You “just want attention,” Part 2

Because of my observation that the Church seems to be complicit in the silence surrounding mental illness and perpetuating the negativity associated with needing attention, I did a research paper on Psalm 88.  This psalm is the only one in the Psalter that does not end with at least a bit of a nod toward God.  Today’s culture would probably diagnose the psalmist as “just wanting attention.”  When I read this psalm, I feel like depression is being given a canonized voice.  What follows is the conclusion to my exegesis paper (the whole thing was 21 pages so I won’t be posting the whole thing).

ha_distressWhile labeling or “diagnosing” the psalmist in this way would be anachronistic Psalm 88 is the picture of clinical depression to me, at least from my experience and those that I know. Scholarship is largely failing to address mental illness – and the mentally ill – directly, thus deepening the stigmatization of both and leaving its sufferers the way Psalm 88 and the psalmist are: not only suffering but alone in their suffering.  The Church has an opportunity not to follow suit.  “The stigma of mental illness, including the jokes made by the healthy about the ill, is worse than any vision or voice.”[1]  Being mindful of the distinction between projection and appropriation, this Psalm captures the experience of depression masterfully, whether intentionally or not.  This is not to advocate relegating this text to a singular meaning but to advocate for the voices of an oft-silent and silenced group of people: the mentally ill.

            Psalm 88 might teach the sovereignty of God, that one should incessantly pray to God and to yearn and long for the voice of God.  But Psalm 88’s presence in our holy Scripture is for another reason, too.  At the end of chapter 6 of Jon Levenson’s book Historical Criticism and the Fate of the Enlightenment Project: discusses Martin Luther King, Jr. in a relevant way: “King identified with Israel in its suffering and not just in its triumph.”[2]  The Church is called to rejoice with those who rejoice as well as weep with those who weep.[3]  Psalm 88 reminds us that there are those who are weeping and it does so by speaking in their voice.

           Psalm 88 challenges us to make time and space to weep with those who weep, those riven by real heartbreak, anguish, depression, and to stay present even when no answers are imminent.  That this Psalm ends with no little bow of resolution may be comforting to those experiencing darkness because it rings true to their experience in an unfortunately rare way: “Someone can relate to this madness,” it says.  This Psalm gives us permission to just be sorrowful without forcing an easter; not only are there are losses in life one will never get back but one aspect of depression that makes it so intractable is that neither it, nor any other mental illness, needs a “reason.”  The vehicle for such permission is the Psalm’s real, raw honesty.  It is one that a person who is in deep suffering can go to and be heard in their suffering, not have to swallow pithy, pat answers or answer a bunch of questions.  Here, you are allowed your pain, you are validated in your pain, you are invited to be honest with God about your pain.

           Psalm 88 identifies with those who are not just down, but, as Green-McCreight describes depression, who have been “cast to the very end of [their] tether and [been] dropped.”[4]  The isolation of the mentally ill, much like Psalm 88 and that expressed therein, by the judgment and abandonment by those privileged enough to be able to will despair into joy compounds the darkness of mental illness. As the only people specifically called to love the least, the last and the lost, the Church has been given Psalm 88 to, among other things, hear the cries of some of these “lost.”  And those lost in darkness are given a voice.

Now, it’s difficult to sit with someone in the dark.  It’s brutal to walk with someone in this kind of pain.  You have to dig deep not to brush people off as “just wanting attention.”  And I’m definitely not advocating that we all attempt to do the jobs of doctors, counselors and therapists.  But this idea that the “solution” to behavior that’s difficult to handle, whether a diagnosable condition or not, is far too common for a people called to love.  Several months ago, a friend was talking about an encounter with a person who possibly had Borderline Personality Disorder.  My friend said, almost flippantly, “Yeah, eventually you just have to pull out of relationship.”  The assumption seemed to be that this was just the most natural, universally agreed-upon action.  I’m not saying that complacency or enabling is appropriate; there may be times when pulling out of relationship is necessary.  But we need to be very careful of the implication that people who struggle with mental illness aren’t deserving of relationship and should be consigned to isolation.   But, because of the stigma around mental illness, most of its sufferers stay silent about it.  The Church, being the only people called to love the least, the last and the lost, has an opportunity and a responsibility not to turn away.  The Church has the high calling of paying attention.

[1] Kathryn Green-McCreight, Darkness is my Only Companion (BrazosPress, Grand Rapids: Michigan, 2006), 35.

[2] Jon Levenson, Historical Criticism and the Fate of the Enlightenment Project: Chapter 6: Exodus and Liberation (accessed: 20liberation.pdf),156.

[3] Romans 12:15, NRSV.

[4] Green-McCreight, 21.


April 24, 2014 at 1:31 pm

This is such a beautiful piece. Thank you for sharing this!

April 24, 2014 at 1:31 pm

This is such a beautiful piece. Thank you for sharing this!

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"Our Daily Bread," Part 1

April 29, 2014