If you haven’t already heard, Jay Asher’s acclaimed young adult novel Thirteen Reasons Why has been recently converted into the Netflix series, “13 Reasons Why”. I never read the novels myself but am well aware of how popular they were when they were first published in 2007. Perhaps people find it fascinating to enter the melancholy thoughts of a fellow teenageer so similar to themselves, but yet so tragically different. Many of us whose life experiences have included the suicide of a classmate, friend, or relative have asked ourselves the infamous question: “Why?”.
Perhaps this is a question whose answer is worth searching for.
Suicide is difficult topic to talk about. And since I have no experience with depression or suicidal thoughts I will not dare attempt to “relate” to those who undergo such tragic sufferings.
However, what I can do is reflect upon the fact that bullying is so much more than a colorful banner hanging in our middle school hallways. Bullying dehumanizes. Bullying kills.
What I admire about the Netflix series “13 Reasons Why”, is its portrayal of suicide as ugly. Unlike the novel in which Hannah swallows pills and peacefully falls asleep, the Netflix adaptation depicts Hannah cutting her wrists and tragically bleeding out in a bathtub. A very vivid and horrific portrayal of a heart-breaking deed. They don’t romanticize self-murder or characterize it as a viable option.
This in mind, the Netflix series also vividly captures the ugliness of bullying, of negating someone’s worth by labeling them, as well as the utter indifference many of us have to the sufferings of our fellow men.
I don’t think I have to convince my readers of the cruelty which exists in the hallways of our high schools.
But where do we go from here? How do we address this issue and respond?
What I would propose is this: that you and I develop the ability to see.
To see, other persons as persons. Persons who possess inherent dignity, value, and worth.
To see, each person as a unique and unrepeatable individual just like yourself.
To see, in each person, a person who feels, who within their own conscious life experiences sufferings which are completely unique to them, sufferings which we could never know about by merely looking at them from the outside.
I wish to challenge each one of us, to stand in a crowded room and to truly see each individual person.
When we rush down the hallways at school, push through the crowd at a concert, or get lost within an ocean of people at a party, it becomes easy for us to become essentially blind to the fact that we are surrounded by persons. From personal experience, we all know how easy it can be to passively and shallowly interact with others.
But the cold hard fact of reality and our human experience is this: we, as persons, are ordered to genuine human contact, real authentic relationships with other persons. We desire and need to be truly seen.
When we label another person a “slut” or “dork” or even an “***hole,” we are depersonalizing them, negating their worth and thereby relating to them as a subject would to an object. This is usually not done intentionally, which is perhaps why this particular form of depersonalization is so prevalent and dangerous. And why it is easily found in our middle schools, high schools, colleges, workplaces, and our day to day lives.
To combat this distortion of the human person, we must recognize and focus on the other, as an I rather than an It. Personalist thinker Martin Buber in his work I and Thou, calls this the I-Thou and the I-It relationship. Persons, by the nature of their being, invoke and merit an I-Thou relationship. In doing so, we focus on taking the other as Thou. When we see them as a Thou, we are acknowledging their inherent dignity, and the unique inner life which they possess. Buber writes,
“If I face a human being as my Thou, and say the primary word I-Thou to him, he is not a thing among things, and does not consist of things.”
I stand before the other person and seen them as a whole in himself, “he is Thou and fills the heavens.”(1)
This approach to socialization is the antithesis to our fallen human inclinations to judge, label, and hate others. For in doing so we isolate their faults or characteristics from the totality of their person.
When we approach a person as Thou, we do not experience them per se, but rather we acknowledge that there exists a certain distance between our soul and theirs. Our ability to truly know them is limited and we must respect that. By being receptive to the other person, we allow them to disclose themselves to us without the fear of our assumptions or judgments tainting our vision of them.
Buber claims that relating to others as I-Thou is pivotal to the human person’s very existence. It is life giving to be addressed as Thou.
Bearing this in mind, it becomes all too clear how taking the other person as an it, as an object, has the opposite effect upon the human person. Rather than life giving, it is life draining.
Human persons are made for authentic relationships with other persons. To deny this need, plunges a person into an unbearable loneliness.
One of the various traits of bullying which was brought to light in the Netflix series was the way in which we judge a person’s emotions and reactions based upon our own experiences. For instance, the main character Hannah was devastated and humiliated when her name appeared on a list the boys in her class wrote, a list which compared the girls in their schools. Many of the characters scoffed at her seemingly dramatic response. They made remarks such as, “I would take it as a compliment. It’s just a stupid list.”
How easy is it to forget that you can and will never truly know what another is going through. Each human person possesses an inner conscious life which no other person will ever be able to completely know.
However, this should not prevent us from striving to authentically encounter other persons. It is worth the effort to deeply encounter the heart of another. For it is the case for many, that for them to truly believe that it is good that they exist, they must first be loved by someone else.
Hearts must speak to Hearts. And persons must be seen.
1. Martin Buber, I and Thou, 8.