Thursday, January 14, 2010
Talking the Walk (23)
Through the Lens of a Mood
People have asked me what role spirituality, what role God, has in living with mental illness? It is a fair question. If the mosaic of mental management has room for a SAD light, omega-3 pills, almonds, “the truth of and”...and umpteen other interventions... might not a Supreme Being be slotted in?
It might well. For a believer, I don’t see how it couldn’t be. But I don’t believe in a God. Not as “God” has ever been defined for me, and perhaps not at all, by any name.
(Perhaps “belief” is the problem. I’ve never believed in anything. I know things or I don’t know them. Take Santa Claus. I knew he existed, and then I knew he didn’t. Knowledge doesn’t require a leap of faith. I suspect the problem comes from knowing something that is difficult to put into words, or knowing something you expect others to doubt or disparage. Trusting that kind of knowledge may well require a leap of faith, or at least a credo that includes good manners: I believe my knowledge is valid, though I can’t prove it and can’t convince you of it.)
Still, I am no “just this-just here” dogmatist (that faith has never snared me either). I have my spiritual yearnings and intuitions, my cosmic or oceanic glimpses that will not fit under the rubric of the everyday explainable. And it is curious how they dovetail with the question “Now what?” as if to answer that imponderable with a commensurate vastness–or vagueness, some will say. Fair enough. Except that there is nothing vague about the comfort I have found in contemplating those vistas–like the inviting fogs in a Turner painting–where hard lines blend into permitting light and space.
And if this is mysticism, why would I deny myself the solace of the mystical (a solace tested true for decades) when I am willing to submit myself to a molecule turned on a chemist’s lathe? What the science of help must exclude–inscrutable aid; remediation by agents not yet, and perhaps not ever to be, explained–the art of help can welcome with a fine carelessness.
Squinting through the lens of that mood–
Now what? can't be less that the sum total of moments in a life, beautiful and hideous, extraordinary and humdrum...all that vast array of small, glittering tiles that make up the mosaic of a life. Amor fati, counselled Jung. And so did Nietzsche, who defined the Latin phrase this way: amor fati: that one wants nothing to be different, not forward, not backward, not in all eternity. Not merely bear what is necessary, still less conceal it—...but love it. Love your fate. Embrace it, however awkwardly or reluctantly. Clasp the actual, the torrent of lived particulars you swim in and that swim in you. That sounds like clutching at water–but what other choice is there for the omni-amphibian that is a human being? Sometimes it will mean grabbing mere air, other times it will mean contact with the earth: mud, sand, clean stone, fertile ground. And if we’re using the four elements of antiquity, including fire, sometimes it will mean being burned alive. And...hopping out again. As I have seen toads do from campfires built unthinkingly over the stone they were sheltering under.
Only this kind of openness–the curiosity and courage that lets you live in, and learn from, all the times of your life–permits you, as the late Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., advised, to “Bargain in good faith with destiny.”
What does that mean? I don’t know exactly. But I like the sound of it. I like the hope, and the sense (even if it is illusory) of cosmic comradery, parleying and wrangling with the unfathomable forces of the universe. It’s not something I can think about too long without my head swimming. But, of course, as you realize by now, I like to let my head swim. Even still...even after everything. It’s a proclivity that has led me into deep waters...and will again. Still, I can’t help marvelling at those little threads of destiny, pattern if not purpose you can tease out and examine sometimes, the only fractions of a great unseen tapestry we are permitted to glimpse.
Like the thread that connects me sitting down at a table three and a half years ago to try and write a story I’d never written before...which somehow, in some deeply mysterious way, led me to this room, to talking with you for the past 45 minutes. Writing brought me here, writing about mental illness. Which must mean, in some way, that that disturbed and bleeding young man in the emergency ward in 1977...brought me here.
I call that a miracle. Without overt religious connotation, but also without embarrassment, since I don’t know what else to call it.
And when I try to imagine, which is all I can do, the multiple branching paths that led each of you through the mazes, gardens and forests of your own lives to arrive here in this room–
Well, I know that also is uncanny. A strange and wonderful set of convergences lies behind every meeting. And though I can’t call it an end without contradicting everything I’ve said here today, I am happy to accept as a point of pause that genuine miracle.