Monthly Archives: January 2011

There’s crazy and there’s crazy

There’s bungee-jumping-crazy and there’s having an audible conversation with someone that no one else can see.  Most of us can think of at least one relative that is eccentric or disruptive.  “The Lion King” has that great line: “There’s one in every family.  They ruin every special occasion.”  In that story, the disruptive relative crossed the line from annoying to dangerous and killed Simba’s Dad.

In one of my stints as bartender, there was a regular customer, let’s call him Rick, who came in every day and had exactly three beers.  He always paid without incident, though he never tipped.  All the bartenders were ok with that, perhaps because it seemed it took his entire being just to function in a society so different from himself.  His struggle was subtle, but not invisible.  He didn’t like it if someone was in his chair or when the manager changed the TV station from “Family Guy” to sports – I agreed with him on the latter.  Once an out-of-towner two stools down noticed Rick talking to himself and said something sarcastic about “that guy who’s had too much.”  Rick was not then, nor ever in my presence, inebriated or the least bit discourteous to anyone.  Nor was he ever packing heat.

The shocking availability of extremely destructive gun-power combined with rampant mental illness is a lethal combination that is only talked about after tragedy.  The United States has the most heavily armed civilians in the world with 90 guns for every 100 citizens (Reuters, August 28, 2007).  You would have to move to Yemen to live in the second most heavily armed citizenry with 61 guns per 100 people.

Statistics on mental illness are less reliable, partially because not everyone even agrees how to define it and so much is undiagnosed.  I’m asking you to consider the prevalence of mental illness for yourself by opening a newspaper or visiting a news web site and looking at the headlines.  In your opinion, how many of those stories have someone crazy in them?  On page one of the Philadelphia Inquirer (January 25, 2011) try this headline: “Moscow airport bombing kills 35.”  The Wichita Eagle (Wichita, Kansas) also has the Moscow bombing on page one, but on the local tab of their web site stories, the third headline is “Wichita woman ‘very critical’ condition after hammer attack; man arrested.”  The Peoria JournalStar (Peoria, Illinois) has a story on the local tab of their web site with this lead: “A member of a Western Illinois University fraternity was ticketed early Friday morning for choosing to eat lasagna instead of evacuating his building when the fire alarm was tripped, authorities said.”  Crazy has many flavors.

When I watch the political talking heads make stuff up, I call them crazy.  Their rhetoric is not as immediately life-threatening as the hammer-attacker, but the irresponsible and dishonest speech is destructive.  Congresswomen Michelle Bachmann (R-MN) is probably ‘crazy like a fox’ when she re-writes history in order to tell people what they want to hear to engender support.  The web site calls her “Batshitcrazy.”  (Yes, that really is a web site.)  Anderson Cooper (CNN) challenged her on one of her speeches where she marginalized slavery and misrepresented the experience of many immigrants when they first came to this county.

Sadly, that leads us to the Arizona shooting.  CNN has a “Belief Blog” with a column by Boston University religion scholar Stephen Prothero, “My Take: Is Arizona shooting an individual or shared sin?”  Prothero wrote about our prevailing culture of “vitriol” and readily available guns.  About accused shooter Jared Loughner he said, “To insist that he was not influenced by that rhetoric is to pretend either that ideas have no effect, or that they somehow magically lose their effectiveness when they enter the brains of the mentally imbalanced.”

If you are willing to agree with me that mental illness is nearly epidemic in this country, then consider what dangerous situations might be lying dormant.  Just as mental illness and guns shouldn’t be mixed, neither should religion and mental illness.  There is the potential for dangerous results, just as what happens when religion is exploited for bad politics.  Of course the worst situation is when religion, politics, and mental illness work together to produce suicide bombers.

I have had first-hand experience with clinical depression.  I got better for a number of reasons, not all of which are pertinent to this column.  Because depression includes shutting down, I shed religion.  This was one of the most fortunate affects of the depression for me, because at the time I was only able to understand religion through the lens of the depression that was putting a dark and heavy cloud over my entire life.  Everything I saw, read and experienced came to me through a depression filter.  Religion did not inspire me, it depressed me.  It was not the cause, but it did exacerbate my condition.

Mental illness can’t be prayed away, in my view.  It is pervasive.  It is a powerful and complicated demon that is not easily exorcised.  Many people feel ill-equipped to respond appropriately, which is probably the case of Jared Loughner’s parents.  That’s understandable, but at the point he was amassing weapons, they owed it to the rest of us to give us some warning.

The tag in the Prothero column link is “it takes a village to make a killer.”  It’s time to view our world through the eyes of the struggling.  Next to each of us is someone who is chronically unemployed, stress-fatigued, marginalized, seriously lonely, or just crazy.  If we pay attention we might just be able to tell eccentric crazy from dangerous crazy.  And let’s keep the crazy away from guns and religion.  Call me crazy, but I choose to believe that compassion and awareness might be enough to reduce some of the tragedy that we are coming to take for granted.

Death Becomes Us

For about three years I volunteered at a cancer center doing hospice and bereavement work.  Most people think that sounds depressing, but to the contrary, it was inspiring.  I was present during a holy time, no matter what I was doing.  Sometimes I just sat with a patient while watching TV.  (I think she did this so she could do something that felt normal and had nothing to do with cancer.)  One thing I noticed was that it was hard to be shallow in the face of imminent death.  Naturally, there were some who succeeded, but there were more people who stepped up to support the dying person and struggled to process their own pain.

I miss Jack Kevorkian.  Where is he?  He was a hero.  Those who condemned him have not looked a lingering, painful death square in the eye.  There is dignity for an individual who recognizes it is time to move on and has the opportunity to say good-bye.  Only out of respect and love can those around the dying person start to accept the pain of imminent loss, and also let go.

Loss is defined by the one who experiences it.  I have lost humans I love, but every day I miss my animal family members who have died, and often with much greater intensity.  If you are a person who does not understand human-animal bonds, you may take offense at my willingness to compare losing animal family members to losing humans.  You have my pity for what you are missing.

I had my cat, Milo, euthanized two days ago.  He was 14 years old, so certainly a senior citizen; yet his cancer, for me, was sudden and was aggressive.  Having to decide to take measures that would end Milo’s life was as painful for me as it was inevitable.  Though I have had to do this before, it does not ever get easier.  As I was agonizing over what was to come, I took time to consider how I would want to be treated.  Let the record show, I never want heroic, extreme measures to save my physical life at the expense of living it.  Though he just didn’t look as sick as he was, Milo couldn’t eat or drink water.  I am now certain the blow to his dignity from being reduced to complete incapacity, would never have been worth the few additional days I would have been able to have with him.

Milo taught me how to love someone I didn’t really like.  At best, he was a curmudgeon, and I’m not entirely sure he actually liked me.  He purred only grudgingly and was never a lap cat.  He is the only cat I had that I could not convince to stop clawing things up, which was quite unfortunate since my spouse has a lovely old house with antique woodwork that Milo favored.  This was the source of serious domestic disputes between the three of us.  Still, I will grieve for Milo for some time to come.  I will adopt other animal family members, but not right away and not as replacements.

Where is God in all of this?  If you have read my column before, then you will not be surprised that I can find a religious perspective on almost any aspect of the human experience.  I do distinguish between religion, God, and spirituality.  Most often when I refer to religion, it is related to organized religion and theological thought.  When I refer to the spiritual, it is usually a reference to experiences and feelings that are outside the temporal or physical.  The god-concept is always personal, in my view.  It might be impossible to talk or write about God while truly understanding someone else’s perception.  We can only really know what God does or doesn’t mean for each of us, ourselves.  For today, as a favor to me, I ask you to stand outside of your religious familiarity, set aside your god-concept, and just consider connections.  Consider connections to humans and to animals, to the living and the dead.

I learned a lot about meditation from my friend, Denny, who introduced me to Thich Nhat Hanh, among others.  We were able to attend a talk and group meditation with him in the early nineties that I have never forgotten.  My meditation is frequently a result of what I learned from Thich Nhat Hanh.  However, sometimes, in meditation I connect to people and animals who have died.  I recognize this can all be in my imagination, and consider that irrelevant.  I have experienced insights I don’t believe I would have otherwise.  I am ok with those who think I’m just nuts.  I am already accustomed to the relatives who think I’m hell-bound.  Those judgments don’t block me from experiencing the holy in my own way, and benefitting from it.

I had a Jewish friend that used to say, “Dead is dead.”  (It is possible to be a Jewish atheist, but that’s a column for another day.)  My response to that thought is that I do not want to live this life believing there is nothing else, even if it’s true.  Faith is believing that for which we have no physical evidence.  I have faith that there is more than “dead is dead.”  This is affirmed for me when I connect to other species, including Milo.  Experiencing unconditional love, though I can’t say I got that from Milo, I did from those animal family members who have passed before him.  To see love and devotion in the eyes of another species with whom I can’t verbally communicate is the best link to a loving God I have ever experienced.  This is a holy connection to me.  Just as death takes us to the brink of eternity, love gives us a reason to keep connecting.

When Milo was on the vet’s table, moments from certain death, I wrapped my arms around him, not even sure he wanted that.  I wanted to shield him from the lights which seemed so harsh and find a way to say a final good-bye.  The old curmudgeon, ready to die, started purring.  By my definition, this was not only a holy connection, but also a miracle.  I took it as his approval and good-bye.  So, Milo, I will miss you.  This house is so big and so empty.  But I will connect with you in my meditations and dreams.  You taught me to love the hard to love and I am better for it.  Scratch away, Milo.