What engineer or architect would describe flaws in a bridge or building he’d never seen? What doctor would describe the fractures in the bones of a patient he’d never examined? But some who make their living in the mental health industry feel no compunction describing the psychiatric problems suffered by people they’ve never met.
Here are some of their pronouncements. The great scientist and Bible scholar, Isaac Newton was bipolar and suffered from autism and schizophrenia. Winston Churchill suffered from clinical depression. According to the Journal of Medical Biography, Michelangelo, the artist who painted the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican, was autistic. Abraham Lincoln, Beethoven, Charles Darwin and many other great achievers of history are similarly described.
I must confess to being very skeptical. Considering Churchill, most of the cited evidence revolves around his self-described Black Dog. Having spent some of my childhood in the United Kingdom, I remember that the term meant being in a bad mood or getting out of bed on the wrong side. Churchill’s own daughter confirms that there were times during World War II that her famous father was in a bad mood. There were also times when he felt and expressed deep, inconsolable grief at the loss of Allied soldiers. Does that translate into clinical depression? Certainly not.
So why the current obsession with diagnosing famous and accomplished figures with various mental illnesses? Follow the money. Since the 1960s our culture has been trying to label moral shortcomings like gambling and marital infidelity as mental illness. “Cheating is Genetic,” was the breathless headline in one weekly journal. Well, of course it is! Indeed, cheating is far more common in humans with an X and a Y chromosome than in people with two X chromosomes.
Since the 1960s mental health costs have been rising at a significantly higher rate than general health costs. This can have only two possible causes. Either Americans have been stricken with growing epidemics of mental problems or else the colossal money machine of governmental involvement in medicine is incentivizing the “right” diagnoses. The cascade of articles highlighting the mental problems of prominent people who are dead and can thus no longer contradict spurious claims suggests that the latter explanation may be more correct.
Obviously I recognize the existence of serious mental disorder. My meanderings on this topic concern whether all that is today thus diagnosed is in fact that. One way to diagnose more mental disorders is by expanding the criteria. Surely those who carried heavy weight upon their shoulders might have experienced symptoms of depressive disorder. They must have felt, at times, an inability to focus on long term projects, feelings of hopelessness and withdrawal from relationships and even possibly had suicidal thoughts. Well, almost everyone passionately engaged in life’s challenges will have periods like that. Why wouldn’t Michelangelo and Abraham Lincoln have had terrible times of doubt and hopelessness?
I don’t for a moment doubt that it has to be enormously comforting for any person who is not coping with life to receive a diagnosis that accounts for his problems. It is just that I feel that prior to the 1960s, without these diagnoses available, many more people tended to cope. Perhaps they dug deep into their reserves of grit and determination. Perhaps they sought and received social and spiritual help.
Five Biblical personalities expressed a desire to die. Without question they were experiencing a potent neurological cocktail of grief, disappointment, anger, and hopelessness. They all recovered and resumed doing those things for which they were known.
The five who express a desire to end their existence (not counting actual suicides such as Samson and Ahitofel) are Moses, Jonah, Elijah, Jeremiah, and Job.
If You would deal like this with me, rather kill me I beg You,
and let me not see my wretchedness.
Please, Lord, take my life, for I would rather die than live.
And he went a day’s journey into the wilderness. He came to a retem bush and sat down under it, and prayed that he might die. “Enough!” he cried. “Now, Lord, take my life, for I am no better than my fathers.”
( I Kings 19:4)
Accursed be the day I was born… Let not the day be blessed when my mother bore me…so that my mother might be my grave…
Would that my request be granted, that God give me what I wish for; would that God consented to crush me, loosed His hand and cut me off.
Each of these extraordinary men is beset by disappointment, grief, and pain. Their response, a hopeless throwing up of their hands and asking for it all to end, is a perfectly natural and perfectly normal feeling.
However, God neither indulges their whining nor expresses sympathy with a fatherly, “There, there, things will improve”. Instead, God prescribes three medications: He reminds them that He never promised them that life would resemble a stroll through a rose garden. He reminds them that the universe does not revolve around them and that unseen phenomena that they don’t understand are involved. And, He demands that they get back to work. And this is precisely what all five men do.
Everybody actively engaged in the fight we call life has bad days or even bad weeks and months. Certainly there is sometimes a need for medical assistance and it must be sought. But, just possibly, many diagnoses could perhaps be more safely treated spiritually rather than pharmacologically. Just like Michelangelo who had a ceiling to paint, and Isaac Newton who had to understand and explain gravity, and just like Churchill who had a war to win, we too can gain help during our more difficult times by remembering the three prescriptions.
1) Whenever life happens to be easy and smooth, recognize those periods as highly abnormal and be grateful.
2) Remember that this is a big world and we are not the center of it all.
3) Finally, remember you are here for a purpose, so get on with it and get to work.