Violence and Destruction: on hard lessons

Oof. I don’t know whether you noticed, but last Sunday’s readings were tough.

First, Jeremiah 20:7-13:

Oh Lord, you have enticed me, and I was enticed;
You have overpowered me, and you have prevailed.
I have become a laughingstock all day long; everyone mocks me.
For whenever I speak, I must cry out, I must shout, “Violence and destruction!”
For the word of the Lord has become for me a reproach and a derision all day long.
If I say, “I will not mention him, or speak any more in his name,”
Then within me there is something like a burning fire shut up in my bones;
I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot….

And so on.

(The Lectionary informs me that we had the option of reading Genesis 21:8-21 instead. You know, the one where Abraham abandons his child and the mother of his child to die in the wilderness.)

And for the Gospel, we got Matthew 10:24-39, which lays out the cost of discipleship in bleak and uncompromising terms:

…Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.

For I have come to set a man against his father,
and a daughter against her mother,
and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law;
and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.

Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.

As always, it’s not all harshness and despair:

Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. And even the hairs of your head are all counted. So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.

And Jeremiah ends, however reluctantly, with praise and hope:

Sing to the LORD; praise the LORD! For he has delivered the life of the needy from the hands of evildoers.

For me, there’s always the temptation to skip right to these lines of consolation, passing by the swords and enmity, the fire and reproach. And I’m an avowed devotee of the hard pieces of the Bible. (I took a survey recently that asked me what three books of the Bible were the most meaningful for me. I listed Ecclesiastes, Esther, and 1 Corinthians.) But these passages are just so raw. Jeremiah spits and flails: at God, who forces him to speak words that sound like insanity, words of condemnation against the city and people he loves; at his “close friends,” who are the very ones watching and waiting for him to stumble; even at his own life. “Why did I come forth from the womb,” he cries at the close of this chapter, “to see toil and sorrow, and spend my days in shame?” For me, these are hauntingly personal words, echoing times too numerous to bear remembering when Jeremiah’s words could have been mine. They rip through the tranquil air of the sanctuary. They smell of hospitals and sting like wounds.

I happened to be the lector for that reading from Jeremiah yesterday. Listening to the words come out of my mouth, and minutes later listening to the words from Matthew rolling out from the priest, I found myself thinking about the lectionary–and about the place of scripture in the liturgy–in a new way. It actually struck me as being quite like the experience of talk therapy, in which part of the point is to provide a safe place to tell the impossibly hard stories. Let me explain.

Here we were, listening to Jeremiah tell me that being a prophet was like being raped by God, and to Jesus telling me that the cost of speaking God’s love would be slander, exile from my family, and violent death. But we heard these words, as always, within the context of safety that liturgy gives us: We come together in a place that we have deemed to be holy, in a time that we have set apart as sacred. We sing, bear candles, wear vestments, enfold ourselves in prayer. We have a time and a place appointed for the passages that trouble us as well as the passages that set us at ease. Within the safety of this ritual, the words are not made easy. We don’t get to skip ahead to the happy ending. But somehow, we are able to bear them.

I know what you need.

I’ve been thinking recently about evangelism. They haven’t been comfortable thoughts.

Evangelism weirds me out. I can’t get comfortable with the idea of going up to random people and telling them, “I know what you need [spoiler: it’s Jesus].” As a matter of fact, I don’t know what you need. I barely, if ever, know what I need. And people who are sure, without knowing me well, that they know what I need—church people, health care people, other people’s mothers—tend to be disastrously wrong, and to piss me off correspondingly.

A story: I was in the psych ward, again. I was sitting in the dining room, eating styrofoamy hospital ice cream and having a conversation with another patient about meds: bitching about prescribers, swapping side-effect horror stories, and sharing what has actually worked. This kind of low-key, repetitive insider bonding takes up a large percentage of one’s time on an inpatient unit, and forms a significant part of the healing process. For me, though, no meds had worked, and so I was telling my friend how my psychiatrist and I had decided to stop all my medications, and what a positive decision that had been for me. At this point a nearby staff member (a young edwardian-mustache-and-pocket-watch hipster) who’d been in the room but not part of the conversation interjected. “You know,” he said in a let-me-instruct-you tone, “A lot of psychiatric medications take a very long time to get into your system and take effect. So if you’re expecting them to start helping right away, you might be disappointed. You should make sure to wait a couple of months before you discontinue a medication.” Mental health crises tend to lower my bullshit tolerance dramatically, so instead of a polite “thank you,” I said bluntly, “Yeah. I know. After fifteen or so different medications, I did actually figure that out.”
The next day I pulled Mustache Dude aside and told him that it was patronizing, offputting, and unhelpful for him to barge into our conversation with his unneeded “advice.” I told him that it had already been heartbreaking for me to have my hopes for aid dashed again and again as one after another medication failed, without his implying that it was my own fault. I told him (maybe not in so many words) that his bedside manner needed work if he was going to be successful in mental health care. He apologized, but it was clear that he didn’t really understand what he had done wrong, wasn’t going to reflect deeply on it, and was simply humoring me. I let it go.

I think what Mustache Dude did here is sort of what we do with church, a lot of the time. We barge into other people’s lives without bothering to understand the context. “I know what you need: Jesus!” Never mind that it’s impossible to live in America today and not have Jesus (or something that gets called Jesus) be part of your consciousness whether you will or no. Never mind that, for so many people, faith communities have been loci of pain, shame, neglect, or hypocrisy, and asking them to come to church with you might well be asking them to relive trauma. Never mind that plenty of atheists and agnostics would say that they are quite happy and fulfilled already; that there isn’t actually a God-shaped hole in their lives, thank you all the same.

And yet–

And yet, when things in my life bring me great joy, I want those things for others; and I am sure that this urge to share what is good is itself a great good. And yet, Christians are called, by scripture and tradition, to evangelize, whatever that means. Euangelion, the Gospel, the good news. How do I take that seriously? How do I share the things that make my life good while still respecting other peoples’ autonomy and ability to know what is best for themselves? For me, this is part of a larger question: How do I reconcile ways that the church has been such a force for good in my life (and in the lives of so many) with the ways in which it has been such a cause of suffering? Books on what made the early Church successful, posts on earning the right to invite people to church, all the brass tacks that I originally set out to talk about here, they all come down to this: how do I–how dare I–invite others into this complicated relationship? How do I know whether it is what they need?

Mental illness and the Body of Christ

I spent the other day at the cathedral church for my diocese, going through the required training program to become a Eucharistic Visitor. (A Eucharistic Visitor—EV—is someone who brings fellowship and the Eucharist to members of the congregation who can’t make it to church for some reason.) It was…interesting. Some of it was new; some of it was useful; some of it was infuriating. For the most part, I felt a real camaraderie develop among the 16 or so of us trainees, who came from several different area churches. As the day progressed, I was impressed by the strength of faith, theology, empathy, and openness of my fellow trainees.

A large chunk of the training involved witnessing and performing role-played scenarios of the types of visits we might encounter. We were handed slips of paper with a brief description of the visitee’s age, situation in life, and temperament: Man, 79, is recovering from knee replacement surgery at home and is in generally good spirits but lonely and desirous of company. 66-year-old woman is dying of cancer in a hospital bed and has trouble speaking or swallowing. 89-year-old woman has recently moved to an assisted care facility; she is gregarious and invites several friends to participate in communion with her. We split into pairs and took turns playing the visitor and the visited; afterward we’d gather as a group to reflect on our encounters. Emphasis was placed on developing our empathy, both through practicing active listening and through creatively imagining ourselves into the situations we were given.

Great. Good. Until one pair of trainees turned out to have had a scenario involving a 21-year-old woman who was in a psychiatric ward for suicidality. And then—and I’m not sure exactly how to describe this—the atmosphere changed palpably. There was a discussion, punctuated by furrowed brows and wise nods, of how hard and unusual and strange this situation was, how difficult to reach the woman being visited, how glad everyone else was that they hadn’t drawn that slip of paper that would require them to pretend to be a young woman in a psych ward. Perhaps the most concrete example of what I mean is that one of the training leaders said, “Well, I just can’t imagine being 21 years old.”* Someone else immediately chimed in, “Let alone being suicidal!” It felt as though the discussion had abruptly shifted from exploring how to put ourselves imaginatively into someone else’s shoes to a relieved consensus that such empathy was obviously impossible.

This description is far more nuanced than I could have given at the time. In the moment, all I was aware of was the shock of going from feeling warm, welcomed, and safe to the opposite extremes. I could feel myself shaking with anger and struggling not to cry. I excused myself to the bathroom for a few minutes. I glared at my reflection in the mirror, balled and unballed my fists, wiped my eyes, took a breath, and went back out. The conversation had moved on, and no one had noticed that anything was wrong. Our day ended shortly thereafter.

What was wrong, exactly? I’ve spent some time pondering the situation, and here’s what I’ve come up with. We had been invited—directed—to put ourselves into the situations of the people we might be called upon to visit. The leaders reminded us repeatedly that one of the purposes of the exercise was to imagine what it was like for our visitees. But no one wanted to play the young woman in the psych ward. No one wanted to imagine what her life—my life—has been. And instead of acknowledging this reluctance as coming from discomfort, they said, “oh, it’s obviously too hard. It’s impossible, really.” And all these lovely, empathetic, warm, thoughtful people pushed me away, without even realizing that they were doing it.

You know what? I can imagine what it might be like to be 89 and in an assisted living facility. To feel your body change and start to fail you, and to worry that your mind will do the same. To feel that others are beginning to see you as irrelevant, while you know that you have more to offer than ever. To lose the dignity of autonomy. I can imagine what it might be like to live with chronic physical pain, or to lose one’s spouse of many years to death or divorce. I’m sure that what I imagine is different from individual reality; and I don’t think that putting myself into someone else’s shoes gives me any kind of ownership over their situation. But I try to imagine these things, and (even if I don’t always succeed in this) I try to listen to the narratives I hear from others for whom these things are a reality. So why did it feel as though these people were unwilling to do the same for me? Why, when we talk about mental illness in community,** is it always “them,” never “us”?

A suggestion: people are scared. This seems reasonable to me. We don’t want to think about bad things happening to us; we don’t know how we’ll deal with changes that shatter our world. We do nonetheless share a cultural understanding that we might get cancer, however shocking it inevitably is when it happens. We know that our best-case scenario involves growing old and the hardships that come with that. We know that all marriages end, whether by death or divorce. (See [please!] Louis C. K. on the matter.) But it’s terrifying to imagine that the sadness and despair that we all experience at some point could balloon, could devour our lives until we actively seek death. We don’t want that to be part of the human experience. We don’t want to be able to empathize with this. Perhaps on some level we’re afraid that, if we put ourselves into a suicidal person’s shoes, we’ll never be able to take them off.

I have been there, and I understand it. I find that even among the narratives of those who have been hospitalized for depression, there’s a curious desire to distinguish between the ones who are “really” crazy and the ones who just, you know, happen to be there. Between them and us. But there is no them; there’s only us.

Afterward, I wondered why this small incident of alienation had stung so much. It’s not as though something similar doesn’t happen pretty much every time mental illness comes up in pretty much any group I happen to be in. It’s not as though this was in any way unique or drastic in the annals of people alienating one another. What I kept thinking of was 1 Corinthians 12:21: “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you,’ nor the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.'” This was a Christian context, and I had felt safe as a member of the Body of Christ. Until I didn’t.

*I should note that I appeared to be the youngest person in the room by perhaps 15-20 years.

**”In community” is important. One-on-one, I’ve found people to be remarkably sympathetic and usually eager to share stories of their own encounters with mental illness, either personally or in someone close to them. When I tell one person about my hospitalizations, I actually often have the opposite problem (though I suspect it comes from the same emotional place): they want to assure me that they know exactly how I feel, and they often have trouble listening to me because they’re filling the space with their own stories of depression. This bugs me, but I’ve certainly done precisely the same thing to other people more than I’d care to admit.

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.