Grace and Peace to you.
A man of the city who had demons met him.
For a long time he had worn no clothes,
and he did not live in a house but in the tombs.
Listen to the way we use the words “crazy” or “insane,” as in “That’s just crazy” or “If you think that, you’re insane.” The way we usually use those words we don’t mean “mentally ill.” We mean “wrong,” “stupid,” “obstinate,” “unwise” or “having a bad attitude.” Sometimes we mean “imaginative” or “exceptional,” but usually there’s a negative connotation to it. There’s a difference between being mentally ill and being stupid, but I’m not sure our use of words help us see that. When we accuse people of being “crazy” because they disagree with us or make choices we don’t like, we make it hard not to think that there’s something ”wrong” with people who are mentally ill. Many people who are in prison or homeless are not at fault: they’re limited by aspects of their brain functions that they can’t control. But it’s hard for us not to blame them.
Just as with our joints and our digestive system and all our other parts, sometimes with our brains things don’t work smoothly. When people have cancer we don’t think there’s anything wrong with them; we feel sorry for them. But when they’re bipolar or OCD or depressed or have schizophrenia we feel like there’s something wrong with them or their attitude, as if they’re making a bad choice. Because it affects their personality we feel as if there’s something wrong with who they are as a person. Hence the stigma around mental illness—and the way we say “crazy” when we mean “wrong.”
Maybe it was better to think that people were possessed by demons. It took seriously that a person is sometimes under the influence of forces they can’t control. It allowed people to think of one as a good person possessed by bad spirits—like germs— instead of just a bad person. Jesus recognized each person as a soul, independent of their mental state. He could see the worthy, beautiful sane person beneath the demons, and he set people free from those demons.
We are not likely to “cure” mental illnesses with prayer as Jesus did. But we can at least see people who have mental challenges with compassion and faith. We can avoid implying that mental illness is a matter of choice or attitude. We can honor the soul that is whole and healthy within each of us, regardless of the functioning of our brain. In fact, we’re all a little insane: a little deluded and insensitive; often controlled by unhealthy thoughts, feelings, images, fears, memories and fantasies; a little out of touch with reality. We’re all a little crazy, and also infinitely blessed, loved and honored. So be careful how you use that word.
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