The Arsonist Among Us

“Be kind, for everyone is fighting a hard battle.”

That quote used to be my email signature. But I changed it, because I didn’t want my husband’s friends – a bunch of hilarious, brilliant, ironic and bitingly clever people – to think I’d gone all zen mama hippie.

I changed my email signature to simply my name and phone number, otherwise known as the professional mask. But I change back to the cool mask when I am with that group of friends: funny and sharp as a whip. At work I have on the caring, interested, loving but firm mask of the Early Childhood Professional.

But I still believe in that quote and I do try to think of it when I’m out in the world, because I really have no idea what’s going on in other people’s lives.

A young man has been charged with a string of arsons in our area. He had masks and clearly they were effective. People all around him – neighbors, co-workers, acquaintances, friends – are stunned at his arrest. But isn’t it always the way when we discover some horror lurking in our suburban lives? “You never woulda thunk” applied to the rapist, the child molester, the abuser, the embezzler, the arsonist.

Having had a passing acquaintance with the darker side of humans, I can’t say I was surprised to find out the terrorist was “one of us.” That made far more sense than the wild speculations that floated in the days after the fires (roaming gangs, a crazy person stopping off the interstate). But those rumors are easier to believe than the fact that it could be the kid down the street. Our neighbors aren’t sick.

We think, how did we fail him? What went wrong in his childhood? What was the turning point? But it’s not just childhood when we need help. It’s at every stage of our lives. I need help today – a 39-year-old, relatively healthy and successful mother and businesswoman, who feels like a complete screw-up and failure at least once a day.

Immigrants from some cultures have trouble assimilating to American niceties and actually have to be taught our rituals. Where they come from, when someone asks how you’re doing, you tell them. Americans have our own dialogue: “How are you?” “Fine, how are you?” “Fine.” Move on.

The immigrant may wonder, why don’t you want to know how I really am? You asked!? The American says, I don’t have the time to hear it. I don’t really want to hear it. I got my own problems.

We kill ourselves by denying ourselves. Alcoholism, drug addiction, anxiety, depression, obesity, anorexia. We would rather devour ourselves than admit that maybe we just feel really messed up today, and it would really help to talk to someone. If it isn’t mom and apple pie, we don’t want to know.

We need help. We need more help than we get. One way this can be addressed would of course be if mental health consulting and intervention were included in health care plans. And another way would be to remember that simple quote, and just treat each other a little more nicely.

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