Monday, November 11, 2013

The Chain Saw in My Brain

Jesus said to his disciples,
“Things that cause sin will inevitably occur;
but woe to the one through whom they occur.
It would be better for him if a millstone we
re put around his neck
and he be thrown into the sea
than for him to cause one of these little ones to sin" (Luke 17:1-2).

Oh no. Jesus said, "Woe!" That gets my attention.

<And the mental gears start to turn and turn and turn and SPIN, brroom, brrooooooom!>
"Oh woe, woe... woe to ME. I'm a crummy father, that's what I am, and my little ones are going to sin because I'm not doing enough to teach them, protect them, stop them, help them, love them, give them a good example, work them harder, appreciate them, teach them, show them, help them, I'm not doing enough, I give a bad example, I'm not doing enough, I'm not doing enough...."
<"John, TURN OFF THE CHAIN SAW!"> Says the voice of an old priest friend of mine. Its a voice in my memory, reminding me that my mind is a chain saw that cuts through obstacles and barriers to see the truth of things, but sometimes it gets turned around and then it starts cutting my brain into pieces. Turn off the chain saw! But its spinning around and I've lost control and I don't know how to shut it off!
. . . .

It can be a simple thing, like hearing the reading from this morning's Gospel. Suddenly, I am tempted to feel like Jesus is condemning me personally. I feel like I'm the person who should be thrown into the sea with the millstone around my neck; I'm the goat to whom He says, "Depart from me;" I'm the guy not properly dressed at the wedding feast; I'm the Pharisee, the hypocrite, the one who Jesus looks at and just wants to thrash.

I'm not sure whether other people are troubled in quite this way. But it troubles me. Sometimes Jesus in the gospels feels like He's hard to get close to. I feel like He's saying, "I'm not going to love you and be your friend until you straighten out your life. Go away and fix yourself and come back when you are worthy."

But I know that He isn't saying that to me.

The devil would like for me to believe these thoughts. The devil wants me to be afraid of Jesus, or to get discouraged and just give up. He meddles in all of this. But he is not running the chain saw. Nor is it (simply) a spiritual bad attitude or a lack of self-esteem or a failure by me to do this or that. Certainly my failures are abundant. But that is not where the root of this problem lies.

My brain is "tilted" -- the images and the words get associated with the wrong memories, and certain problems (that may have some basis in reality) are filtered through a hormonal/neurochemical matrix that distorts them or exaggerates their intensity. And thus the images pour through my brain and the ideas and judgments arise in my mind. Intelligence and freedom are on the scene here, but they are limping badly. This delicately constructed body-soul human person has a sickness.

We experience illness in ourselves by self-reflection. If I cut my arm, I feel the pain and I see the blood and I say, "I cut myself." That's simple enough. If I start to lose my hearing suddenly, I might be more confused. I might think, "Why is everything so quiet?" I might tell people to speak louder. I might not realize that I myself have the affliction. When the affliction involves the complexities of the brain, the nervous system, and all the factors that shape perception, it can be very difficult for me to recognize it in myself, to see that there is an illness that is hindering me in the activity of understanding and judging reality and myself.

But even with the reflective effort to understand a "mental" illness, backed by mountains of clinical and scientific study, I still lack the full emotional strength of conviction. Even as I write this, my mind says, "are you sure this isn't all baloney? Are you sure you're not the Pharisee or the hypocrite...?" The illness is so close to my sense of self, much closer than if I just had a broken leg. In the latter case, I wouldn't have these thoughts. I'd just look at my leg. (So would other people, and that would be a lot easier for them too.)

And we have also a real intersection with the self, the conscience, and freedom here. Maybe I am a bit of a Pharisee. But we must lay that to one side for the moment, and face the fact that we are dealing with a sickness. This is not a freely chosen position in front of reality. This is an affliction that distorts reality, like clouds cover the sun.

I don't know how much of a hypocrite I really am. I'm a sinner. I know that. But my mind, with all its rich intensity thwarted by distortion, can take that "negative" factor and blow it way out of proportion and focus.

What can I do, here and now? Before I take Jesus's rebukes and use them to condemn myself, can my reason enter into the matter and at least do some mental pain management?

Yes. If intelligence can still limp, it should at least limp. By limping we can move in the right direction. So in this case, I have to remember that Jesus is speaking to the whole human race, and that there are some very, very, very BAD people out there. Its not judgmental or self-righteous to acknowledge the fact that some people are knowingly and deliberately malicious; there are people who like being bad, people who decide to be bad, which is to say, to oppose what they understand to be "the Good," and not out of weakness but out of strength. Some people are like this... maybe many people are like this.

Jesus warns and threatens in graphic ways because He loves these people too. He's trying to wake them up, not just from sleep, but from a self-induced coma.

This is a reasonable supposition for me to make, but it does not follow that I can sit down and decide who those really, really bad people are. Another person's freedom does not manifest itself so plainly to us. It plays itself out within all the complexity of a particular human person of body and soul and so many hindrances including those I've described above, We know what's good and what's evil, but since we can't read hearts, we can't really judge to what extent someone is willfully bad and to what extent they are afflicted and distorted because they are sick, or wounded by life, or carrying terrible hidden sufferings. Only Jesus can know that. He knows what each person needs to hear.

Jesus is Compassionate Truth: He is
the Truth who comes to dwell with us.
He is Mercy who has come to save us.
I'm a sinner. I want to follow Jesus, but I'm weak. Yes, I sin. Sometimes stubbornly. But Compassionate Truth comes to get me. Truth is hard, but its also my companion that helps me up each step and sometimes even carries me. It deeply understands my weakness and how to work it into strength, with patience. The voice of Jesus to me is always the voice of "Compassionate Truth." I'm a sinner. Jesus loves sinners. He came to save sinners.

If I read the Gospel and feel condemned by it and rejected as an evil person, that is not Jesus talking. Its not my conscience talking. Its depression that's talking; its obsessive compulsive disorder that's talking; its this complex affliction that's talking, blowing my faults completely out of proportion. I'm sensitive, perceptive, and I think deeply, but my neurological / psychological / emotional condition sends all of that down the sink toward the negative: All I can hear is "Maybe I'm the bad one. Why is He so mad at me? I feel terrible about myself!" If I find vanity, self-centeredness, or mixed motives in myself (as I inevitably will), the chain saw starts cutting and digging in to get the badness, to get every bit of it, but it never finds it all, it never gets it out. So it keeps cutting....

And if I happen to be feeling okay with Jesus, I can easily find something else to obsess about and get down on myself: I worry about the next doctor's appointment, the next writing deadline, trying to sleep or accomplish other basic life tasks that should be easy, or getting sick or dying, whatever. The chain saw looks for things to cut. Sometimes I get a handle on it, and I see that it can be used to build, to open up places, and to bring order and clarity to the world outside of myself. But its hard to keep it turned in the direction of reality and the task at hand.

I've had forty years of this kind of stuff (not all the time, but on and off, dormant then triggered... more recently, much better but far from cured). I've learned to deal with the medical and emotional aspects, and do that as much as is necessary. "Success" here is not "being medication and therapy free" -- success is having things more or less in perspective (if meds and therapy are necessary for that, for however long, its no big deal... I thank God for the help).

And I also have to tell my mind: "Listen to the voice of Compassionate Truth, of mercy. Tell the condemnations to SHUT UP!"

Its not easy, but its possible. It can be done. I have learned over the years, however, that it cannot be done alone.