Soul Survivor: Mental Health and Social Wellness

© Rev. Hilary Landau Krivchenia 2005. All Rights Reserved.
By Rev. Hilary Landau Krivchenia
Unitarian Universalist Church of Lafayette, Indiana
April 3, 2005


John Clare who lived from 1793 to 1864. An English poet who suffered from a depression that his writing could sometimes soothe, that sometimes silenced him, and that consumed his mind beyond the reach of his poetry to heal.

I feel I am – I only know I am
And plod upon the earth as dull and void:
Earth’s prison chilled my body with its dram
Of dullness and my soaring thoughts destroyed.
I fled to solitudes from passion’s dream,
But strife pursued – I only know I am,
I was a being created in the race
Of men disdaining bounds of place and time –
A spirit that could travel oer the space
Of heaven and earth like a thought sublime,
Tracing creation like my maker, free –
A soul unshackled – like eternity,
Spurning earth’s vain and soul-debasing thrall
But now I only know I am – that’s all.

Virginia Woolf in On Being Ill wrote:

The wave of life flings itself out indefatigueably. It is only the recumbent who know what, after all, nature is at no pains to conceal – that she in the end will conquer. Even so, when the whole world is sheeted and slippery, some undulation, some irregularity of surface will mark the boundary of an ancient garden, and there, thrusting its head up undaunted in the starlight, the rose will flower, the crocus will burn.

Whispers in the Rain – Words and Music by Judy Collins, Denise Rich, Michael O’Hara

Whispers in the rain
So quiet you can hardly hear the pain
Sons and daughters of us all
Listen to the call
In the whispers in the rain
Rain comes pouring down
And they cry without a sound
Hear the whispers in the rain
Pray for love today
Drive the tears away
Wrap me in your arms
Could the future still be ours to have
Can we reach beyond the scars
Sons and daughters of us all
Listen to the call
In the whispers in the rain


It’s spring – early and uneven. Earthy life. I love the variety of plants – their steadfastness as they come back to life — from the delicate phlox to the upright tulip to the risk taking crocus. I love their sturdiness coming back season after season – but also I love the beauty of tigers, the strength of bears, the speed of pumas, the grace of swans – and I love the human animal – creative – Najinsky, Beethoven, Van Gogh, Martha Graham, Langston Hughes, Jackson Pollock, Martin Luther King, Lenny Bruce, Virginia Woolf – well – think for moment of a person – famous or not – whose creativity reminds you of just how fine, how amazing the human animal can be. It’s that quality that I think of when I think of the human soul – it’s that quality that I celebrate and worship. We are as lovely, strong, as varied, and as delicate as any growing thing on earth – from Van Gogh to the Sunflower.

Shakespeare said it! “What a piece of work is man! How noble in reason! how infinite in faculty! in form and moving how express and admirable! in action how like an angel! in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the world! the paragon of animals!”

Our workings are more miraculous than clocks and more mysterious than computers. We are no higher nor better than nature – we are nature, of and in it – but our nature is creative – innovative, and complex. We can speak – as Shakespeare — in infinite variety of our celebrations of life. It is because humans – because life – has this capacity for creativity that we also experience suffering and brokenness.

Shakespeare through the voice of Hamlet cried out in that same passage — And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust? I have of late-but wherefore I know not — lost all my mirth; indeed it goes so heavily with my disposition that this goodly frame, the earth, seems to me a sterile promontory, this most excellent canopy, the air, look you, this brave o’erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted with golden fire, why, it appears no other thing to me than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours.

This week the newspapers were filled with the debate about Terri Schiavo and an orgy of public grieving for someone who no longer had to live in prolonged twilight. I know that Terri Shaivo’s suffering and death have cost her family — her husband and parents both. In the meantime, I’ve thought about the young people in our community – the four year old girl murdered by her parents – where was the national – the international outcry at this horrific death? I have thought about the suicides that have visited our community and that visit the world’s communities. Where is the outcry that our young people are dying from mental illnesses of all kinds? I have surely thought about young Michael Peyton who ended his own life two weeks ago – after suddenly loosing all his mirth, his hope, his resilience -despite the love and attention of his family.

Mental illness arises directly from our wonder and beauty – the miracle of the complexity of life beneath this majestical roof. It arises from our being mind/body/spirit – we are embodied. Plants are the soil and sun from they grow – they’re dust and starlight just as we. The soil, light, seed, rain, the blossom are all active participants in the creation of life. I don’t mean that we’re planted in bodies and limited by them until our souls are released – oh no! We’re enlivened and empowered by our bodies to be infinite – though not eternal – infinite in vision and possibilities. We use the term mental illness but that very label illustrates our misunderstanding. It sounds as though mental illness exists a) in the head that somehow it is a failure of thinking alone b) as though it is a symptom to be treated c) that it is the trouble of this case or that case – a personal thing.

We’ve begun to understand that mental illness is not just a mental thing – we’re embodied – our bodies feel in response to our thoughts, our thoughts are shaped by our feelings. In the movie “What the bleep Do We Know” there’s a party scene and while we watch the people party we also get to watch their hormones jump and their nerves fire sending signals to their minds and vice versa. It’s a scene of dancing, flirting, arguing, chronic shyness, lust, and judgments. Our feelings and our thoughts are connected – our bodies and brain function wired into our feelings – powerfully. We often think of mental illness as a response to past hurt – but there are also many times when it’s a response to a different balance in the biochemistry of the brain and body – like certain psychoses that can emerge with hormonal changes in the body, or depression or anxiety which can be triggered by medication or even recreational drugs. So, often mental illness is the outcome of a physical process in the body. Our minds have only have power or agency in our bodies. The same circuits that may produce a Mohandas Gandhi can produce someone who sits fearful of risk, armed, in a corner. The same magic that generates humble thoughts that lead to greatness can take a swerve and result in thinking delusional thoughts of grandeur. What a piece of work! Mental Illness is not in the head alone it is in, from, and through the body.

Mental illness isn’t a symptom to be treated – either by the right thought or the right chemical – it is possible to create the groundwork for real healing – but there are no easy fixes for a condition that grips the soul. Certain medications can help some people for some time – but that’s not healing – it’s coping and it can be life-saving for those whom it helps. Healing requires a multi-faceted approach that includes the body, chemistry, mind, heart, and habits of the person struggling with mental illness. And much healing is beyond us now. Mental Illness is not a simple symptom to be treated.

Finally, mental illness isn’t confined to a person and healed by that person – single-handedly – by their bootstraps – mental illness touches everyone – it cries for healing within a social context – cries which too often go unheeded, unanswered.

And even further – mental illness is embedded in the world. It is not only a physical matter – but is exacerbated and sometimes caused by stress and trauma. These stresses and traumas can be as varied as neglect, abuse, overwhelming loss, systematic oppression, shocking tragedy. It is what we learn in each challenging situation that helps to determine the outcome – we saw this close up after September 11 and after the tsunami – though the levels of loss and devastation were very different in both cases the impact went beyond the City of New York or the South China Sea. Here in the heartland we have grieved with people we do not know, suffered with people whom we will never meet, experienced shock … and explored ways of healing – sometimes by helping and sometimes by weeping.

We’re embedded in the world and while not everyone of us suffers from mental illness we all experience degrees of suffering resulting from the countless ways in which we are effected by the world. For example, girls experience a severe drop in their self-esteem in the early teens, as they encounter a world which previously encouraged them to be engaged people, then begins to encourage them to be attractive listeners, passive partners – good girls. It may not be mental illness – but it’s a social sickness. When I think of the collective suffering of slavery I think that some deep cohesiveness of the African American community – during and after slavery and in the face of daunting odds, heartened former slaves and their descendants to fight to thrive in the face of constant discouragement and outright terrorism. Society can derange us but community and connection can call us back to the world and to the affirmation of life. We’re a social animal – we need one another for strength, for our joys and our sorrows both.

Too often our social systems become labyrinths in which you couldn’t find help with a magnifying glass. Yet we also create choices, support, communities that offer comfort and healing. We offer healing to one another through counseling, treatment, peer support, compassion, and simply bearing witness. We offer healing, sometimes, by transforming society so that we change the conditions in which people live. We need one another to thrive. We have a hunger for human connection. We always have.

John Clare was a poet born in 1793 into relative poverty in rural England. He was a good writer, published and recognized but his mind suffered. His friends sent him to a private asylum to allow him time to heal – but he continued downhill. He missed his wife and family. A passage in his journal describes him slipping away from the asylum without a penny – a journey of five days on foot. He ate grass on the roadside. He wrote: “I was making for town when a cart passed me with a man, woman, and boy in it … when nearing me the woman jumped out and caught fast hold of my hands and wished me to get into the cart but I refused and thought her either drunk or mad. But when I was told it was my wife Patty I got in … So here I am homeless at home and half gratified to feel I can be happy anywhere.” Clare’s pilgrimage home speaks to me of the natural hunger we have for connection. This feeling is turned inside out by suicides – who often take their own lives – not to punish the ones they love – but – in their tortured thinking hope to spare others the burden of their lives – as they perceive it. The hunger they have for connection is just turned inside out.

Mental illness covers the ground from high delusions to personality disorders to emotional emptiness to the conditions from which so many people suffer – anxiety and depression. If someone asked right now “What does mental illness have to do with me?” I’d say – close your eyes and imagine for a moment that all around the people nearby are dealing with mental illness in one form or another. Now open your eyes and realize that this is, most likely, true. My favorite aunt had great energy, passion for life – what Kay Redfield Jamison calls Enthusiasm in her book on bi-polarity. She took me on great adventures – but no one mentioned her illness until later in my life. When she was arrested at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, I just thought – there’s my aunt trying to save the world again. In most of our lives there are people whom we love whose mental illnesses are challenging – some leading to destructive or self-destructive behavior. We ourselves may be struggling with dramatic or quiet forms of mental illness ourselves. Excessive worry, habits of irritation, paranoia – mild or severe, depression, anxiety, panic, irritability, dependence on alcohol, workaholism, post traumatic stress syndrome — I suspect that anyone in their right mind is suffering from that these days. Perhaps calling it mental illness not only stigmatizes these conditions but is a modest delusion in which we fool ourselves that resilience or the ability not to be psychotic is sanity – perhaps it is – but perhaps we’d be less ashamed of mental illness or the struggles we have within our mind/bodies if we could recognize that our lives are always balancing acts and always have been. Delicate acts in which we face the challenge of being human with as much grace as we can muster.

Our reserve about mental illness is isolating. It can cause people not to recognize that their loss of mirth is not a statement about the condition of the world alone – nor a condition of feeling to which they are condemned. It can prevent people from clinging to life one more day while seeking one more hope and not expecting an instant fix – but knowing – that people do have to re-root themselves into the ground of life — that it can and does happen – despair is not a condition we should have to endure in isolation. Often despair grips us through a bleak winter and transforms into new growth in the spring. But unless we are told, reassured, and taught that despair happens, that our minds are not perfect – no mind is perfect – unless we know these things we are caught off guard by the power of our feelings and unskilled in understanding them. Who teaches this? If people are fortunate their families will give them some tools to face the unpredictability of life – but that is really rather rare. How much do we tell our children that feelings are real – but they are not life or death sentences – certainly we shouldn’t tell them while they’re weeping over a terrible disappointment – that’s not the time to tell anyone this too shall pass – but as we’re teaching them to say no to drugs, to make wise choices in love, and tie their shoe laces. How much do we cover in school health or even here- about signs of depression and ways to get help, how much do we provide support for those whose lives are truly oppressive so that they may seek help and healing?

Mental illness is a social responsibility. Not only because we need one another to heal – need the reassurance of a human hand and sometimes the affirmation of another person saying that we’re strong enough to make it through, or smart enough, or loved enough. And sometimes we need more – more hands, more affirmations, more love, and even, at times, medication.

Mental illness is a social responsibility because all around us are the evidences of what happens when it isn’t – when the depressed child is ignored in class or when the inability of people to emotionally weather the storms of life crowds our streets with the homeless, hungry, and despairing. They’re more likely to hang themselves than pull themselves up by their bootstraps. Someone commits suicide every 17 minutes in this country. Here is a need for us to love our neighbor.

We still speak of mental illness in hushed tones – as though it were a character weakness or a rarity unheard of in modern times. In my time serving on the Board of the Mental Health Association I’ve been inspired by the people who serve there – who are honoring the struggle of someone known and loved, who have lost a loved one to suicide, who counsel people, who want to make resources easier to access, and who care for the sanity of this world.

Our shame about mental illness is life-threatening and tragic. We purchase an external hard drive for our computers with no shame – but we have little ability to offer that sort of drive for suffering humans. Perhaps because it demands so much from us all – the willingness to take time, to be deeply and really present, to involve more people.

On the other hand — how many people here work in the mental health community in some way, counsel at a school, or support someone with a mental illness. Your support may have made a difference in the life of another person – to sustain that person’s life, to relieve the suffering of those who grieve, to empower people to take new steps – stretch, heal, and grow. You’ve nourished the seed of life in our mind/bodies. You’ve contributed to the affirmation of life and enabled the creative survival of the soul. Perhaps, in some way – sometimes with more skill and sometimes with less – we do that here – encourage soul survival. For a moment imagine that every person here is here not only for themselves but for each other and for all souls outside our walls. For a moment imagine that purpose warming the ground on which we stand and empowering our work together.

Virginia Woolf, who suffered from a mental illness which took her life, wrote: some irregularity of surface will mark the boundary of an ancient garden, and there, thrusting its head up undaunted in the starlight, the rose will flower, the crocus will burn.

There is a spirit of life that courses through the cosmos and every atom. It is in our hands to nurture that spirit of life as it bursts forth, as it manifests in every ancient garden and in one another’s lives.

Closing words:

The Life You Dream, Words by Judy Collins

There’s a time that comes once every morning
When you choose the kind of day you will have
It comes in with the sun and you know you’ve begun
To live the life you dream
You can light all your candles to the dawn
And surrender yourself to the sunrise
You can make it right
You can live the life you dream