“Life is difficult.” (M. Scott Peck)
Most people can at least partly resonate with Peck’s characterization of the human experience. There is no doubt that life can be filled, at least at times, by suffering. Indeed, almost half of the adults in the United States will meet the criteria for a mental illness at some point in their lives. For these individuals, mental illness often is the most common thread that ties together daily experience. And, of course, the effects of mental illness do not stop with the ones afflicted. Mental illness has a major impact on the loved ones of those who are diagnosed as well.
The kind of “unhappiness” that comes with mental illness is the subject of one of the chapters of the book by Frederick Bauerschmidt that I have been discussing in recent posts called “Why the Mystics Matter Now.” In this post, I reflect on the applications of Christian mysticism made in this chapter to the experience of mental illness.
St. Augustine sometimes wrote as someone who understood mental illness from the inside. In his “Confessions,” Augustine writes of his younger self:
“I had become to myself a vast problem. . . I found myself heavily weighed down by a sense of being tired of living and scared of dying. . . I had become to myself a place of unhappiness in which I could not bear to be; but I could not escape from myself.”
This sense of frustration with one’s self, feeling that one is a “vast problem” from which one cannot “escape” provides an insightful analysis of the experience of mental illness.
The focus of Bauerschmidt’s chapter is on the insights of the mystic Julian of Norwich, who wrote that “it sometimes is necessary for souls to feel this way.” Bauerschmidt comments that:
“No matter how hard we try to ‘fix’ ourselves, no matter how good we try to be – eating well, exercising, going to our therapist, taking our Prozac – there is no way to absolutely insure that the darkness of depression will not fall on us.”
What is the purpose of such pain? In the Gospel of John, there is a story of a man who was born blind. The disciples asked Jesus about this:
“‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’ ‘Neither this man nor his parents sinned,’ said Jesus, ‘but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him.'” (John 9:2-3)
From a Christian perspective, then, one of the purposes of suffering might be that the suffering causes people to seek and fulfill a higher purpose.
There may be other purposes in suffering as well. For instance, suffering motivates helping and interdependence with others. It teaches people what it is like to be in pain, which builds empathy and compassion. Suffering is a great teacher, something which we all hope to avoid, but which in the end makes us better.
When I think of some of the ways in which I have suffered in my life, I surely see these truths. Watching my mom die at a young age from cancer, seeing my wife go through cancer treatments while raising young children, and struggling deeply at times worry and anxiety has taught me of my personal limitations, of my need for a consistent spiritual Source to which to turn for refuge, strength, and inspiration. These difficulties, though painful, have taught me to develop empathy and compassion for others. In the end, they have been good, if not easy.
In conclusion, Bauerschmidt notes:
“In doing this work, Julian understands us to be imitating, even sharing in, the work of Jesus. For Julian, the passion of Jesus, his suffering on the cross, was. . . a sharing in the sufferings of all humanity. . . [I]t is through this. . . that we can understand our own existence as coming from, rooted in, and headed toward the dazzling goodness of God, and we can come to share the conviction that joy is more basic to existence than pain.”
The quote from Augustine is excellent; what a wonderful reflection on the problem of being a self. I’m not so sure that “mental illness” is what we are most in danger of when we can’t negotiate that problem, though. The term is too much associated with a disease model for describing emotional distress. How about “despair” as Kierkegaard used the term? He said almost everyone is in despair in that we both despair of being a self and despair because we can’t escape the self we are.