Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Your unmentionables

Over the last couple of days as we have all been processing the death of Robin Williams, it has dawned on me that much of our problem is anthropology. That is, how we understand the human being.

For us as Christians, humans are composite creatures. We are made up of matter and spirit. The material part we call the body. The spiritual part we call the Soul. Writers like C.S. Lewis have done a magnificent job of explaining the interplay between the two.

Our mistake has been that we behave as if there is this mysterious third thing called the psyche or the mind, as if it were separate from the brain. Then we talk about mental illness, as if it were somehow separate. And in this mysterious world is the boogie man our modern culture still doesn't want to openly deal with. Unmentionables used to refer to underwear. Now it seems to be our attitude toward the brain.

Let's call it what it is. What we are talking about is a part of our physical self called the brain. It is an organ of the body that functions like any other organ. It malfunctions like any other organ. There is a chemistry that can be out of balance. It is the organ of memory, how we receive, process, store, and recall information. Our receptive and expressive language skills reside in the brain. All of this controls how we interact with the world.

Once more I go back to Gabriela Garcia Marquez "Life is not what you have lived, but what you remember and how you recall it in order to recount it." Our brains can only focus on a very limited number for things. And much of psychology is about looking at which memories we recall and how we interpret them. Much of this we have control over and can change. Here is also where our spiritual self interfaces with our physical self. Our soul should guide how we organize, interpret, and respond to all of the data our brain takes in.

But there is also much of what we call "mental illness" that is really brain malfunction. No different than pancreatic or liver malfunction, and needs to be addressed with medicine.

I have cerebral palsy. If you ask what is wrong with my leg, the answer is nothing. I walk funny, because of brain damage. Conditions like bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, etc are no different. They are medical conditions. We need to stop putting mental health in a separate category.

We clergy are here to help with your spiritual part. And there are doctors to help with your material part. There is no third unmentionable part. If you are suffering, talk to your clergy, talk to a doctor. And if your brain malfunctions, take your medicine, without shame.

Each and every day, we should properly nourish and care for both our spiritual and physical self. Neither of which we can do on our own.

I came that you may have life, and have it abundantly.

Today let us care for this most precious gift of life, and help others to do so.