Phineas Gage and The Fully Human Jesus
I’ve run out of ideas. I bounce from one notion to another. Maybe, I think, I’ll write a on flowers. But no, that’s dumb, another essay on flowers. God help me. I’m tired of flowers. It seems like all I do is photograph flowers. And that’s not the worst thing about flowers. The worst thing about flowers is feeling like your photograph is generic. Flowers start to look like nothing more than greeting card material. Why am I tired of something I love?
I won’t write about flowers. But what then?
I can write about rain. All it has been doing lately is raining. Just one summer storm after another. I have to keep mowing the yard now that we are in the summer, and these rain storms, maybe three or four a day, keep the yard wet and soppy like a well-manicured swamp or something. But how do you photograph rain? I think I could take pictures of wet flowers. You know, the sort of flowers that look dripping wet from a storm. But then I’m back to flowers again. I’m not doing flowers.
I could take pictures of tomatoes. They’re not flowers. Maybe not technically. Or maybe they are technically. What do I know? And that’s the problem, I think. I don’t know. I don’t know much of anything. I can sound like I know stuff. The way I might toss out the word epistemology to talk about knowing stuff, like that makes me clever. But I know it doesn’t.
My mind has no traction. I’m used up. I go to bed early. I wake up as late as possible. I don’t even drink as much coffee as normal. I start realizing that its depression. My medication isn’t working the way it once did. I feel heavy. Uninspired. Three days without leaving the house. Then I go to the grocery store and it’s another four more days of staring at walls. Does going to the mailbox count as leaving the house? I don’t think so. I’m not counting it. I schedule a doctor’s appointment desperate to find another cocktail. It will work, I think. It’s about finding the right balance of chemicals. Then I can get off the sofa. Then I will feel like doing something other than watching documentaries or flipping through half a dozen pages from 20 different books. I only want to concentrate. Is that too much to ask?
I start reading Salinger. Caulfield feels like an appropriate companion. I scan twenty pages. Probably less. I can’t hear the narrator for my own narration. I set the book down and think about the double split experiment happening in my mind. I’m a wave and a particle. I am here and there. Just a probability. I know nothing for certain. I can think but I can’t concentrate. I can move throughout the house, avoid walls, keep my balance, but I can’t focus. A thought enters my mind and, scat, off it goes. Where did it go? Who can say? I talk with Siri, the voice inside my computer; she seems to have her act together more than I do. Even this mannered sadness feels derivative, like the plot structure for a dark comedy.
I think about Phineas Gage and ask Siri to tell me about him. Phineas Gage would understand something about brain damage. He lived before the American Civil War and worked on railroads. You’ve probably heard of him. An explosion sent an iron rod through his head. All the way through his head. The rod was more than an inch wide and over three feet long. The crazy thing is that ole Phineas Gage survived. He not only survived, he hitched a ride on an oxcart, returned to his hotel, and sat on the front porch to wait for a doctor to come by and check him out. He must’ve had allergies or something because, before the doctor patched him up, sneezing expelled brain matter out of the top of his head like a whale coming up for air.
People think depression is about sadness. And I’m sure that’s true. But it’s about Phineas Gage. It’s about brain damage, an injured brain – a brain not working properly. I’m sure there are depressed, sad people. But that’s not my kind of depression. Or at least that’s not just my kind of depression. My kind of depression is about having a brain that has been injured. Brains get injured by iron rods shooting through them: stress, anxiety, trauma, persistent injustice, too much cable TV, and a rotten batch of chemicals to boot.
My kind of depression is like a boat I found on the side of the road. Boats don’t belong on the side of the road. And there’s not a lot you can do for a side-of-the-road boat on a trailer with a flat tire. It’s out of place and helpless to get itself to the water. I could tell the boat to snap out of it, but that boat is just going sit there on the busted-up trailer with the flat tire. Snap out of it, boat. Snap out of it! See? What good is that?
I can tell myself to get up. And sometimes I do. But that doesn’t mean I can get anything done. I need to get my tire fixed. I need to stop talking to Siri. I need to write another blog. I need to sit down with Phineas Gage on the front porch and wait for my doctor to fix my brain.
It looks like another thunderstorm is coming. And that would be cool. I could write about thunderstorms. I could go to the beach and wait for dark clouds. I could time it just right and do lightening photography. I’ve never done lightening photography. And then, I think, lightening photography is just too hard. I’d have to watch a YouTube video or something to learn how to do lightening photography. But clouds can’t be all that hard. And I wouldn’t have to learn about clouds or leave the house or do much of anything if I just wanted cloud photography. Is that even a thing? Cloud photography? I could make it a thing. Yeah, I’ll go to the doctor, get me a new prescription, and make cloud photography a thing. It’ll be huge. Shapeless shapes that look familiar and resemble nothing at all. Just percentages and probabilities.
This is a dumb idea.
I see a cloud that looks like Jesus. People like that laughing Jesus picture. Have you seen it? It is all over Facebook. It’s a handsome Jesus who is out with his friends, having drinks, and laughing. I’m not sure why people like that Jesus. Maybe they think a laughing Jesus won’t damn them to hell. I’m sure Jesus did laugh. He laughed a lot more than he damned people to hell. I’m pretty sure about that. I hope he laughed before it all turned pretty rotten. But I don’t really care for the laughing Jesus.
The laughing Jesus is a spirituality that’s too social, too confident and comfortable. The laughing Jesus is the spirituality that just came from praise band practice. The fluff of raised hands and hypnotic refrains serenading a blissful anesthetic. The spirituality of cheerful extroverts.
You poor extroverts. How do you do it? All that small talk. Chit-chat. Polite company. Phineas Gage was an extrovert before he got an iron rod blown through his head. At least, that’s what I’ve heard.
Speaking of chit-chat, you know, people say dumb things all the time. Things like, “pray your worry away.” And then they put it on church signs as though rabbits' feet are Christian sacraments. Give me the spirituality that’s rummaging through the nightstand looking for the antidepressant prescription bottle. Give me the spirituality that says your mood disorder isn’t a spiritual problem but a biochemical one. That bipolar mess you deal with every day, the one that testifies to a less than ideal childhood and mingled with just the right genetic petri dish, yeah, that mess isn’t a test from God but a reason to take drugs prescribed by a doctor. Lucky charms won’t fix brain damage.
I’m not saying prayer and meditation and a good dose of laughing Jesus can’t help depression and racing thoughts and any other form of mental illness. Sure they can. But if you go a week without leaving the house, if you go days without taking a shower, or if you deal with such ugly thoughts you’re scared to mention them to your best friend, you can pray and meditate all you want but don’t expect anything more than palliative care from that sort of spirituality. Prayer that ignores the fact that God created us as biological creatures is prayer not addressed to the Christ who was also fully human.
The spirituality that sees through the glass darkly is the one I want. The one whose emotional highs are measured and whose mood irregularities and impaired concentration isn’t a symptom of acedia, the spiritual torpor too frequently attributed to folks like me who don’t hang out with the laughing Jesus.
The weeping Jesus, the Jesus who sometimes feels sorry for himself, the Jesus who gets hungry and frustrated with his disciples, the Jesus who runs away from the crowds, the Jesus pleading in Gethsemane, this is the fully human Jesus who, if he were living today, would see a therapist and be well medicated. And he would be this way, not because he isn’t fully divine, but because he’s also fully human.
Congratulations!! You've made it all the way down here. Let me say a few words about this blog. In the light of two high profile suicides last week, it felt important to say something about mental illness. Depression and mental illness is still very much stigmatized in our society. People get fatigued dealing with people suffering from an illness that they cannot see and cannot relate to. And they do say things like snap out of it or its all in your head, as if it were an ethereal problem of the soul. The only way, I think, to improve the situation is to talk about it as a physical condition. If you found anything here helpful, please feel free to share.