one is required to love those who hate.

It’s important to specifically mention that hate is not a stigma. A stigma is misinformation applied by an external source. Hate is a choice one makes for themselves. Stigmas can be addressed socially. Hate is something one has to address for themselves. 

***

We tend to think that the worst effects of stigmas are behind us. The wars have all been fought. The lynchings no longer happen. People in the US at least are free to live wherever they want. None of those things are actually true, of course. The brutal war in Somalia is rooted in multiple stigmas. The mistreatment of Uyghurs and Rohinga is a blatant response to stigma resulting in human rights abuses. And the effects of red-lining in the US remain responsible not only for housing discrimination but significant amounts of urban crime. The effects of stigmas are far from being behind us because we hold too tightly to them for there to be any other result.

One of the places we continue to see the worst possible effect of stigmas is in the suicide rate related to mental health. Suicide across the US, in all age groups, has increased steadily since 1999 and the rates in Canada aren’t much different. The degree to which stigmas factor into a person’s decision to attempt suicide is mindblowing, but rather than focusing on numbers and statistics, I want us to consider what we can actually do about reducing stigmas, not only as they relate to mental health, but across every area of our lives. Canada’s Center for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) lists seven things one can do to reduce stigma related to mental health and I’m co-opting that list here because the same seven steps can be applied to stigmas of every kind. Let’s take a look.

  1. Know the facts. Chances are pretty high that you have libraries worth of information available through your phone. We live in an age where the excuses for ignorance are minimal and nowhere does that ignorance show more than when we embrace stigmas based on false information. This includes vaccines, racism, mental health, and constitutional law. You alone are responsible for allowing your ignorance to continue. Know the facts.
  2. Be aware of your attitudes and behavior. Examine your own judgmental thinking, reinforced by upbringing and society. Many of us mirror the judgments of our parents, our churches, our social organizations, and even the universities we attend. Each piece of society to which we belong imposes its own stigmas and it’s not likely to voluntarily point out what those are. We have to take a look at what we’ve been taught and question the veracity of those things misaligned with what we know to be correct.
  3. Choose your words carefully. The way we speak can affect the attitudes of others. Perhaps, no one knows this more at the moment than country singer Morgan Wallen, who, after using a racial slur in a video, has been dropped by his label, eliminated from radio play and several streaming sources, and denied eligibility for any awards from the Academy of Country Music. The former president of the United States is being impeached a second time because his words helped incite the January 6 sedition riots at the US Capitol. While those cases may be extreme, they’re not inappropriate and your words, the ones coming out of your mouth and the ones you type into social media, matter just as much.
  4. Educate others. Pass on facts and positive attitudes; challenge myths and stereotypes. When you see a post on Facebook or Twitter that you know to be false, say something. Don’t be silent. When we allow false information to continue to flow into the mainstream, we become as responsible for the consequences of that false narrative as the person originating the statement. One of the reasons racism remains so strong is because white people are afraid to call out and educate their parents and other family members whose stigmas are deeply ingrained. Say something, even when it is uncomfortable. This is how we change the world.
  5. Focus on being positive. We have a number of stigmas around mistakes people made 10, 30, even 50 years ago. One of the biggest challenges a person has coming out of incarceration is the concept that simply being in jail, regardless of the reason, makes them a bad person who can’t be trusted. Look at what a person is doing with their lives now. Look at what they’re doing for themselves and their families now. Put those ridiculous stigmas away and be encouraging as people continue on with their lives.
  6. Support people. Treat everyone with dignity and respect; offer support and encouragement. Even if you don’t look at someone through the lens of a particular stigma, they may feel the pressure from other aspects of their lives. When a person comes into your sphere of influence each day, you don’t know what’s happened elsewhere. You have no idea how vulnerable they may be because of someone else’s actions. Your encouragement, your kind words, the dignity you give to everyone who crosses your path have the power to change their lives and change the world.
  7. Include everyone. It’s against the law to discriminate on any number of issues but even if there’s not a government restriction on your actions, there is a moral one, no matter what your belief system might be. There is no condition that legitimizes hate, discrimination, exclusion, or personal invalidation. Widen your circle. I know that’s not the easiest thing to do with pandemic restrictions in place, but it is possible. Reach outside your comfort zone and touch the people you’ve separated by stigmas.

While mid-February has become a time to celebrate the Eros in our lives, there’s no reason for it to be limited to that. Celebrate the Philos. Celebrate the Ludus. Really celebrate the Pragma. And yes, celebrate Philautia because you don’t need another person to feel loved. But it is Agape reminding us that our love for humanity requires putting aside the stigmas we’ve created. No one is icky. No one has cooties. We are all born worthy of love.

So now, I want to leave you with these words:

As you go on with your lives and in your dealings with others.
May you be the Love that never gives up,
    Even when the stigmas are many and opposition is severe;
May you be the Love that cares more for others than for self,
    Even when it means sacrificing our reputation for their needs;
May you be the Love that doesn’t want what it doesn’t have,
    So that with our excess we might meet the needs of others;
May you be the Love that doesn’t strut and doesn’t force itself on others,  
But is always generous to give in appropriate ways and at appropriate times.



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