The Scarlet Letter was once on the required reading list of many high schools here in America. It’s a simple yet complicated tale of a woman, Hester, who commits adultery, has a child as a result of the affair and is required to wear a scarlet letter A as punishment for her adulterous acts. The Scarlet Letter has become a reference for shame and social stigmatization. In today’s society we “wear” our shame in various ways, addiction, promiscuity, stuffing our feelings, abusive or unhealthy relationships, etc.
The social stigma of conditions have consequences far deeper than one can imagine; we often do not suffer consequences alone because we live as social creatures. Meaning, others will feel the effects of our consequences. If I rob a bank and get sentenced to prison, while it is true I will be serving my time alone physically, my family members began to bear the burden of my crime through visitations, accepting phone calls, feeling the sadness of separation, unsolicited opinions of others, and endless nights of questioning my motivation to commit a crime.
While facilitating group psychotherapy for those with serious mental illnesses they reflected their thoughts and feelings about being stigmatized by the greater community. Knowledgeable of the stigma that surrounds mental illness I was not surprised at the emotional recollections of their experiences; it was completely heartbreaking to listen to stories of those that suffer from the stigma. We can sit around acting holier than thou as if we have never passed quick judgment on any person or group different than ourselves but that doesn’t take away the reality that in some shape or form we ALL have a condition or situation that we too could be stigmatized. There are so many groups to choose from, those suffering from mental illness or condition, people that have been incarcerated, addicts, homosexuals, Muslims, Christians, those with STD’s, divorcees, single people over 30, southerners, swingers, attorneys, politicians, foster children, those that come from single family homes, people with no children, etc. You name it, there’s a statistic and stigma for it!
What will it take for us to move past the labels and get to know the person? Those with mental illness, mild or severe, are people, and at the end of the day, we all have to pull our pants down to poop! Now we’re even.
As a counselor and mental health professional, my fear of the media blasting the mental illnesses of those who commit crimes will result in people who have little to no knowledge about mental health equating mental illness to violence. How can you, in your next interaction with someone not like yourself, lead with compassion instead of fear? How can you move towards learning about the complexities that make up the person instead of placing them in a labeled box and pushing them to the side? What will you do when your “condition” is no longer hidden and now YOU have become the stigma?
The Scarlet Letter allows the reader to explore the beauty of Hester. Not only was she beautiful to the eye but she was also a person of inner beauty. Reviews of the novel outline her charitable works and quiet humility. She was more than a person who committed adultery, just as we are more than our stigma.
Jesus loved an outcast so much so that he had them in his inner circle. Jesus spent intimate time with a tax collector, a rebel, and a thief! He talked with the woman at the well without judgment and broke bread with Zacchaeus, the chief tax collector. If you don’t know the backstory, Jews were not big fans of Roman tax collectors (kinda like today when we have a mini heart attack if we get a letter from the IRS). He touched the leper, kissed his betrayer, entertained the children, and loved us enough to conquer death! If Christians are Christ-like, shouldn’t we be reaching towards those stigmatized rather than turning away?