Madness as a Tool of the New Creation
by Eve Lewis Perera
In beginning this study, I was unsure whether the term "madness" could be used, as I desired, to mean not only frenzy or mania - its most common denotation but also melancholia or depression. The Oxford English Dictionary (1398) gives ancient authority for that double definition: And this passions ben dyuers madnesse that hyghte mania [Mania] and madnesse that hyght Male acolonia [Melancholy].
Modern usage does not keep the double meaning, but I intend to do so in this writing.
The condition known as depression must be virtually the same as that known to our forebears as Melancholy. The root meaning of the latter is "black bile"; its association with the medieval "four humors" is doubtless one reason why a generation more sophisticated in physiology has discarded it. But "choler" or bile by extension means "anger". The root meanings of "melancholy" are still singularly appropriate for depression: as their days wear on in sullen non-cooperation, depressives are told by mental health professionals that they are filled with unexpressed anger. The mood is "black" because the feelings are in darkness, concealed, as opposed to "red anger" or rage in someone who tends to violence. We think we know more about human motivations than the ancients did, but I wonder. With all their inexpertise in physiology, they understood matters of thought and will better than most moderns.
Because it is so passive, our contemporaries commonly see depression as not being a matter of choice or will at all. One is simply a victim, and much more to be pitied - however annoying at times - than the "high," frenzied, maniacal or violent person who indulges in "acting out." Seen in relation to the will, however, both disorders must be "madness" - not "mental illness" which one catches somehow, but "mental disorder": disordered thinking and feeling that result from a series of choices. Modern popularizers, such as Phyllis Chesler in Women and Madness, blame the "system" or certain groups for an individual's madness. I submit, however, that except for certain inherited conditions, the "victim's" own will was involved in the genesis of the disorder and must be involved in its cure. Furthermore, the disease symptoms themselves can be seem as pan of the cure, the visible festering of a boil that has all along harbored intolerable poisons hut now commands a painful lancing.
As someone who experienced both mania and melancholia some years ago, and has grown to perceive them as God's instruments in healing and taming a wounded and rebellious will, I am interested to explore the possibility that madness is a kind of "unmaking" to which God our Maker occasionally resorts. The person's mind, losing its habitual order, becomes like the unshaped matter that was God's first step in creation: "and the earth was without form and void." So resistant has it been (for reasons both voluntary and involuntary ) to acquiring the "mind of Christ" that God must in mercy temporarily remove all competence from it.
The personality is like an eccentric pot, removed from the wheel to be banged into shapelessness, and then shaped again, this time well-centered and "true."
Some pots thus unshaped, it would appear, are not given that second chance on the wheel, but become history's sad warnings, fuel for such sayings as: "whom the Gods would destroy they first make mad" (Longfellow). So Nietzche, his productive years filled with brilliant blasphemies, ended his days in futile syphilitic madness.
The poet Gerard Manley Hopkins was born in the same year as Nietzche, 1844. He too experienced madness, in the form of paralyzing depression and dread, and has described them with searing power. Hut as a believing Christian, Hopkins saw his emotional struggles as pan of God's shaping and purifying work in him. He too saw the mind's pain and confusion as God's "unmaking".:
Thou hast bound bones and veins in me, fastened me flesh,
And after it almost unmade, what with dread,
Thy doing... (The Wreck of the Deutsch land, 5-7)
He does not cheapen emotional pain into a formula, as do many who have never experienced it:
O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall
Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. Hold them cheap
May who ne'er hung there. ("No worst," 9-11)
In the midst of his pain he proclaims its purpose, because he is never "unmade" enough to despair: "Why? That my chaff might fly; my grain lie, sheer and clear." (Carrion Comfort, 9) Trapped in a lump of ruined self-righteousness, he knows that the divine purpose marks the only real difference between a downcast believer and any other depressed person:
Selfyeast of spirit a dull dough sours, I see
The lost are like this, and their scourge to be
As I am mine, their sweating selves; but worse.
("I wake and Feel..," 12-14)
As a high school and college student, this writer discovered and delighted in Hopkins's early sonnets celebrating the natural Creation, but shunned the "Terrible Sonnets" in horror. Now they have become very precious, as has the knowledge that Hopkins's last words (he died of typhoid at the age of 45) were "I am so happy I am so happy I am so happy."
For some who long for righteousness, then, madness can be a crisis in which the individual learns to apprehend and to obey God in a way never before suspected. One hesitates to call a bout of sick unreason either necessary or desirable; our self-respect would prefer that, if suffer we must, the means of suffering be more physical, less demeaning. In my own experience however, that self-respect was born of the very stiff pride of one who, having long felt unloved and rejected, had determined by her own (chiefly intellectual) efforts to earn love and acceptance. Self-effort toward righteousness or worthiness is never God's way for us (it doesn't even work); and he must use whatever means necessary to let us know this. Because my mind was my most cherished faculty, I particularly dreaded madness and despised any hint of it in others. But it was madness that God chose to teach me at last to "tremble at his word" (see Isaiah 66:2).
I thought at the time of a Dylan Thomas title, Disorder and Early Sorrow, perhaps because my mind needed to experience disorder while its "early sorrow" was being healed. I also thought of what Job had said: "The thing I greatly feared is come upon me" (Job 3:25, KJV).
Job, whose woes were physical at the outset, also came to know "anguish of spirit," "bitterness of sour' (Job 7:11, NIV). Even his bed, the place to which anguished spirits retreat in vain, was no comfort, bringing him the terrifying dreams and visions (or "hallucinations") that mental patients know so well.
When I think my bed will comfort me
And my couch will ease my complaint,
Even then you frighten me with dreams
And terrify me with visions. (Job 7:13-14, NIV)
Job sees what has happened to him as an unmaking, like that of a potter:
Your hands shaped and made me -
Will you now turn and destroy me?
Remember that you molded me like clay;
Will you now turn me to dust again? (Job 10:8-9)
Job's trials started at the instigation of Satan, the "accuser of the brethren," who was certain that this man's faithfulness to God was based only on the material comfort he has received. It strikes me that, through one means or another, this accuser makes such a challenge in the life of every believer. He tries to prove to God that His people prefer to eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil - deciding what is "good" to do (today's criterion is "if it feels good, do it"), doing it, and expecting a reward - in preference to the tree of life, or a living and deliberate dependence upon God for righteousness and for sustenance, no matter what the consequences.
At first Job's righteousness - doing all the "right" things, dealing honestly in trade, sacrificing on behalf of his children, could just as well have been following a list of spiritual do's and don'ts ( a popular habit among "churchy" people), which is in effect "eating from the tree of knowledge." But as his prosperity, his health, his very reason were undone, he reached a place of desolation in which God could speak to him, and from which he could know God's sovereignty and righteousness in his inmost being, rather than just because he had been taught facts about God:
My ears had heard of you But now my eyes have seen you; Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes (42:5-6).
Job's "latter end was blessed more than his beginning," but those physical blessings were merely a surface sign of the newly blessed attitude he had been given at such terrible cost. In our pride, some of us are so convinced that we ourselves can be righteous that we are not surprised when our almsgiving is visible and appreciated by all; secretly, though, we hate ourselves for not measuring up to that of which we believe ourselves capable. God then sometimes uses unreason or disorder to build in us his own reason. When at last we "despise ourselves" and repent, he can show us how unconditional is his love for us. We have wanted the love of others to be based on our success, our form or comeliness; but we must all come to the place at which the Lord Jesus was most precious to the Father: when, marred past recognition by his execution, "he hath no form no comeliness" (Isaiah 53:2).
Preeminent among scriptural examples of madness is King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon (Daniel 1-4). When Daniel interpreted for him his dream of the great statue of gold, silver, bronze, and iron mixed with clay, the king acknowledged that the God of Israel was a "revealer of mysteries," a source of knowledge. Then, however, he set up a statue of himself all of gold. Apart from its prophetic application to historical kingdoms, this story shows what men everywhere do when possessed of a little knowledge (even if that knowledge comes from God) so long as they persist in thinking of themselves as righteous. God makes them aware of a self that, because he created it, contains some gold along with baser metals and clay. But they take the knowledge and use it for their own glory, fashioning an image or public personality made of pure gold, all sin or imperfection denied or excused - that others are to worship.
Perhaps that public idol of the self is the most important "graven image" we are commanded not to make, in this age when few of us worship statues. That public self is the creation of human artifice. The stone of Nebuchadnezzar's dream, on the other hand, like the unhewn altar stones of early Old Testament days, has never known the touch of human artifice. It is just as God gave it, the Rock of our salvation, and it destroys any idol, however complex. Similarly, it is only the unadorned personality that God shapes in us that we need share with others. If we will not let our "yea be yea, and nay be nay," we are busily justifying and embroidering ourselves so as to be admired.
When Nebuchadnezzar asked the populace to worship the statue, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego refused: "0 Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to defend ourselves before you in this matter. If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to save us from it, and he will rescue us from your hand, 0 king. But even if he does not, we want you to know, 0 king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up." (Daniel 3:16-18) That is the attitude the godly man can take toward all "public images," whether his own or another's. He does not need to defend himself. Because God is his protector, he is not afraid to refuse worship to others' idols of themselves. Nebuchadnezzar was livid at the refusal, as have been many whose self-idolatrous pretensions were exposed by the Lord Jesus. But the three young men were rescued from the flames into which he had them thrown. The King was filled with admiration, and passed a decree that anyone speaking against the Hebrews' God would be cut to pieces and his house reduced to rubble. He still had not understood God's sovereign claim on his own life, or the intolerable nature of his pride. So God used madness for his humbling. This king more glorious than all his fellows was made to live out in the rains like an animal, his sanity gone and his hair and nails growing without check. He had been warned about this in a dream interpreted by Daniel, but his pride and boasting in his own magnificence had continued despite the warning. After the humiliating, terrifying period of madness, however, Nebuchadnezzar said for the first time: "Now I, Nebuchadnezzar, praise and exalt and glorify the King of heaven, because everything he does is right and all his ways are just. And those who walk in pride he is able to humble." (4:37, NIV)
The above insights have some echoes in contemporary psychiatry. Dr. Theodore Isaac Rubin, author of the book that was made into the award-winning film "David and Lisa," regards a nervous collapse as a "cleansing temper tantrum," entirely beneficial if it is allowed to do its work thoroughly. "A nervous breakup," he says, "consists of a breakup of a tenuous neurotic structure designed to hold a lot of half truths about oneself in place."' Dr. Karl Menninger, in The Vital Balance, talks about people's being "weller than well" achieving at a peak of effectiveness after a mental collapse or depression and recovery.
Informal conversations several years apart with two staff psychiatrists at the Austen Riggs Center, Stockliridge, Mass., suggest that certain of their colleagues would share the view that a "nervous breakdown" can have constructive effects, even though such an event is always more to be prevented than sought. Unfortunately, very few psychiatrists are willing to draw on divine resources during a patient's "reconstruction." As a result, the healing repentance takes in only certain attitudes, not the entire life.
Those psychiatrists who respect the supernatural, like the late Dr. Carl Jung, or a writer-psychologist like Dr. Phillip Slater (The Wayward Gate), give it such an undiscriminating welcome that there is great danger that occultism may obscure the things of God. This is terrifyingly ironic, for as "occult" means "dark" or "hidden," some past contact with occult forces (drugs, Ouija boards, yoga or TM, even in my case a childhood "pirate vow") has nearly always played a role in the development of mental darkness or madness, solidifying the will's resistance to retraining.
There is much more exploration to be done on this issue, and the writer would welcome comments or suggestions from other readers of this journal.