I noticed him the first day of class. The way he responded to the role call was wrong. He looked up, confused, and I remember laughing at him. Not making fun of him laughing, but entertained by how endearing his awkwardness was.
He made our class that semester so entertaining. He would appear calm and collected, but then suddenly react so intensely to something said. It was jolting, but also hilarious.
I remember our dynamic that semester as me constantly laughing at the way he phrased his ideas and him entertained by how irritated I got at the constant ambiguity in anything our Professor said.
Guy-who-didn’t-care completely disregarded classroom etiquette by reacting out loud to what someone was saying, while they were still talking. Somehow it was always relevant to the class. He was so passionate in arguing about these minute incongruities in what we were studying and that shook up the would-be-serious environment of an ancient history class into something electrifying.
We created this ambiance in our corner of the room of ditching that pseudo-professional tone that usually dominates academia and replacing it with this impulsiveness in having so much fun finding ideas to probe at and deconstruct. It was this dichotomy of not taking anything seriously but at the same time being so intense in our perspectives.
One day during the discussion I noticed that I was mirroring him with my body language. And that he was mirroring mine. And I noticed when it became constant. If he changed the way his arm was resting or if I shifted my feet, the other would change positions to match. Sometimes it happened at the same time, involuntarily throughout an hour of class.
He always watched for my reaction when the token sexist guy in our class said something completely outrageous. This happened way too often. I’d start whisper ranting to get all my frustration out and we’d both just be laughing as we tried to process that this was actually happening. By the end of the semester we’d created this routine of reacting with matching “mutual disbelief” faces anytime this guy…said anything.
I knew he noticed me. And I knew it could never work between us. We were both graduating, our lives headed off in different directions. He was moving across the country for grad school. I was preparing for missions work in Thailand. It all should’ve faded out. And it would have, if not for this chance encounter…that left me SO ANGRY at him.
My guy friend and I were disputing this policy at one of the admin offices of our school. The same office where guy-who-didn’t-care happened to work. My friend and I are both Philosophy majors, meaning we’re trained to create logical arguments and identify fallacies, so I was confident things would go well.
Everything was calm as my friend and I expressed our views. We were initially shut down, but then walked the administrators through some objections and counterexamples. When there was zero openness or mutual understanding— after they had agreed with all our definitions and premises— I got frustrated and began to speak faster and louder, becoming overtly persistent.
I had noticed guy-who-didn’t-care in my peripheral as we walked in and after a few minutes of me thoroughly explaining our position, he signaled me out and slowly said, “Let’s stop being so emotional.” I turned toward him— shocked— processing that he’d said something so blatantly sexist, and watched as he proceeded to train wreck through all my arguments. His tone was patronizing and demeaning as he spewed out everything he hated about what I thought. It was terrifying to me that he could change from chill to lethal in half a second.
His expression was piercing and he was relentless. I felt like I was in the middle of a Debate tournament— my adrenaline on overload during cross examination. My mind was racing with all these intuitions of how to shut him down. He would give me three seconds to speak, before interrupting again. I laid out questions trying to back him into a corner, but he was sidestepping me, presenting this revoltingly legalistic definition of Justice. His arguments were all disanalogous, but he couldn’t see that because he refused to listen to anything I was saying.
Eventually I stormed out of the office with my best friend who proceeded to validate how awful this guy was. I was so angry I almost started crying. And I never get angry.
I couldn’t look at him the next day. He was a complete jerk. Also, disrespectful. A bit sexist, and lacking all understanding of formal logic. It was frustrating that this guy I’d respected all year turned out to be so incredibly callous. He kept making jokes, as usual, and it was frustrating that I still found him funny. Annoying when I found myself even more attracted to him.
Inevitably, my anger toward him faded and I found myself stoked by his intensity and laughing with him all over again.
A few weeks later, he came up to me after class with some thoughts on something I’d said in the discussion. It was obvious to me that this was more an excuse to talk to me than a genuine quest for knowledge. Although knowing him, it was probably both. He shared this argument from a book he was reading that expanded upon my point, and he didn’t notice when I lost focus for a second just to watch him talk or when I reluctantly pulled myself back into the conversation to respond to him. After, I made some joke about the philosophy we were reading, and reached out to touch his arm as we laughed.
Then I brought up what happened. I told him I was confused in how he was so demeaning. But that I’d been disrespectful and lost control. He apologized too and all was well. I didn’t understand at the time but with him I felt secure, so I explained that I have Bipolar Disorder, how I was in a bit of a manic episode when I lost control and that otherwise I’d never escalate my anger. He reacted so fast, turning away and his face all shocked like he felt awful. I started laughing and laughing as I told him it was okay, that since I’d been hypomanic he hadn’t hurt me at all, that I was okay!
Soon after, I played the “studying together” card. Depression all semester had left the course material a blur, so I did need help. It ended up being him tutoring me…interrupted by countless side discussions of our research and theological views and details of our lives. He locked me in this intense eye contact that got me all nervous and stoked. I had never talked with him so much and his intellectual power was intimidating.
My medications had finally kicked in and my mind was waking up after months and months of being twisted all around and slowed up in depression. We were talking through all these religious topics that I’m so passionate about, but it felt disorienting. Using all my brainpower to communicate and think— it was confusing, uncomfortable. I kept up as best I could, trying to grasp hold of the right words, trying to evoke how I’d always expressed my theological views, trying to steal back all the parts of me that depression had begun to erase.
All I told my best friend later was that he’d told me his life story. She laughed, but that’s basically what happened. He’d walked me through this intense experience from his childhood and as I imagined a younger version of him being undermined, I felt myself tearing up. His powerful exterior was pushed aside, unveiling something so vulnerable. That night I thought back to everything he’d said and I cried for him. I needed to be closer, to wrap my arms around him and hold on so tightly— I wanted to heal all the brokenness, make the scars fade away.
After that I made so many excuses to see him. I knew he saw through me, but he kept letting me in. I asked for his number, and always texted him first. I told him he was charming. When he was being patronizing, I called him out. I’d get so close to him when we were talking— barely holding back my love language’s impulses.
Any social rules I usually swore by in talking to a guy were thrown out the window. I let myself be as assertive and use as much initiative as my personality has always wanted to. I knew I was being intrusive and so forward and I knew he didn’t care.
In return he didn’t filter himself around me. He cursed and interrupted and was so judgmental. He would go on these epic rants about what annoyed him during the day or some idiot person he’d interacted with a while back. He showed me some of the books he was reading: he annotated them like I do, but instead of underlining inspiring passages or writing out something to further a thought, he’d write “stupid” or “wrong” with an arrow pointing toward whichever paragraph was clearly irrational.
He knew a lot of people were turned off by his personality. The way he explained it to me made it sound like he found it hilarious. He told me the percentage of people who think he’s a jerk when they meet him and then how those numbers change as people get to know him more. My friends were in the first category. I’d been so upset the day we’d had that chaos interaction, and had ranted to them about how awful he was.
They still thought he was this uncaring jerk and were so confused why I liked him. My guy best friend joked that I was being “that girl” who keeps going back to an emotionally abusive boyfriend— convinced that he has the best intentions despite all his actions proving otherwise. My roommate was bothered by how I wasn’t completely frustrated with him: “He’s taking you for granted!” she’d say, “He isn’t appreciating you at all.” I tried to listen to her, but would just start laughing at how true it was.
He barely ever reached out to me. He didn’t pursue me. There weren’t these beautiful affirmation lines he used to make me feel special. He didn’t ask questions in a conversation, or use non-verbals to show he understood.
It was better than that. He made me feel special by letting me into all these facets of his mind. He affirmed me by letting me refute him and then interrupting me and then me interrupting him and then one of us realizing something of what the other was saying. He made me miss him by his intensity: the way he always made me laugh with his bizarre or brilliant way of assessing and overanalyzing all his emotions.
Any compliment he gave me, anytime he referred back to something I’d said a while back, it wasn’t because he was trying to make me feel a certain way. It was just that he happened to remember or appreciate something I’d said. His temperament was a natural chaos and his kind of charming was unintentional.
This was the first time I’d liked a guy where I was certain going into it that he wouldn’t screw me over emotionally. It was because I knew he didn’t care. He didn’t care enough to put so much effort and fake affirmation into playing with some girl’s heart. He didn’t care enough to think through black and white judgments toward a person so early on. For him caring wasn’t this premeditated action; it was simply being himself. His behavior that was coming across to my friends as callous was exactly why I respected him.
The jerk-esque ambiance, the ways he didn’t care: it was comforting. I knew I wasn’t interacting with a contrived version of him.
It was refreshing not having to tiptoe between being just enough affirming and the right amount of hard-to-get, while coming across as really chill. I ditched all the superficial. In our conversations I didn’t feel this underlying awareness that I could be seriously hurt, that I needed to be so intentional and careful in how much I shared. I wasn’t scared when he led the conversation to something of so much emotional depth, because I knew he wasn’t manipulating me to be more vulnerable or to get attached to him. He wasn’t one to control people.
He revealed all these facets of himself and I was content to listen for hours. It was fascinating learning more and more of how his mind works. So often when he’d pause to think of how to phrase something, I’d immediately supply the right word— like I was tracking ahead of him— and then he’d continue with what he was saying. The way he expressed himself was so vivid and listening to him was this constant suspense.
He should have been difficult to read in the sense that his listening face lacks all expression, but I grasped his communication style early on. He was intuitive to me because he’s consistent. He has this incredible capacity to explain the logical processing and analyzation of his perceptions and how that translates into actions. His emotional intelligence is obvious and that was calming in a way I hadn’t experienced before. Nothing about his personality comes across as peaceful or gentle, yet there was this feeling of stability he’d always emulate.
Summer was approaching, and I was enjoying the feeling of normal— meaning, my Bipolar was stabilized! This time it wasn’t some slight-hypomanic-phase hoax, it was for real. My medications were all the way kicked in and my brain was balanced, but I didn’t feel mentally strong. I was completely out of depression: all my energy and passion was back, but I wasn’t doing well on tests and so often I’d be unable to think of words in a conversation. It was this feeling of reaching out for something— like a belief or some opinion: how I argue for it and all the evidence I hold. The exact location of the information would be so familiar but as I was about to grab onto it— …a chasing after the wind.
This happened so much around guy-who-didn’t-care, because most of our conversations oriented around something like exegesis or epistemology— stuff that required my full brain power. I’m sure he didn’t notice, though. It’s like in Harry Potter: the typical Muggle reaction to witnessing magic is brushing it off or ascribing it to something normal…that’s been my experience with people writing off blatant depression symptoms.
I was beginning to realize that I had to learn how to trust my brain again. Expressing myself in complex ways…it was unsettling. I could sense these faint intuitions leading me to what I wanted to express— and I’d just have to blindly start talking, hoping something coherent would come out. Often it did. Other times I’d cut short my thought or pause or demand he help me think of the right word. Usually I’d default to asking questions.
Listening would be difficult too…I hadn’t noticed it as much around other people but everything about him was more intense, in-depth, complex— constant intellectual..into social critique..leading into some crazy emotional background story of his life! Talking to some new guy you’re attracted to wouldn’t seem to be the ideal situation to be working through brain damage— but it was, ideal… all these discussions were beginning the process of rewiring my brain.
I don’t think it’s widely known, but recurrent depression does cause brain damage. MRI scans have observed parts of the brain such as the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex as the first to begin to not only slow down in neural activity— but to shrink, as depression worsens. Essentially, once you’re out of depression it takes even more time for neurogenesis to restore everything. Instead of physical therapy, mine is mental.
When I told him about my extreme empathy and that I’d cried for him, he confessed that he doesn’t feel empathy at all. Instead of thinking: Serial killer! I laughed and laughed and was even more fascinated by this guy who was given such a different mind in which to impact the world.
I told him aspects of my depression I hadn’t shared with anyone else. I could feel that he was emotionally strong, that he could handle darkness in a way most people can’t. That hearing about someone’s demons and their version of hell wouldn’t crush him.
It was puzzling to me to have found someone who I didn’t feel the need to protect. My kind of caring is to shield people: from the world, from whatever’s hurting them, from myself. This year I’ve been shielding people the most from symptoms of my bipolar. It’s become second nature for me to deceive those around me to how bad things actually are. I always thought I’d have to keep certain details of my depression between me, God, and my Psychiatrist; but this gave me pause. It was fascinating for me, processing that there are people who can handle other’s pain without also breaking. The ability to be emotionally disconnected from people’s experiences, the ability to not care— is a gift.
Parts of me were coming back faster than others: My laugh was tuned back to the right octave. I was able to thoroughly process lectures in class. I didn’t feel this pressure to constantly exude energy. And I wasn’t afraid anymore to meet new people and start up conversation.
I was afraid of my emotions. They didn’t seem to belong to me. I was experiencing non-manic happiness, non-depressed comfort— a balanced amount of focus and excitement and procrastination: it was all unfamiliar. I couldn’t access the history of how I had always processed and analyzed my inner self. Running on autopilot; trying every day to stay afloat— it had not been living.
I found so much comfort being around guy-who-didn’t-care because he felt familiar. All of his emotional intensity…it reminded me so much of myself. It reminded me of these core parts of my convictions and all these facets of my emotion-to-rationality connections. He reminded me so much of who I’d been before mood phases had deconstructed my sense of self. Spending time with him was like these constant epiphanies of realizing aspects of myself that had been diminished or that I’d forgotten.
We’d always talk theology and it was refreshing that we shared all these random (and “completely unorthodox”) theological views— like how it seems that no one has a soul or that the world only makes sense if everyone is saved…and that of course homosexuality isn’t condemned in the Bible.
We talked so much about feminism and he immediately grasped how constrictive it had been for me, growing up in a church that doesn’t give women an active role. As I explained to him the research I’ve done of women having actual leadership roles in the Early Church (which, yes..is also expressed in Scripture) I found him to be up-to-date and so well-read on all these details of first century cultural context. He was emotionally validating— not through expressing empathy, but because he was coming from a place of intellectual integrity. It wasn’t about making me feel understood, but seeking truth.
One day he told me that he used to hate Philosophy. I told him I would’ve hated him then. We started talking about different Ethical Theories and I explained all my Utilitarian intuitions (doing what’s best for the greatest good of the greatest number of people) and that I feel so drawn toward acting based upon how I’m affecting others. I conceded that it’s a flawed moral theory in the sense that the greatest good is often ambiguous, but that it seems to be the most compassionate way to live.
He countered with… Virtue Ethics?! I reacted so fast— interrupting him to rant about how no one actually respects that, how it’s completely impractical, outdated— how we’d skimmed over it in my Ethics Class because it’s so convoluted! He calmly listened, no facial expression per usual, and then explained his interpretation. He lives out Virtue Ethics by analyzing each decision and choosing the action that will shape Him into being more like Christ.
At the time I remember judging him. His ethical intuitions were selfish…and wrong! I thought about Bible Verses like Philippians 2:3, Romans 12:15, 1 John 3:16-18…all exemplifying that Christians are supposed to think of others before themselves. It seemed to me that Virtue Ethics demanded this constant focus on self, and that made me so uncomfortable.
Part of me kept listening to him as I let myself think and think and process. I thought about his lack of empathy— how he isn’t constantly bombarded by everyone’s emotions. I thought of how he often ignores people, straight up doesn’t like someone upon meeting them. How he enjoys using his gift of an acute social awareness to create an atmosphere that makes someone feel so uncomfortable. <- And how he finds that highly entertaining. I thought too how he is frustratingly protective of his time.
But then I thought about myself: how my empathy overwhelms me. How I’m so often paralyzed by the brokenness I feel around me. I reflected on doing ministry at Pepperdine and all the time I put into my YouTube channel… how I get overwhelmed trying to help everyone, how I’ll be crying so much that I can’t focus on school or take care of myself. I lingered on all the times I’ve gone to the opposite extreme: disseminating some core part of myself, to ensure one of my close friends feel comfortable, more understood in our friendship or to compensate for feeling guilty after hurting someone I love.
I thought back to who I was at 18. I’d been free, so free. When I changed, it was because of God, because of my prayers with Him and devotionals I heard at Church and the hundreds of hours I spent reading my Bible.
- Before the Bipolar mood phases set in. Before that made things all chaotic. Before I’d experienced heartbreak or being used. Before I knew what it meant to be scarred.
- When caring about a guy meant months of crying myself to sleep because I’d broken him. When insecurity wrapped around me because he’d labeled me as something flawed. When the happiest I’d ever been was in Thailand, constantly reading my Bible and devotionals every morning and so much praying and talking about Jesus and theology all throughout the day at the Christian Center.
- When loving God meant not getting enough sleep, being drained by emotional support, leading multiple small groups, not having time for my classes— my bible studies and prayer times being the last priority. Leading. Working. Taking on dozens of hours of logistics and admin stuff for my school’s campus ministry. When loving God was all focused outward.
- When I lost myself. Over and over again. When the stress from doing so much for God kicked in the worst major depressive episode. When I started failing classes. And losing pounds. When my mind became so used to being depressed that whenever it lifted, I didn’t recognize myself.
I thought back to this guy I was talking to— how he doesn’t feel empathy. How he must have some objective perspective on loving people. I thought about who I might be without my emotional sensitivity, without caring for everyone I pass by, without feeling intimately connected to people I read about in the news.
Not caring so much, not feeling empathy… I tried to imagine what the world might be like for him: He probably feels that it isn’t practical to care about acquaintances he passes by. He knows that always dodging around people’s feelings prevents us from speaking truth. He recognizes that caring about people more than Christ isn’t Biblical.
My empathy leads me astray. This attribute of compassion— evangelicalism views it as the ultimate spiritual gift. Maybe because our society is obsessed with feeling. Feeling loved. Feeling understood. Feeling connected with God. Feeling cared for. I’ve grown to idolize feeling compassion for others, so much so that my empathy has become all tangled up in my pride. How easily something so good can turn into an idol.
I look back now and realize I’ve been diminishing my impact on people by letting my empathy control me. The violence happening all around the world and in our country this summer, has been a reminder that changing our focus off of God to all the brokenness and terror in the world is hopeless, debilitating. It robs our minds of experiencing God’s light and of seeing Good in the world.
Christianity is a dichotomy. It’s a crazy trust exercise. God wants us to be intimately involved in the world, to devote so much energy to righting injustices and bringing people to know Him, but for that not to be our focus. He wants us to address terrorism, insecurities, racism, mental illness, divorce, abuse, death… without becoming immersed.
The last thing Jesus said to His disciples while on earth involved a typical Hebrew greeting, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” (John 20:21) At the time, they must have thought back to a similar thing he’d shared with them at the Last Supper, “I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.” -John 16:33.
It’s a theme that is constant throughout Jesus’ ministry. During the Sermon on the Mount, He says: “I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear…” (Matthew 6:25) and to instead “Seek first God’s kingdom and His righteousness so that all these things will be given to you.” (Matthew 6:33)
God has a long-term perspective we can’t see. He cares immensely about our individual spiritual growth— with an intensity that doesn’t fit into a Utilitarian framework.
Soon I was having my own last supper with three of my closest friends. We were the few who hadn’t left campus yet. It was 10 o’clock at night and we were finally eating dinner as we’d spent the whole day packing. Final stories were shared. Plans for the next morning finalized. Our inside jokes were referred to again and again. We watched some comedy video my guy friend found as I finished up the last of my vegan ice cream. Soon the dishes were done and the kitchen cleaned up— it could’ve been just another night.
My best friend who feels like my younger sister was hosting us at her place. She kicked our guy friends out of the apartment so it could be just the two of us. I hugged her so tightly and it hit me that in a day I’d be 3,000 miles away from this place that had become my home. She spoke of our friendship and my impact on her faith. I reminded her how she understands all the facets of me, how she makes me feel known.
I brushed her tears away and smoothed her hair, because we share the same love language. She laughed as she cried, saying it’d been so easy for her— that I was her first friend here and that it’d been perfect how she hadn’t needed anyone else to feel understood, how she wishes every relationship could be this simple.
Then she said something so profound: that I’d shown her what it means to be human. She told me the town she grew up in hadn’t been genuine and open, that she hadn’t felt true peace until coming here and experiencing God. The guys interrupted at this point, loudly banging on the door, saying it was time to go— they wanted me to get to the car ASAP so they could go play Heroes of the Storm!
“Shut up!! Be patieeent” I yelled, carrying out the vowel sounds. She elaborated on what she meant and I understood, but this odd feeling lingered. I hadn’t done anything. I wasn’t aware of having done anything to merit that kind of influence on her life. She was this freshman I met my junior year who happened to be philosophical and emotionally intense. She’d been in my Bible study. We’d dressed up as frozen characters for Halloween. We met on Wednesdays to read through Hebrews together. I was the first one she told when she wanted to get baptized.
I’d always thought of her as an intellectual equal. Our dynamic was just talking for hours on and on about ideas. I loved being around her. She was one of my best friends.
She had been my only friend at the time who seemed to fully grasp what I saw in guy-who-didn’t care. I had explained to her how it was like getting into all these depths of his mind and she understood. She’d told me she wanted to meet him. She didn’t judge him when I explained that he really wouldn’t want to meet her.
I hugged her for the final time and told her I loved her, to always take care of herself.
That day I was going through awful withdrawal symptoms because I was tapering off one of my Bipolar meds. I’d promised to meet up with the guys to game, but I needed to be alone. I walked the dorm halls by myself. I journaled out a prayer to God. I walked around outside after I got a workout in. I thought back to all the ways I’d grown and changed over the past four years.
The next morning I left for LAX. I never said goodbye to him. He was busy with work and I’d spent my last days of college with my best friends. On the airplane flying home I thought of him and started writing down so much of what I felt. Once I was back home and alone in my room, I let myself cry. Not because he had hurt me, but because I missed him. He had showed me enough of himself that I could imagine a relationship with him, one that would be so simple.
After everything I’d been through with Bipolar, it felt so nice to be crying about a guy. It felt amazing to fully feel. It surprised me how right I’d been about him, that he hadn’t hurt me at all. The depth he’d revealed of himself and the lack of closure— it should’ve made me feel so rejected and confused… but instead I was laughing and laughing as I was crying about him, as I was remembering everything.
That’s the end. We haven’t talked at all this summer. I haven’t written him. I know he doesn’t want me to. It’s unlikely that we’ll see each other again… and he wouldn’t find a reason to contact me.
But this isn’t just about him. It’s about all of us. Guy-who-really-cared is someone who was uniquely intense and able to make me feel so understood and clarified at such a vulnerable time in my Bipolar. He wasn’t trying to act as a therapist (he’d find the concept hilarious) or be super compassionate and gentle— cognizant that I was battling out of depression, he was just being himself. And that made an incredible difference in my healing process.
I wrote so much more but it’s not all mine to share. He was enigmatic, but not apathetic. The timing was all wrong. But maybe we were too— empathetic opposites…dolled out these unnatural amounts of caring.
It’s been a few months and our life trajectories are proceeding as planned. I wrote out a letter to him but never sent it. I want to thank him, let him know how much he helped me in getting back my sense of self… but it’s not wise to stir up old emotions.
His perspective on life isn’t all zoomed in like mine, so he knew stronger than I did how much this couldn’t work. He knew what to do to avoid hurting me, because he’s the one who cared.
Guy-who-really-cared, thank you.. for everything.