Maybe “tumor” is the term?

What do you call a post that starts out as a comment on another blog, probably doesn’t make sense without the original post, but is also so long that you feel weird about basically hijacking someone else’s topic?

Anyway, that’s what happened. E Lawrence wrote a thoughtful article over at WIT entitled “Do we care about mental illness?” and then I basically replied with a novel.

Here is what I said, expanded (depressingly little) and with links cleaned up:

I have a LOT of thoughts about this topic. Thanks for this post! It opens up some exciting (wc? whatever) areas for discussion.

1) I appreciate and agree with your calling out the “we” versus “them” language when it comes to mental illness. I have many friends and family members in the academy. I have many friends and family members in the church. Put simply, most of us deal with mental illness. It is “we”; it is not “them.” When I tell friends about my depression, I’ve learned to expect the, “Um, yeah, me, too” reaction, because that’s almost always the reaction I get.

2) “I believe that we in the academy are perhaps in a position to evaluate mental illness with a social, structural lens in place, especially because these issues affect society as a whole beyond the academy.”

You gesture toward the falseness of claiming any “objective” viewpoint later, but I think you could and should go much, much farther. In my experience and those of my nearest and dearest, the academy is itself deeply sick. If we want to call attention to the social, structural aspects of mental illness, what exactly do we call the phenomenon of the prelim? What do we call adjunct positions? What do we call the tenure review? Within psych research, how would you classify Diederik Stapel? To put it harshly (perhaps too harshly), I think the academy is far too busy fostering and exploiting mental illness to be in any position to evaluate its social and structural aspects.

3) And if you made it past that rant, here’s some embarrassing self-disclosure. I was struck by the repeated phrases “contemporary psychological approaches to the human person” and “psychological insight into the human person.” I’ve dealt with debilitating depression for literally as long as I can remember, but only in the last year have I had to deal with feeling as though I had lost myself. I cycled through more than a dozen psychoactive drugs, some of which affected my personality (as described by a previous commenter); I left a job (academia) that had given my life meaning; and I underwent ECT, which led to extensive memory loss.

Here is an example. During or slightly before the ECT, I heard a beautiful and moving sermon about suffering and the incarnation. It helped me to crystallize my thoughts about God’s role in my own unbearable suffering, and to feel, for the first time ever, that I could accept the incarnation into my personal theology. Through Jesus, I came to believe, God does not take away my burden of pain. I mean, I knew that God doesn’t take the pain away, because the pain was still there. It was a fact. I had, and have, no use for the “all the suffering will be worth it in heaven” line. Even when I get well, the pain will still have been real, and it will never have been worth it. So God doesn’t take it away; but God, in Jesus, might perhaps choose to share it with me, fully. And that’s something.

This is approximately what I thought. Then, two months later, it was gone completely, vanished with so much else from my memory. Four months after that, I came across a description of the sermon while re-reading my journal (looking for precisely such lost things), and I reconstructed it as best I could. But, dude, this was a pretty big idea, pretty central to my spirituality and my construction of myself. My relationship with God, my prayer life, was really really different before the ECT vs. after.

I would describe myself as a well-read amateur in theology, so I have no idea what work might be out there on the malleability of self in the face of trauma. But in the past few months, all talk of “the soul” has left me cold, empty, slightly contemptuous. The model of personhood taught within mainstream Christianity is no longer adequate for me.

4) Perhaps “exciting” is the right word choice, after all. When I think about all these questions right now, there is sadness, anger, confusion, hope; but there’s also that spark of excitement, the catch of the breath that I rely on to tell me: this is a problem worth working on. This is something that could be really, really cool. Theologians, I think, should concern themselves with psychology and with contemporary models and experiences of mental illness, but not (just) because it would be the useful or the compassionate thing to do. You should work on this because it would be awesome. Because it would be interesting. Because it would open up new ways of thinking about people and about God and about people with God. And if awesome, interesting, novel ideas don’t beat back the darkness, then I don’t know what will.

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5 thoughts on “Maybe “tumor” is the term?

  1. Mary, I am so completely with you on the final two paragraphs of number three. I have not had ECT, or the sort of memory/self-destroying experience you describe. But a few years ago, I had a concentrated experience of extreme mental pain (I mean, super concentrated. I am talking only 12 hours) that—even as someone who had been familiar with depression for basically two decades at that point—left me unable to make sense of half the things I heard or said concerning theological anthropology. I still don’t think that my sense of who God is / how I related to God / how God relates to me / who I am has recovered from that. I spent probably six months or so feeling “cold, empty, slightly contemptuous” and, actually, enraged, whenever I heard certain things affirmed in a church or a text or a classroom… and then I forced myself to just stop thinking about those things and made a sort of firewall in my mind between theology and That Night. But I still feel like even when I start to look at That Night out of the corner of my eye, all of my theological commitments start imploding.

    • Thanks for this, Bridget, and I’m sorry it’s taken me so long to reply. I’m so sorry that you’ve gone through something like that. It sounds horrifying. Thank you so much, though, for sharing your experience–it’s not like I’d want it for you, but it’s still nice to know that I’m not the only one for whom suffering has thrown a spanner in the theological works (I find this phrase appalling, but I can’t think of anything better at the moment).

      Though in other ways, I feel like my spiritual life, and especially my commitment to Christianity, have really grown as a result of the last year.

  2. Ok, I’m not going to lie–this took me a few days to process. Not just to understand, but to grasp the implications of it. I’ve been around people struggling with depression for a large part of my life, but I never really connected those experiences with theological anthropology, or even worse, I thought of those experiences as an afterthought to what theology attempts to do, rather than the central concern for many people. I think so many of my experiences post-grad school served to show me that what Christian theology has to offer is not enough for so many, many people. It needs so much work to be relevant for so many people.

    Quite often in my job I feel like a sales person–I feel like I am trying to “sell” Christianity to my students by connecting them to a piece of theology that is compelling or meaningful, trying to get them to buy into what they doubt can be worthwhile. When they point out the obvious flaws in the product (homophobia, sexism/androcentrism, exclusivism on other religions, etc) I usually have an answer (“You can be a Christian and a feminist!” “But the Church doesn’t hate gay *people*” etc). But a flaw in what is so foundational–human persons as they relate to God–seems insurmountable. It makes me think Christianity has nothing left to present as meaningful, until theological anthropology is reinterpreted. It makes me doubt theology’s power and relevance…and it also makes me want to get to work on that theological anthropology immediately.

  3. Right at this minute (it’s a cheerful and optimistic minute, so I’m gonna roll with it), I think we should focus on the part of us that says, “Woah, that’s a huge problem with theological anthropology! …Let’s get to work on that IMMEDIATELY.” So there are gaps–gaps big enough to make it seem like the whole enterprise is shaky. Wasn’t that always going to be the case? Maybe this is a place where having deeper conversations with people in psychology would be a good idea (as recommended by E Lawrence in the original post). I know that the experience of losing one’s continuity of self in the face of trauma is something that those guys have spent some time thinking about. Maybe this is a place to start asking people–people within the church and people who’ve stepped away from it–whether they have had similar experiences. Maybe a gap is an opening for something new. (I’m torn here between genuine excitement and the cheesiness of the Mother Superior in “The Sound of Music” saying “When God closes a door, somewhere he opens a window.”) At the very least, I’m going to go ahead and ask for reading recommendations as regards intros to theological anthropology.

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