Daily Devotional: (Repost) Finding Wholeness Beyond Stigma, Grace in Mental Illness

King Saul throwing a javelin at David     1 Samuel 16:14-17:11. I’m struck less by the story of David & Goliath in this section than that of Saul and David. We are told Saul had an “evil spirit” that came from time to time to afflict him, which led him to be angry, upset, depressed, and violent. My understanding is that most
of the times when the Bible uses that language of an evil spirit filling someone in this way, it is not (as in some rare accounts of possession in the Bible) talking about someone whose soul has been turned over to evil. I think it is generally a medical description: most of what we now call mental illness, as well as a number of neurological conditions people face that were called “having a foul spirit” by the wise end stigma 4men who filled the role of doctors in the ancient world. So I think we have an account of Saul in the throws of mental illness. A couple of interesting things come to me through this story as I face into the reality of mental illness in Saul’s life. David has compassion for Saul. Before I realized Saul had a mental illness, I always wondered why David did so. I mean after all, Saul tries to hurt and at times kill David. Then Saul will switch up and act like David’s a buddy. David treats Saul throughout like a father he loves, even though he has to hide from and defend himself from Saul’s behavior. I think David was able to understand on some level that Saul was not an evil man, but a very very sick man. I think David was able to see through Saul’s illness to see the same man that God had originally called to be king. I believe the fact that David could see this about Saul is why David could still love him like a father. This compassion may be a part of why David is called elsewhere in the Bible a “man after God’s own heart”. These elements of this story are instructive to me. The model it shows is of continuing to love and be there in what ways are safe for you for someone with such neurological and mental health concerns, while also not putting yourself in danger and clearly setting boundaries about what behaviors are hurtful for you and don’t work. Boy howdy, that’s hard! Boy howdy, that’s not straightforward! But I think it’s what compassion in such situations looks like. In truth, did Saul choose to be sick? Though the witness in Scripture is pretty ambiguous about it, from having known so many with mental illnesses my whole life, I can say: no, they don’t choose illness. Saul didn’t either. The person in your life with either a neurological condition or mental illness — or really any illness that causes them to have trouble acting in safe ways with others — has not chosen to be sick. Because of that, though you can’t allow yourself to be in a situation with them where you will be used, hurt, or abused, and there is a sense that you need to have compassion and realize this is a sickness they cannot control. They are suffering just as you are.

sunrise freedom     Another aspect of this story that speaks to me is David playing music to help soothe Saul’s mental health symptoms. This action of David’s is the first example I see in recorded literature of music therapy! There is something about music which is healing to our souls, helping us step out of our stress, our anxiety. This is true when our anxiety and stress are not symptoms of an illness and so much more so when they are connected with illness. To me, this is part of why I make listening to centering music a part of my spiritual practice. I’d be curious to hear how any of you deal with loving someone whose health condition makes it hard for them to chose safe behaviors for themselves and those around them; and also how you use music for emotional, mental, or spiritual health.

 
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One thought on “Daily Devotional: (Repost) Finding Wholeness Beyond Stigma, Grace in Mental Illness

  1. artofearth says:

    Interesting post! I agree that I’ve never seen people with mental or neurological conditions choosing them. But perhaps the people are chosen, in a sense, because the world itself is so ill that that is how it expresses itself — through people, places, processes. The more we move away from the recognition that everything has soul, the more likely we are to see this lack of recognition expressing itself as imbalance everywhere — in the soil, the water, the air, other creatures and in ourselves. And music, as you point out, is one way that we can allow balance to return (I don’t want to call music an antidote, because that would be instrumentalist; music has value in and of itself…and as with books, it needs attentive ears to “complete” its creation).

    What it sounds like Saul had is perhaps what today would be labeled bipolar and maybe this condition, in particular, is one that requires deep attention to how we’ve painted the world in dualisms: either/or, black/white, and how we choose to stand in one or the other, but have yet to master seeing the value of both at the same time. Perhaps it is this aspect that David has mastered, because he can bring compassion…not just bring; he seems suffused with it. If we surround ourselves with hateful news/commentary or anything that refuses to acknowledge the presence of soul in the world, then we, too, have a hard time summoning compassion, much less develop the ability to dwell in it. Although, I must say, that the less attention I pay to hateful news and commentary, when I do see or hear something, it feels as though I have greater compassion for “all sides” of the story.

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