Comics Legend John Byrne Angers Transsexual Activists UPDATED

Wikimedia says this is a drawing of Demon by noted hate-monster John Byrne, but really it is a picture of his evil soul.

This just in from the Social Justice Warriors: John Byrne is evil.

This very stupid year is already, quite obviously, the Year of the Transsexuals, because the rage-fits of a tiny cadre of deeply troubled people must be part of Our National Dialog all day every day.

The latest Enemy of the People is Byrne, one of the giants of the 70s and 80s, best known for his runs on X-Men, Fantastic Four, and, most spectacularly, the reinvention of Superman for Man of Steel (comics not movie).

Byrne was asked about transsexual issues on his forum, particularly this article from feminist Elinor Burkett objecting to some of the language used by the “trans” community.

He said things I and many others have said. And now he’s going to pay for it by being subjected to boycotts and shrieking fits from people who are not at all hysterical.

This is the real starting point of this discussion: being born male or female, physically, sets up a series of parameters. Those parameters are not really altered if the male puts on a dress and declares himself to be a woman. (I have grown tired of transvestites being called “she.”)

As so often happens in our Society, the pendulum has swung, and as it usually does it has swung further in one direction than the other. Thus, in the last hundred years or so, we have gone from being incredibly narrow and restrictive in matters sexual — incarcerating homosexuals, for instance — to stretching perhaps a little too far to be “all encompassing.”

I understand the biological processes that can happen in utero, which are considered by some to be the cause of “transgender” individuals, but, as some have noted, the jury is still out on whether this creates a genuine condition or a mental illness.

Later in the exchange, he says this:

A REALLY hard question, then: Many people are tortured and driven by a desire to have sex with children. Our society frowns on this, and such people are considered mentally ill. We do not accommodate them, we do not respect them.

How is being “transgender” different? Given all the twists and turns that have happened in our general understanding of how the brain and mind work — still a work in progress — how difficult is it to imagine a future in which it will be determined without doubt that “transgender” is, indeed, a mental illness? How will we feel about all those people who, instead of actually helping them, we encouraged in a program of self-mutilation?

This is a long, long road, and so far we have taken barely a single step upon it. (Christine Jorgenson was half a century ago. How much has changed?)

Amen, John. Reasonably argued, and completely logical.

Naturally, the mere fact that he brought up pedophilia even if only by analogy is sending the SJWs into orbit. Some of the sites I read are already saying they will no longer run any John Byrne art and plan to have a blackout on his work. They argue that this kind of Stalinist purge is perfectly a-okay because they don’t have to give space to a “hater.”

What we have to remember is that most of the people writing on these fan sites and posting to social media are 20-somethings: self-important naifs with a minimal understanding of the world beyond their comic books and computers–special snowflakes fed on a steady diet of peanut-free food and “social justice” propaganda. Nothing is more insufferable than a 20-something with an opinion. (I know: I was one, and I was widely published at the time, and I cringe every time I think of some of the things I wrote.) Their thoughts on social, political, and economic issues are almost invariably useless, based on shallow reading and inexperience, and isolated from the messy realities of life in the real world. Because of the socially disorienting times in which they came of age, they’ve spent too much of their lives in narcissistic contemplation of every aspect of their own specialness, which is how we get stupid crap like “gender fluid” people and “microaggressions”. These are exactly the kind of PC twits Jerry Seinfeld has been driving into a frenzy with his criticisms of their unique blend of thin skin and pig-ignorance.

John Byrne was also defamed by the director of the new, certain-to-be-awful Fantastic Four movie. The actor playing Johnny Storm is black, and his sister, Sue Storm, is played by a white girl. Obviously, this is all very silly agenda-driven stuff that I don’t care one whit about. They want to cast a black actor as a white comic book character? Fine. Who cares. Yay for diversity in fictional characters who catch fire. That’s a big deal, right?

Then again, I’m not Byrne and didn’t draw Johnny Storm for five years, so I have no skin in the game. (What? Bad phrase?)

Here’s what Byrne said:

When it comes to casting a Black actor as Johnny Storm, there is a degree of historical ignorance at work that is insulting to Stan Lee and the memory of Jack Kirby.

Lee and Kirby, both New York Jews, did not “cast” the Fantastic Four as extensions of themselves. It took fifty years for a writer (and I wish it had been me!) to identify Ben Grimm as Jewish. But what Stan and Jack did when shaping the early Marvel Universe was demonstrate a social conscience in the best ways the Nation at the time would tolerate. And let us not forget, it was Stan and Jack who desegregated the American Armed Forces almost a decade before it happened in real life.

Lee, Kirby, Ditko and the rest introduced ethnic and racial minorities with a far greater frequency than, say, DC. Wyatt Wingfoot became a regular member of the FF’s supporting cast. Robbie Robertson showed up in Spider-Man. The Black Panther arrived. Heroic non-White figures arose from the ranks of the common man. Remember Al B. Harper, who died to save the world?

When Johnny is race-swapped the inevitable response from some segments of fandom and the media is that this is “necessary” due to comics in the 1960s being hotbeds of White supremacy — while nothing is further from the truth. American comics had long been the home to some of the most liberal, forward thinking people you were likely to meet. They cannot be taken to task for portraying society as that society perceived itself. But they should definitely be lauded for being, often, ahead of the curve when it came to social reform.

He makes some good observations, and is eager to defend his generation and the one that came before from accusations of racism. That’s the point at which someone involved in the new movie, like director Josh Trank, could address this respected FF artist and engage his arguments on their strengths and weaknesses.



Stacy Keach played a Nazi in American History X.

Ergo: John Byrne–John Friggin’ Byrne–is a racist Nazi who hates black people.

UPDATE: On Twitter I was alerted to a tweet by Josh Trank claiming the comment above was a joke. Color me unconvinced. Does it read like a joke? Is calling someone a Nazi in this overheated, oversensitive environment funny or even responsible? Nothing about the wording suggests so.

So, no: not buying it. I’m imagining Marvel told him to back off since they have a $122 million reboot about to release and they don’t need a s***storm of controversy.

What Should We Call Bruce Jenner?

If you think the title of this post is an answer to the question, you’d be wrong. It’s more complex than that.

Bruce Jenner has announced that he now wants to be called Caitlyn. Do people of faith who reject modernist gender theories of sexual embodiedness go along with this or not?callmebruce

There are two ways to look at it. If I meet someone, and that person introduces himself to me under a certain name, then that is the name I would use. This is the case even if it’s very clear I’m addressing a man in drag, which is what Bruce Jenner is, despite all the special pleading to the contrary. Furthermore, no one would ask in normal conversation if a person has a penis or a vagina.

We accept the identity people offer to us. It’s a simple matter of etiquette and charity. We don’t have to be needlessly cruel or provocative, especially to those who are mentally or emotionally troubled. If I met him and he said, “Call me Caitlyn,” I would. There’s no need to be a jerk about it.

And, yes, I would do the same thing if someone introduced himself as Jesus. (Indeed, I have, although that was mostly a case of not wanting to be stabbed.)

People change their names all the time, whether it’s Malcolm X or John Mellencamp or The Artist Former Known as Prince and Then as a Symbol and Now as Prince Again. I guess we could call him The Olympian Formerly Known as Bruce.

But there’s a second issue at hand in this case. Bruce Jenner is a celebrity, and it is unlikely most us of will have any opportunity or reason to shake his hand and address him directly. Thus, the question has another aspect: do we acknowledge his new identity and thus confirm that a person’s sex (I do not use the word “gender” in this context: nouns have genders, not people) is not a quality of his physical being but a matter of choice?

Here we get into deeper psychological, social, and political waters.

First, we have to state clearly what is no longer clear to society: there are two sexes, and they are defined by our bodies not by our minds. Sexual embodiedness is very simple: a human being with a penis is a male, and human being with a vagina is a female. The existence of intersex humans with mixed or indeterminate genitalia does not give rise to a third sex, since it is merely a biological anomaly like a malformed limb or cleft palate. We cannot deviate from this binary approach to sex without a giant tottering bulwark of theory and dogma, sustained by a constant level of shrill hysteria and demonization of differing opinions.

Gender identity disorder is a disconnect between the embodied sex of an individual and his psychological perception of that sex. It is a very real condition, and needs to be considered and treated with compassion. It is, very clearly, a mental illness. (NOTE: I wrote a long tangent on my expansive use of the phrase “mental illness” as a person suffering from mental illness. It will go up when it’s ready, and I hope it deepens this point.)

Modern mainstream psychology has been trend-chasing since the early 1970s, when the American Psychiatric Association (APA) suddenly caved to protests from the gay community and removed the designation of homosexuality from the standard diagnostic rubrics. This was based on the evidence of … well, nothing at all, really. No new science was presented to reverse decades of standard practice. It was merely a matter of assuaging hurt feelings.

Something similar is going on with transsexuals now. If a person with a perfectly healthy male body–such as, say, the male winner of the Olympic decathalon–claims to be a woman, that’s a delusion. Bruce Jenner may call himself Caitlyn, but “he” will never be a “she.”

Since it’s a delusion, the question arises: how best to treat it? Attempting to heal the dysmorphia and bring the body and mind into alignment, accepting the dymorphic disorder and living as the opposite of your physical sex, or undergoing chemical and surgical mutilation to create in the body a simulacra of the opposite sex?

Morally, the last one is a non-starter. Scientifically, it’s a pretty dubious proposition as well. There’s no shortage of post-operative transsexuals who deeply regret this irreversible decision. Mutilating a healthy body is the very opposite of medical care.

As for living as the preferred sex through appearance and behavior, that’s something that would normally best be decided by a competent therapist in collaboration with the patient. We’re in the Silly Season, however, when people with gender identity disorder are the new ascendant class being used to batter society into compliance with a new social-sexual order. Issues of mental health have been weaponized to change our fundamental beliefs with a religious fervor that is alarming. as Brendan O’Neill observes:

With its millions of agog followers, its worship of an iconic image, its insistence we all ‘bow down’, the Cult of Caitlyn gives Catholic mariolatry a run for its money in the blind-devotion stakes. And of course, as with all venerated icons, anyone who refuses to recognise the truth of Caitlyn’s Vanity Fair cover has faced mob punishment or finger-wagging corrections of their goddess-defying blasphemy.

So when Drake Bell, a former American child star, tweeted ‘Sorry… still calling you Bruce’, he became the subject of global fury. The Cult of Caitlyn went insane. Even after Bell deleted his blasphemous comment, tweeters mauled him, suggesting he deactivate his Twitter account, or better still, ‘deactivate his life’. Meanwhile, a Twitter robot called @she_not_he has been set up to correct any ‘misgendering’ of Caitlyn. Winning high praise from much of the media, this bot is ‘scrubbing Twitter, looking for anyone who uses the “he” pronoun in conjunction with Caitlyn Jenner’s name’. The bot’s inventor says he is delighted that these misgendering miscreants have been ‘apologetic in their replies to the bot’, and ‘some have even deleted their original tweet’.

For this reason, in public discussion on the issue, I don’t see how we can use female pronouns or even his assumed name in public discourse. It’s moved beyond simple courtesy and into a public, political statement. We are being stampeded to recognize someone as something they are not, and it has serious ramifications. There is no such thing as “gay marriage” in the same way there is no such thing as a “square circle,” and there is no way on earth for a male to “become” a female.

Discussing this issue is going to be hard, because the two sides of the argument are talking at cross purposes. We must always be charitable, never be cruel, and always realize that a damaged person is yearning for healing. However, the very language I use in this piece will be targeted as hate speech. There is no “winning” this debate, and it isn’t really even a debate. It’s two entrenched sides yelling their points across the wall, with bigots on both sides chiming in for effect. I have no doubt that transsexual people are subjected to misery at the hands of haters, and I deplore it. (And if you think I’m insulting someone by saying he’s mentally ill, then you are part of a problem I’ve been dealing with for a long time.)

O’Neill is right, there is a tyranny and a religious zealotry surrounding this cultural moment that points to a diseased society. Magazines use stylists, make-up, and Photoshop to create illusions of beauty in women all the time, and feminists resent the hell out of it for creating unrealistic expectations of beauty. Now that they’ve turned those same tools on a man to create a grotesque illusion of femininity, we’re supposed to applaud?

I have a more serious reason for resisting it. Normalization of transsexualism is not just the trailing edge of the gay rights movement: it’s the leading edge of the transhumanism movement. It’s a deeply gnostic sense of the body that is at cross-purposes with a healthy understanding of the individual. It’s also driven by the idea that we can redefine fundamental issues of humanity by mere acts of will. It is the Nietzschean will to power applied, forcefully, to the body and sexuality itself.

It’s bad enough when this will to power warps instruments of civilization such as the family and marriage, but in transhumanism it seeks to bend the meaning of our embodied being. Nothing good can come of this.

NOTE: Someone who would not agree with this post at all is the writer at Catholic Transgender. However, it’s a thoughtful site that offers another dimension to the discussion, and I offer the link in the interest of providing another voice.

Joanne McPortland on the Call to Self-Destruction

2015-05-06 18.46.59

Ignacio de Ries: The Tree of Life, 1653

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a spring quite like this. It’s not unusual for depression to come in cycles, and for it to hit harder as we emerge from winter. But this season, everywhere I look, I see people more people crushed under this burden than I ever recall seeing before.

Are we just talking about it more? Are we being more candid? Are years of stagnant economics and social upheaval wearing down our ability to resist?

Or is there something else going on here? More than one Catholic has suggested to me in private that it’s the work of the devil, and I’m inclined to agree in at least some of the cases. People are being flattened by depression like Wile E. Coyote under an anvil.

Joanne McPortland writes powerfully today about the siren song of suicide that calls us to death:

Maybe because I, and all too many Catholics I know, have started hearing the YouDon’tDeserveToLive voice louder again this spring, breaking through whatever treatment measures we had found useful. That happens. But if it’s the first time it happens after you’ve had some relief, it can provoke a faith crisis as well as a psychological one.

The pull of self-erasure can be particularly awful for people of faith, who feel the shame of not measuring up, not trusting in God enough, not being grateful enough, not being good enough. We’re likely to be more terrified when the abyss looks back if we feel the loss of God’s presence and consolation. Depressed Catholics don’t need to be reminded to beat our breasts in the Confiteor—it is always, for us, through our most grievous fault that we dare to exist. That’s not the Church’s teaching or intent. It is part of our DNA, part of how the disease manifests in this population.

There’s much more, including some advice on how to get through it. 

Sorry it’s been such a downer here lately, but the topics choose me, I don’t choose them.

I’ve bee writing more about prayer lately because that’s how I’m trying to work through it. The Jesus Prayer has been of great use to me lately, and now I have a new weapon in the arsenal: a chotki.

2015-05-20 12.33.12

This prayer rope uses knots to count off the Jesus Prayer, which some spiritual heavyweights have prayed tens of thousands of times a day. A rosary could serve the same purpose, but the rope is traditional in the Eastern Church, and I like having a new and distinct tool to use. I picked this one up in the shop next to the Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Philadelphia, but you can find them on Amazon.

More on mental health and depression.

Trigger Warnings Are Offensive

Elizabeth Scalia directed me to a story about Columbia University students who are offended by Ovid’s The Metamorphoses, because Generation Participation Trophy never gets tired of tryIng to slap a bike helmet and elbow pads on civilization.

The poor little snowflakes are claiming that ancient classics like Ovid’s retelling of The Rape of Persephone triggered a rape victim, and that the professor was insensitive to her complaints. They don’t bother to say what she wanted (probably a pass on finishing an assignment: these are college students we’re talking about) or what he was supposed to do.

By the way, we translated The Metamorphoses from the Latin in ninth grade. Apparently 1980s high-school freshmen were made of tougher stuff than the little buttercups wandering college campuses today.

Here’s what a group of them had to say:

Ovid’s “Metamorphoses” is a fixture of Lit Hum, but like so many texts in the Western canon, it contains triggering and offensive material that marginalizes student identities in the classroom. These texts, wrought with histories and narratives of exclusion and oppression, can be difficult to read and discuss as a survivor, a person of color, or a student from a low-income background.

The BS is strong with this one.

Note the nonsense buzzwords and the attacks on “the Western canon,” which were going on when I was in college 30 years ago. What the current generation has done is pathologize the canon so that it’s seen not merely as “racist” or “imperialist” or “sexist,” but as physically and mentally harmful. It’s a scam, and they make it clear that it’s a scam by extending it from victims of real and horrific sexual violence (“survivors” in their cushiony patois) to “a person of color, or a student from a low-income background.”

Rembrandt, Rape of Prosperina

Rembrandt, Rape of Prosperina

By doing this, they extend the pathology from genuine trauma to include race and class as well. They are saying that race and class are themselves implicitly traumatic and need to be approached as one would a true mental illness. They’re saying that being non-white or poor is a kind of disability that requires special accommodations. Am I the only person who sees that as grossly offensive?

Here’s the deeper problem: triggering is a real thing in mental illness and trauma. A trigger can lead to serious psychological and physiological effects, trawling up memories that haven’t been properly dealt with and leading to anxiety attacks. Anyone who understands anxiety knows this to be true.

However, a victim of violence who is triggered so easily and frequently is suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and needs serious counseling and medication. If they try to assiduously avoid any and all potential triggers, then they are not engaged in healing. They are engaged in avoidance. Indeed, avoiding “triggers” is a way of avoiding coming to grips with the problem, which has the effect of worsening the PTSD.

The answer is not to reshape the public square to accommodate them, because literally anything (a color, a smell) can be a trigger. Trigger warnings exist only to claim public victim status and reshape the debate. Where sexual violence is the issue, they are working hand-in-hand with the myth of the “rape epidemic” as a way of demonizing men to serve a political agenda. (Rates of sexual violence have plummeted over the past two decades. There is no epidemic.)

Trigger warnings are not an outgrowth of a real healing process that shows concern for someone who is suffering, but rather a way for the individual (and their ideological clique) to assert control and declare autonomy and self-importance. Generations of people suffering serious trauma, from things like war and ethnic cleansing, managed to integrate themselves into society without being swaddled in a bubble-wrap of warnings and accommodations. This attempt to neuter the college campus and remove anything difficult or offensive is just the latest front in the war of identity politics, and they trivialize the real struggles of those who suffer from psychological problems.

My other writing about mental illness can be found here.

Mental Healing and the Psalms

There are many ways through the dark valleys of depression, and prayer must be one of them. The problem is that the depressive often cannot even stir to perform regular prayer. Simple tasks become a burden. Prayer routines fall by the wayside. Commitments are left undone.psalter

And with each little failure, the walls close in tighter and the sufferer sinks deeper.

Perhaps one way through the dark valley is to follow the trail laid down by our ancestors with the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. The Psalms have within them the entire range of human emotion and experience. If the regular routine of prayer no longer works for us, if the liturgy of the hours or the rosary or whatever discipline we try to follow has become a drudgery and burden, then we have to find a new way to speak to God and, more importantly, let God speak to us.

Fifty-nine psalms—more one-third of them—have elements of Lament. It would appear, on the surface, to be utter folly for the person in the midst of a soul-crushing sorrow to enter deeper into a world of despair. That appearance is deceiving, however.

The laments are more than that. They are a dialog between man and God. They are a howl of sorrow, yes, but they are also a plea, a thanksgiving, and a sigh of hope and trust.

Psalms by category, from Verbum Bible Software

Psalms by category, from Verbum Bible Software

Perhaps we need a Depression Psalter: something to give voice to pain, speak to God, and express our hope. It could be part of our cold reboot of the soul, as we dispense with old habits, including habits of prayer, and engage cross and the desert head-on. Let me begin with Psalm 13. It opens with a question that, as so often in the psalms, is an accusation:

1 How long, O Lord? Wilt thou forget me for ever?
How long wilt thou hide thy face from me?
2 How long must I bear pain in my soul,
and have sorrow in my heart all the day?
How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?

You can see in the repetition of “How long” the urgency and pain of the psalmist, while parallelism builds gradually sharper accusations against the Lord. A common feature of Hebrew poetry is to say the same thing twice in different ways, which has the effect of both echoing and amplifying points.

At first, the speaker asks how long the Lord will “forget” him, suggesting that his distress is not the direct action of God, but mere neglect.

In the next line, however, God has chosen to actively “hide thy face.” God has not forgotten the speaker: God has deliberately turned away from him. These mounting accusations are a more circumspect way to accuse Yahweh for his present plight

The pain in our souls and the sorrow in our hearts is as good a depiction of depression as you’re likely to find. This is De profundis clamavi: a cry from the depths.

Finally, we have the characterization of the enemy who is exalted over us. We can read “enemy” in many ways. It could be the world, the flesh, and the devil (mundus, caro, et diabolus): the inverted Trinity that leads us into darkness. Any one of these things may be at the root of our depression: stresses of life present and past (the world), challenges from our body from illness or temptation (the flesh), or the evil one himself, who must not be discounted as the root of some cases of severe depression.

But I think it may be more useful for those who suffer from true clinical depression to see the enemy as the depression itself. It’s not unusual to give personality and even character to depression. That’s why it’s called the Black Dog. This runs the risk of placing the depression outside ourselves rather than something that springs from within, but it can also be useful for understanding and confronting the forces pulling us down. In prayer, confronting our depression as an Other, an enemy, is just one way to reach out to God and articulate our pain. It says that we are not our illness, and it will not define us, and it allows for us to plead for this enemy to be driven away.

The next section is a prayer for help. We are asking for deliverance from the enemy, in this case, our depression.

3 Consider and answer me, O Lord my God;
lighten my eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death;
4 lest my enemy say, “I have prevailed over him”;
lest my foes rejoice because I am shaken.

The Hebrew word translated as “lighten my eyes” means to shine, dawn, or give light. It is a powerful way of asking for darkness to be driven away, but it also suggests enlightenment and spiritual wisdom. We are asking God not merely to drive away the pain, but to give wisdom to our souls so we may live better, and to bring the Light Himself to dwell within us.

And to make the stakes clear, God is warned that our very lives are at risk. Major depressive disorders are, in fact, a serious, life-threatening condition. Too many people today fail to understand this.

Again, we have the personification our of our pain as our “enemy” and our “foes.” We are pleading with God not to let them triumph.

The final section is common in Psalms. It’s a prayer of trust, hope, and gratitude for all the Lord has already given and will give:

5 But I have trusted in thy steadfast love;
my heart shall rejoice in thy salvation.
6 I will sing to the Lord,
because he has dealt bountifully with me.

This is key. Trust and rejoice! Whatever bears us down, the Lord bears us up. The Lord’s love is steadfast, and He will save us. We cannot despair.

However slender that reed of hope is, we must hold onto it and not be swallowed up by the darkness. We must trust and hope in the Lord. We must never give up on Him, even when we’ve given up on ourselves. If the Psalms teach us nothing else, they have to teach us that much.

The Cold Reboot of the Soul

I sometimes hold it half a sin
To put in words the grief I feel;
For words, like Nature, half reveal
And half conceal the Soul within.

My brain is a treacherous organ. I’ve made my living from it for almost a quarter century, yet it has a defect that makes this hard sometimes. The defect is mental illness, and it’s been with me my whole life.

Usually, it behaves itself. Lately, it hasn’t been. It comes in cycles, sometimes keyed to seasons (late winter is a bad time for many), sometimes for no apparent reason.depression

Depression isn’t sadness. It’s not even in the same emotional class. Depression is like a vice on your brain. It can sometimes squeeze so tightly that the sufferer hallucinates. It’s like mental suffocation. And it comes on for no reason, even in the midst of happiness.

Drugs help. If you find someone claiming SSRIs are bad or they only work because of placebo effects or other nonsense, ignore them. I’ve conducted a personal 30 year clinical trial, on and off all manner of pharmaceuticals, and when someone finds the right one, they work. All the chattering therapy in the world can’t do what they do.

I went off a medication last summer while my doctors tried to find the cause of a heart problem. I felt okay so I stayed off it. The drugs, however, provide a floor so that when the depression comes on, it doesn’t get as bad as it might otherwise. The floor wasn’t there when it came on this time, and I felt like Wile E. Coyote being flattened under an anvil.

I felt my mind going. I started forgetting things I’ve taught for ten years. My memory is shot for now. I struggle to get a single thing done. If I work myself up to it and have everything written down, I can still get through public speaking and being around people, but it’s physically draining.

The interesting part of all this, and the reason I’m sharing it now when I very rarely write personal things, is that while it’s put pressure on my faith observations, it hasn’t damaged my actual faith at all. I don’t blame God for this and I accept it as my cross even though I’d really like to stop carrying it for a while any time now God.

Maintaining a regular prayer schedule is nearly impossible in this condition. I visited with some friends last night and spent some in their parish prayer chapel where the Eucharist was exposed. I was able to pray the 22nd Psalm and that was it. The rest of the time, I had hardly a single word in my head, not even the Jesus prayer which is usually my go-to meditation. I just sat silently staring at the sacrament.

And you know something? It was enough. My faith is always too much in my head. There’s a useful side effect to that: it’s very rarely shaken. Even when I don’t “feel” it I know that, intellectually, it’s still a rock to stand on. A faith that is too much in the head grows arid, but one that is too much in the heart is easily buffeted by emotional trauma.

Even when the faith sparks to flame in my heart, it’s always very bound to words. Words are my life. Wordlessness is a challenge. I want to pray? I read. Reading becomes my prayer.

And that’s part of the problem. Reading isn’t a prayer. Reading is the ground upon which prayer takes place. It prompts to the prayer. It’s the context for the prayer. Even the words we speak or think aren’t always the best prayer. “Words conceal the soul within,” as Tennyson points out in “In Memoriam AHH”. Yet they have a purpose as well:

But, for the unquiet heart and brain,
A use in measured language lies;
The sad mechanic exercise,
Like dull narcotics, numbing pain.

Before God, we shouldn’t try to numb the pain away. Before God we should be naked and exposed, as we were in first innocence. That much, at least, we owe him.
And so, sometimes, being stripped down and left wordless before the One Who saves is enough. Perhaps the cacophony of our life and work and prayer and study can, at times and for some, become an obstacle to the work of the Spirit.

Depression scours the mind and the soul like a hard desert windstorm. It reduces you. The intellect is compromised. The emotions are laid bare. You’re pushed to the very edge of a gaping pit of despair and forced to look.

As Christians, we need to think differently. Perhaps that pit is not despair, which after all is a sin. Perhaps it’s not even a pit. Perhaps it’s an invitation, a blank slate, a clean white sheet of paper.

When a computer starts to malfunction, what do you do?

You turn it off.

When you power it all the way down and then restart it, it’s called a cold reboot. A cold reboot interrupts the power and clears the memory leaks that may be causing a system to run poorly. Most everyday computer problems can be solved by simply restarting the system a couple of times.

Perhaps depression functions like a cold reboot of the soul. What does depression feel like? Paradoxically, it’s both a weight and an emptiness. Paradox is sometimes a cue that we’re dealing with the transcendent.

For a Christian, every weight is a cross.

For a Christian, every emptiness is a desert.

The cross is our participation in the divine work of Christ. The desert is the place where we empty ourselves so we may be filled with the Spirit.

And so we are poised not at the pit, but at the opposite place: at the hill at the edge of the desert, in the shadow of the cross.

It’s a place of pain and tears, make no mistake. For the person who suffers mental illness, it always feels like Good Friday, and Easter never comes.

But that’s an illusion, and illusions betray us. Just as we know we must pass through the pain of Good Friday to get to the joy of Easter, so too must we remember the reverse: suffering has an end and joy is assured. The hard part is hanging on long enough to get there.

Maybe if we just shift how we look at that time in the dark it will get a little more tolerable. Maybe if we’re content to sit in silence and just be in the presence of God, some of the weights dragging down our hearts and souls will fall. Maybe we just need to ask Christ to be our Simon of Cyrene and carry our cross a little way.

Everything is towards an end. Everything has a purpose. Even mental illness. Our challenge is to find that purpose, live through it, live in it, and come out the other side.

Ophelia’s Funeral: Suicide and The Church

Editors’ Note: This article is part of the Public Square 2014 Summer Series: Conversations on Religious Trends. Read other perspectives from the Patheos community here.

In 1915, my great grand-aunt Emma Annie Rabig died at the age of 24. I have a copy of her death certificate. Next to “Cause of death” is written “Body viewed.” Nothing more.

There’s a lot of story, much history, and a great deal of pain packed into those two words.ophelia

Annie killed herself by hanging at her parents’ home in Elizabeth, New Jersey. Her brother, my great grandfather, was a cop in Elizabeth, and my mother sees his hand in the cryptic note.

Had the coroner written “suicide,” she could not have had a church funeral and burial. Her damnation would have been assumed. Her brother would have asked for that detail to be left off the official paperwork, and it was rarely spoken of again.

“We were just mean,” my mother noted sadly when we found the certificate. She meant the Church.

Ropes dangle from too many branches of my family tree. That’s just the way it is for some families. Suicide, depression, alcoholism, mental illness: sometimes they’re just in the blood.

Annie may have been pregnant and unmarried at the time of her suicide. At least that’s how family lore tells it. It’s said by way of explanation, as so many suicides and breakdowns are explained away: his son died, his wife left him, he was a drunk, she was pregnant and unmarried.

The reasons are notable because, shameful as some of them are, they were still considered better than mental illness.

In the wake of Robin Williams’ death, much ink, literal and virtual, has been spilled on the root, causes, and theological meaning of suicide. If suicide was a disease it would be an epidemic. One person commits suicide every 40 seconds. Of the 1.5 million violent deaths every year, 800,000 are suicide, more than from war and natural disaster combined. It is not something we can ignore as Christians.

Robin Williams was an Episcopalian and thus at least a nominal, if not practicing, Christian. Christian theology is very clear: suicide is self-murder, and thus it is always a grave and mortal sin.

However, as we have come to have a more refined understanding of mental illness, our theology has adopted a more nuanced approach. The culpability of the sinner may be minimized by other factors. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says that

Grave psychological disturbances, anguish, or grave fear of hardship, suffering, or torture can diminish the responsibility of the one committing suicide. We should not despair of the eternal salvation of persons who have taken their own lives. By ways known to him alone, God can provide the opportunity for salutary repentance. The Church prays for persons who have taken their own lives.

In Evangelium Vitae, St. John Paul II writes:

Even though a certain psychological, cultural and social conditioning may induce a person to carry out an action which so radically contradicts the innate inclination to life, thus lessening or removing subjective responsibility, suicide, when viewed objectively, is a gravely immoral act. In fact, it involves the rejection of love of self and the renunciation of the obligation of justice and charity towards one’s neighbour, towards the communities to which one belongs, and towards society as a whole.

We do not own our lives, which are given to us by God. It is not a gift we simply accept and use as we choose. We are, as the Catechism observes, merely “stewards” of this life entrusted to us. Our purpose  is to return that life to God at a time and in a manner of His choosing, unmarked by sin. Thus, suicide and euthanasia can never be permitted.

Act 5 of Hamlet offers an example of how the Church viewed suicide for centuries. It is the funeral of Ophelia, who in her madness has drowned herself.  Laertes demands the full rites be said, but the priest has already given as much as he is willing to give:

We should profane the service of the dead
To sing a requiem and such rest to her
As to peace-parted souls.

There’s no denying the force of the priest’s arguments. If the final action of someone’s life is a mortal sin, how can that person achieve salvation? The chance for repentance would seem to be gone.

For an act to be a mortal sin, it needs to be gravely immoral (such as murder), it must be committed with a fully informed intellect that understands the sinful nature of the act, and it must be an action of the individual’s free will. Illness and circumstance can compromise those second two elements. In such a compromised state, the functioning of the will and intellect may be so damaged that the individual is no longer fully responsible.  This is what the Church means by factors that lesson or remove “subjective responsibility.”

It is in this light that the Church now views suicide, and allows funeral masses and burial. It’s a subtle shift in focus from justice to mercy, and thus allows the possibility of hope for the families of suicides. Perhaps purgatory provides an opportunity for those who, compromised by circumstance or illness, commit a mortal sin as a final act. All things are possible with God.

As the trend towards devaluing human life and the human person increases, suicide and euthanasia risk being treated as just another life choice. When consent is the sole criterion for judging the goodness of an act, objective morality becomes impossible. The Dutch are already experimenting with physician-assisted suicide for the mentally ill: yet another milestone in conditioning us to view see suicide as a viable personal decision.

This how the culture of death grows, and the Church stands firmly against it.

The Church can never “evolve” from understanding suicide as a sin, nor should it. Modern society views guilt, social stigma, and fear of damnation as primitive and destructive forces. In fact, they exert a powerful counter-pressure that pushes back against the individual’s natural inclination to sin, and thus provide a social and religious support for those tending towards an objectively evil act such as self-murder.

This is the fine line the Church must walk between affirming the wrongness of an act and leaving open the possibility of salvation. Here at the close of a summer in which suicide entered the public dialog in a forceful and unprecedented way, our ability to balance the evil of suicide against the hope in God’s mercy contributes to that dialog.

Like Ophelia, Robin Williams’ final act was wrong, but God’s mercy is boundless, and ours should be as well. Let us continue to pray for all those trapped in darkness and despair, that they may find their way to the Light.


Mental Illness and the Notion of Choice

Sadness Is Not Depression

Mental Illness and the Notion of “Choice”

In the wake of the shocking death of Robin Williams, there’s been a lot about depression and suicide in the news and social media, some of it very good, much of it sheer nonsense.

I don’t think we’ve ever had a national moment quite like this, in which a beloved entertainer, known for making people laugh, takes his own life. It seems incongruous to many, and the reactions emphasize how little most people understand about mental illness, particularly depression. There’s been a lot of idiotic armchair psychoanalysis and tone-deaf commentary from people who clearly have not a clue.

And, you know, people who don’t have a clue should probably shut up about it. It is not anything that can ever, even by the most empathetic people, be understood from the outside. Any attempt by an outsider to quantify and explain it will be spotted for the hollow nonsense it is by those suffer, and just create further layers of misunderstanding for those who don’t.

Yes, in a general sense, Robin Williams had a “choice” to kill himself or not. His act was an act of the will. No one has to kill himself. It’s always–always–the wrong thing to do. Of course it is a “bad choice,” but that doesn’t really get to the heart of the matter.

Mental illness compromises the functioning of both the will and the intellect. It can warp the intellect until right judgment is no longer possible, and damages the will so that choosing the proper action is no longer a simple matter.

Thus, the language of “choice” is the wrong way to explain it. Since most people understand a choice as a largely binary decision making process between clear alternatives (and nothing can be as clear and stark as the choice between life and death), it conveys the wrong notions about an act of self-harm. It makes it sound like choosing a pair of pants or something to eat for lunch.

Quite obviously, if the will and intellect are properly ordered, a human being will not choose gratuitous self-destruction, which should give pundits a clue that it’s not really about a rational “choice,” but about a disease which can compromise the very ability to make rational choices.

The goal of the mental health professional is to help someone with mental illness repair that damaged thought process, so that a proper choice becomes obvious to the intellect and possible for the will. That’s why intervention can be so successful for those with suicidal thoughts. It enables the person who’s suffering to get assistance for their compromised thoughts and emotions.

The struggle is to get by each day–one day at a time–without self-destructing: to think clearly enough to know that there’s a day beyond this one. As those days line up and get harder and harder, this becomes more and more difficult, which is why it has to be a daily fight made with the assistance of God, friends, family, and professional help.

Suicide is a mirage: it appears to offer relief. It doesn’t. It merely snuffs out all hope as the individual surrenders to despair rather than trusting in God and praying for a better tomorrow.

Each tomorrow is a chance, and if a thousand tomorrows don’t bring relief, then you just have to hold on for 1001.

Faith also has a role to play in healing those who suffer various forms of mental illness, and we should place our burdens on the shoulders that carried the cross. I think the Catholic Guide to Depression does a decent job of explaining the subject. It’s also something I’ve written about here.


Michael Lichens on Depression

When I write about mental health issues and depression, I tend to do so obliquely, so I know how difficult it is for Michael Lichens, Editor of Catholic Exchange, to write about it as well as he does. An excerpt

I wanted to point out that depression touches many lives, whether we know it or not. Even my worst days I can fake being happy for a few hours before I collapse in exhaustion. If someone is depressed, you may never know it unless they feel comfortable enough to let their guard down. Then, it’s up to you to do what you can to be a friend, mother, spouse, or whatever part you play in their lives.

Unlike many illnesses, it does not always show outwardly. The person in your life suffering mental anguish is probably barely aware of it himself. Dig, though, and it’s there. Like all conditions of the Fall, we cannot let it fester in darkness but there needs to a light to shine the truth and to give hope to those who feel like all hope has abandoned them.

Depression doesn’t give a damn about your status, vocation, race, or financial situation. Yet, neither does Christ. If we want the mentally afflicted to find the peace that surpasses all understanding, we need first to open the doors and to let it in, and that is what Christian charity ought to do.

If someone in your life is suffering mental anguish, I can tell you from experience what works and doesn’t work. Don’t try to cure them unless you are a doctor or a real wonder-worker, and for heaven’s sake do not try to tell them, “But how can you be depressed!” Instead, let them know that they do have a friend, who is willing to carry a lot of their pains if necessary, and accept it if silence is their only response. Then, pray for help and that grace will be sufficient to get them through, but be aware that you probably are called to be an instrument of that grace. It means some work, but love demands it.

Read the rest.