© Mark Rahman 2009. All Rights Reserved.
Mission Peak Unitarian Universalist Congregation
August 23, 2009

As a family advocate for the Family Education & Resource Center, I am charged with helping caretakers learn how to navigate the system, to advocate for their loved ones, and in general to live in hope. Because I have traveled the same path, they know that I have a sense of their burden, their hardship. And it is families that suffer as well. Stigma does not limit itself to the person who has been diagnosed. The caretaking family member becomes separated from society. Other members of their own family withdraw and become distant. To this day an unfortunately large number of professionals lay the blame for various diagnoses on the mother or the family as a whole. Anyone who takes up the burden of care needs a different way of looking at the world and a different way for the world to look at them.

My new job has put me in the middle of a controversial environment. The mental health system, with its lack of system and frequent lack of care, sparks strong feelings on the part of those who come into contact with it. I am very sad to have to acknowledge that mental illness placements are first into the streets as a homeless person, and secondly into the jails and prisons. Society is slowly coming to the realization that this is a situation which is untenable by its cost in lives and money and the effect it has on all of us in ways that we rarely see. Special courts have come into being to deal with issues of drug use as in those who self-medicate, and mental health courts that can divert someone from the criminal justice system when the crime was induced by the acting out of the symptoms. Exactly how we shall eventually understand matters of mental health is not clear to anyone regardless of how certain they may be.

One piece that is recently in vogue is the idea that madness and genius go in tandem - no, more, are inextricably linked. Originally an anecdotal observation that goes as far back as Aristotle, psychiatric professionals have begun to study the connection. If you have seen the movies The Soloist or A Beautiful Mind then you are acquainted with the idea.

A list of famous people who also happen to be credited with a mental illness would be even longer than a list of posthumously baptized Unitarians. Some famous people who struggled include Mozart, Van Gogh, Robert Schumann, Edgar Allen Poe, Emily Dickenson, Charles Dickens, Virginia Woolf, Beethoven, Tolstoy, Hemingway, Michelangelo, John Keats, and so on and so forth. That was the list taken from the arts, the people who help us interpret the world.

How about those who materially affect what our life is like, how we live day to day in a material fashion? People like Thomas Edison, Nikola Tesla, Henry Ford, Leonardo da Vinci, Charles Darwin, Isaac Newton, John Nash, Benjamin Franklin, Martin Luther and Albert Einstein. The whole fabric of modern life depends on their achievements and the work of others like them. Inventions, sciences, industries, religions and modes of government are part of their legacy.

Military and political leaders have their representatives, also. Abraham Lincoln suffered great bouts of melancholia throughout his life as did Winston Churchill. Staying with the Civil War we have William Tecumseh Sherman and 'Stonewall' Jackson who both were each once absent from the battlefield with mental complaints. The shape of our society, how it operates, and our political landscape is integrally entwined with the deeply personal lives of many who have suffered.

I would like to share the story of one political leader in particular. The Shawnee Tenskwatawa started out life not fitting in. He lost both his parents very early. As a youth Tenskwatawa was known as 'he who makes a loud noise' which is the same as our 'bigmouth.' He became an alcoholic and lost an eye in a hunting accident. In one of his blackouts in 1805 he had a vision of uniting the various tribes around Ohio to preserve the native way of life by a military federation and having nothing to do with goods from the white culture. From 1805 to 1811 he and his more politically capable brother Tecumseh slowly built alliances. In the end the power of modern production overwhelmed the smaller forces that the natives were able to field. However, Tenskwatawa had been able to communicate a vision to others when he had seen something that others did not see, yet recognized as what they needed when it was presented to them. There had been nothing in his earlier ordinary life to indicate that he would be able to rise to greatness. We might easily consider him to have been someone with mental illness, because of his self-medicating, social dysfunction, and hallucinations. Nevertheless he influenced history and gave his people a hope and a chance they would not otherwise have had.

Are there others who have managed to hide the origins of their special talent? People we do not immediately think of in the same moment with mental illness. Perhaps Vermeer who introduced a staggering use of color to Dutch painting yet had great difficulty parting with his creations, even though he was always in debt. Jackson Pollack developed new styles and concepts in art that later were found to mimic fractals long before the era of computers. His volatile relationships, drinking, smoking and eventual death in a single-car accident are tantalizing hints that he may have been among the many sufferers.

On the question of do great people become great because of, or in spite of the extra sense of madness, the answer is probably both. We have but to look at the cities about us today to see what becomes of those who are not able to take care of themselves. For some the battle to deal with two worlds and keep them apart is greater than they are able to handle. Others fear losing the creativity that comes with a different mind. An entire wing of today's consumer movement rejects medication as a therapy because it dulls the heightened awareness and direct connection to their work. Here is a description of the ambivalence that some have held.

A small selection from "The Author's Abstract of Melancholy" in The Anatomy of Melancholy by Robert Burton, 1621:

When I lie, sit, or walk alone,
I sigh, I grieve, making great moan,
In a dark grove, or irksome den,
With discontents and Furies then,
A thousand miseries at once
Mine heavy heart and soul ensconce,
All my griefs to this are jolly,
None so sour as melancholy.

Methinks I hear, methinks I see,
Sweet music, wondrous melody,
Towns, palaces, and cities fine;
Here now, then there; the world is mine,
Rare beauties, gallant ladies shine,
Whate'er is lovely or divine.
All other joys to this are folly,
None so sweet as melancholy.

I have said in the past that a quick definition of genius is the first person to see the obvious. In order to do that, one must first be able to see something different in their mind compared to what is visible to everyone else. Have we evolved over the millennia to be able to consider what does not yet exist but might? Is that what it means to be intelligent? Is the genetics that gives us this power also what takes away our ability perform do common tasks?

Do only geniuses gain from the quality of seeing more of the world than there is to be seen? Does the level of self-medication within the general population indicate that many do not tolerate life as they experience it? How many moderately successful individuals are also difficult to get along with or drink a little too much? How much of our ordinary thought processes are dependent on an unknown facility? Has anyone here ever thought they heard a voice when no one spoke? Did you ever see someone out of the corner of your eye only to find that it was only a shape that your mind had turned into a vision? Perhaps most of us have a beneficial level of illness, while others move between being elevated to the heights and drowning in the depths. As Walt Kelly had Pogo say so long ago, "we have met the enemy and he is us."

We are all creatures with the dual capacity built in for good or ill. Should we even consider that something so important to our existence as our ability to plan, to create, or to invent is to be given the concept of disease? Are our homeless and jail populations there because they are weighed down with too much of a good thing? Is their condition the price that we as a species must pay for being intelligent? To the extent that there is a genetic component with mental illness, then it must be in all of us. To the extent that we share in the gains from a unique capacity, we share in the responsibility for the consequences. Population genetics involves the entire population. You cannot isolate family lines as distinct from the whole. We all share some part of the element which, in a few, comes together in sufficient quantity that we accept as the quality of madness. That quality is woven into every cell of our being. To forsake those who were unlucky in the consequences of their human genetics and life experience is to deny our unintended complicity by holding on to our advantages at their expense.

If we simply give up on those who cannot manage their own lives, what great discoveries might we be throwing away because we chose not to intervene? How many Mozarts or Van Goghs might be wandering the streets? And how many ordinary productive lives of goodness and love were not lived because society held back? There is a reason that every person is entitled to dignity and a sense of inherent worth. If the least among us cannot be valued, then we all discount our own worth.

Shall we continue to turn a blind eye, to warehouse and hide good and worthy people to protect our sensibilities? If there is any truth to an interconnected web of existence, then we do not owe charity, but co-operation and partnership. I can only say, there but for the grace of God go I, and with me each and every one of us. If normality and conformity is the price of admission to the club, then who amongst us is safe?


(adapted from Matthew, Ch. 25)

What you do not do for the least of these, you do not do for me.
What you do to the least of these, you do to me.

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