One of the best ways to lose your faith in humanity is to check social media after a notable public figure has announced a health struggle. Sure, you’re free to say just about anything (as long as it’s legal and follows the terms of service wherever it’s posted), but should you, really? You can’t find some compassion in your heart for a fellow human?
Oh, and then you get upset when someone (or a lot of someones) takes you to task for it? Ah, see, you’ve forgotten that freedom of speech (which, like all the amendments, isn’t absolute) doesn’t come with freedom from consequences, which may be just a little upbraiding if you’re lucky (loss of job, money, relationships, etc., if you’re not so lucky).
Over the past week, it’s come out that former President Jimmy Carter, 98, was entering hospice care at home after a series of hospital stays. Carter, who seemed to flounder in his one term as president but still accomplished more than most people remember, came into his own once out of office. His Carter Center has worked to advance democracy and human rights, as well as eradicate diseases and improve health around the globe, earning a Nobel Peace Prize along the way. And until recently, he and wife Rosalynn spent a great deal of time working with Habitat for Humanity, helping build homes hands-on.
Still, some people couldn’t resist the urge to poke, like America Firster Laura Loomer, who tweeted, “He’s lucky. He got to live long enough to see a Democrat in the White House who was more destructive than he was.”
To which Betty Borsalino replied: “If Jimmy Carter ever became aware of what you said, he would pray for you.”
True. In the more than 40 years since he left office, Carter has proved to be a true humanitarian and Christian, someone who makes a lot of us happy to be an American, no matter where we sit on the political spectrum.
And for Gen-Xers like me, he may be the first president we really remember. I recall the Scholastic Student Vote in 1976, and my class picking Carter, as did the majority of participants that year. And the fact that Amy had a cat (Misty Malarkey Ying Yang) helped endear the first family to me.
And then there’s the reaction to the news that U.S. Sen. John Fetterman of Pennsylvania—who had a stroke just days before the Democratic primary, which he won handily, and then defeated Mehmet Oz in the general election—was entering in-patient treatment at Walter Reed Medical Center for depression.
Having suffered from both of these—a stroke in 2015 and lifelong depression—the reactions have hit me hard.
The Bradford File tweeted, “So basically the media pretended John Fetterman didn’t have brain damage to get a Democrat elected. That really happened.”
Huh? First of all, let’s get a huge whatabout out of the way in just two words, then move on: Herschel Walker. On Fetterman, I seem to recall an awful lot of reporting on his stroke and his tough recovery (such as highlighting his problem with audio processing). Unlike Hillary Clinton in 2016 when she got pneumonia, Jim Saksa wrote in Roll Call in October, Fetterman didn’t hide his health problem, and Pennsylvania voters polled by Franklin and Marshall College didn’t consider it a concern (only 13 percent were unaware he’d had a stroke; which belies the GOP party line that he hid his condition).
And it’s because of that openness that more people, and especially more men, might start getting help for depression. I spent half my life smiling and pretending I was fine when I was really dying inside. It took me getting to the point where I could barely get out of bed before I got help. There are many of us out there, functional depressives till we’re not. Luckily there are medications and therapy. I’ve found out what works for me, but I still have bad days. Had I not gotten help, though, I might not even be here.
It would have been nice if more of Fetterman’s detractors had been like Gretchen Lynn, who tweeted, “There is a lot about John Fetterman that I do not respect, but getting help when you’re struggling with mental health—despite the shame, fear, and what others might say about it—is something I respect immensely.”
(She did say a few unflattering things later in the thread, but to her credit, she kept steering commenters away from getting too insulting.)
But no, most of the trolls’ comments about Fetterman would have made my grandma break out the smackin’ hand (or worse, the bundle of switches we were threatened with getting for Christmas if we acted like little hellions), with lots of comparisons to Herman Munster and the like, as well as blame heaped on the party and his wife.
Fetterman is far from the first stroke survivor to serve in Congress, just as there are many others who’ve had medical emergencies (or were shot, as were Gabby Giffords and Steve Scalise) while serving or before they were elected. He’s also not the only person to serve with clinical depression, which often follows a stroke; the auditory processing disorder alone is enough to trigger depressive episodes, especially when you’re in a new situation, so I’m not surprised. One in five Americans experience some form of mental illness, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, so odds are that there would be at least a few in the halls of Congress suffering from things like depression, PTSD, bipolar disorder and others.
We’ve stigmatized mental illness for so long that it’s not surprising that those lacking empathy would attack Fetterman and others like him. It’s that lack of empathy, not mental illness, that should be castigated.
We all suffer from physical and mental illnesses. When I was a kid, I was taught that actions and words made of one’s own free will were fair comment, but mental or physical disabilities weren’t. It was the bullies and otherwise thoughtless people who attacked people for things that weren’t their fault or were beyond their control. Restraint was exercised more than mouths, and kindness more than cruelty.
No more, though. I’m sure there more more than a few liberals who exulted at Rush Limbaugh’s terminal cancer diagnosis and then death (hell, I know there were, because the MAGA echo chambers wouldn’t stop talking about how offended they were, in the same breath they were mentioning “Pedo Joe”), just as MAGA world has attacked Fetterman and others for seeming, to their minds, unfit for duty (that decision, should it come to that, will be up to Fetterman and his family, not the Twitter mobs).
Shouldn’t we be better than that? We don’t have to be rah-rah supportive for everyone, but isn’t it a better comment on humanity if we choose to not be a jerk in someone’s hour of need?
Can we just not let the nasty politics of today overpower our humanity?
Getting help is brave. Attacking others for getting help is weak.