Losing the Self
In my work as a chaplain, I have more than once borne witness to the agony of young adults losing their minds to psychosis. At times, they are convinced nothing is wrong, that the voices, the confused thoughts, the threatening visions are more real than the professionals who would deny their truth. This does not mean these young people are content. Living with someone else’s words in your head can be disconcerting, and also terrifying.
If you do realize that the person you call “myself” is slipping away, it can be even more terrifying. How heartbreaking to become your own stranger. One moment, we are trusting in our future, confident that tomorrow will be much like today, and then we cannot understand our own thoughts. We feel ashamed, bewildered, angry, desperate, and scared.
At least, that’s what I see in the people I work with. When we lose our sense of reality, when our rational mind no longer creates order out of the chaos of sights and sounds and smells, which we normally do without thinking, we feel as if we have lost everything.
Madness or Enlightenment
As human beings, our business is to create an identity for ourselves we can believe in. We strive to become someone, to claim a personality, a purpose. Over time, as our DNA combines with our experiences, and as we embed ourselves into a community of like-minded souls, our attitudes and worldviews solidify. We begin to think we know ourselves. We imagine our ego is real and that we had something to do with where we landed and who we became.
Then, for the 24 million people in the world with schizophrenia, psychosis comes along and dismantles all their efforts. 
It is easy to dismiss these suffering adults as crazy, or at least as different from the rest of us. To some extent, we define reality by popular agreement. Cultures and sub-cultures uniquely interpret the colors and shapes and sounds that exist. Around the world, people understand concepts like time and hope and faith in different ways. Even psychosis is not considered madness everywhere, and if it is, it could be believed to arise from an energy imbalance or possession by a demon or another outside influence.
But mystics everywhere tell a similar story. They talk about the illusion of the self and the oneness of everything. The world they describe sounds a lot like the world of the person we call crazy.
Indeed, to get to this place of wisdom and peace, many of them first fall apart. They go through a shattering akin to the loss of self. To become compassionate, tender, and joyful, we may need to first lose that self we so diligently created during childhood. Perhaps psychosis, then, is a gift that shows us the path toward enlightenment.
So is the young man with schizophrenia mad or wise? How do we know what is mental illness and what is spiritual inspiration?
Consider a housewife named Margery Kempe who lived in Medieval England. She developed a psychosis after the birth of her first child. According to historian Alison Torn, Margery labeled her experience during that time “madness.”  Her descent into this surreal world lasted for months, but eventually, she came out of it. It seemed life would again be normal.
But her experience changed her. After a while, she began to have more unusual experiences. She saw images, heard voices, smelled sweet fragrances. This wasn’t like her previous madness, though. At that time, she had felt besieged. With these new visions, she felt blessed. It seemed to her that she was communing with the holy.
Had her psychosis opened her up to a true, mystical connection? Was it a coincidence that she had experienced both? Or could she find peace even during her hallucinations this second time around because the community in which she lived affirmed them?
By the time of these later visions, Margery had become part of a religious community that decided her hallucinatory sights, sounds, and smells were divinely inspired. Instead of being around a family who could not understand her gibbering, or being part of a faith group that said she was demonically possessed, she lived within a cloister whose structure “left her with her dignity and freedom,” Torn writes. 
Honoring the Visions
What if we all lived in a community that honored our visions and imbued them with meaning, that encouraged our insights, even if on the surface they seemed mad? If we in the United States took a spiritual view of psychosis, would the transition into schizophrenia be less frightening? If we could welcome the disintegration of our ego as a letting go of illusion rather than a descent into insanity, would psychosis feel less terrible?
Or do those question romanticize a painful and tragic decline? When psychosis overwhelms a person, the illusory “I” may cease to exist, which is the goal of much meditation and prayer, but if a person also loses the coherent consciousness that could make sense of her experience, is that not terrible? It takes more than positive thinking to turn a horrifying experience into something good.
It’s fine to talk about the bliss of mystical union, but most of the great mystics also talk about how painful it is. Even if they ultimately feel blessed in their suffering, and even if they discover that individual consciousness is no more real than the self we invent, it’s one thing to go through the agony of dissolution and come out the other side with a new sense of self and connectedness, and another to be stuck there, in a world of shadows and threat, feeling alone and shaken.
Having seen and talked with many people whose schizophrenia shattered their lives, I’m not convinced that changing how we think of the disease will take away its sting.
“Everything Is an Apparition”
Yet does this matter? After all, if our self is an illusion, perhaps the world is, as well. The Buddhist teacher, Longchenpa, wrote that “everything is but an apparition.”  Could it be that mental illness, far from proving that our self is a construct that doesn’t really exist, psychosis proves the existence of a self. After all, if the self can dissolve, doesn’t it have to be there in the first place?
Maybe, and maybe not. The fallacy in thinking so is that we confuse the fantasy of our individual selves with reality. But to imagine that nothing is substantial, that we are all apparitions, is not popular in the West. We Americans, in particular, love to believe we are self-made.
Since Western Europeans came to this country, we’ve been spreading the story that whether we succeed or fail, find love or lose it, descend into madness or thrive on respectability, it is up to us. We make it happen. America is a land of plenty, we are told, with endless opportunity, a place where color and class create no barriers, and where we make our own luck. Over and over we hear that we have the power to create the life we long for.
Maybe that’s why we spread this myth of the self-made man. We want to believe we have such power.
Don’t Give Up
Jane Wong, in her poem, “Lessons on Lessening,” speaks to this.  Her parents taught her that we are “self-made.” If she didn’t have something others had, it wasn’t meant for her, so she shouldn’t bother dreaming or wallowing or wishing. If the plumbing breaks, and the rats die in the corners, and life swarms out of control like ants climbing up her arms, she should put one foot in front of the other and carry on. If she works hard enough, she can make her luck.
To some extent, it’s true. But there is much we have no control over. Sometimes we will be, as Wong puts it, “consumed.” We will get sick, grow old, die.
Still, we don’t have to give up. We can continue to fight, to seek refuge, to find a way out. Despair need not be the end.
Perhaps that’s why we Americans are so fascinated with self-improvement. Do you have a problem? There’s a solution. If that one doesn’t work, try another. And you can always pray.
After all, prayer never fails. If we don’t get what we want, it’s not time, or God said “no,” or we didn’t believe hard enough. Keep trying. Keep improving. Things will get better.
The Prosperity Gospel
But what if they don’t? What if, in spite of exercise and diet and positive thinking, our minds betray us and our bodies grow frail? Anyone’s life can fall apart in an instant.
We all come up with some way to make sense of disaster. Maybe we blame society, or the government, or our neighbor. Some of us blame ourselves. If a horrible thing happens to others, we can blame the victim.
I’m reminded of the prosperity gospel, a religious complement to the American dream. Kate Bowler describes this phenomenon in her books, Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel and No Cure for Being Human. In them, she talks about the wealth and happiness promised by prosperity preachers. As does the myth of the “self-made man,” the prosperity gospel affirms the power of positive thinking.
Like pop psychology, which promises us success if we use secular tricks like affirmations and gratitude lists, the prosperity gospel implies that we can control the future. If reality is an illusion, we can imagine the one we want, and it will appear. Unlike pop psychology, though, the prosperity gospel tells us that the answer to all we desire is prayer. Instead of being a thing that changes our own hearts, prayer changes God’s. It’s like a magic trick that gets the divine to give us what we want.
Letting Go of Certainties
Admittedly, this is an oversimplification of the movement, but it is still cautionary. Any time we think we know the mind of the divine, we end up with absurdities. A wrathful god inspires witch burnings, while a permissive one leads to families who pray for healing even after their loved has died, certain he will rise from the dead like Lazarus. 
At the same time that the prosperity gospel insists that believers in the God of Abraham and Jesus are special, it is also counter-cultural because it reminds us that we are not so much self-made as god-made. As such, we depend on forces wider and stranger and more powerful than we are, forces we really can’t control, no matter how good we are or how fervently we pray.
To truly believein a force greater than ourselves, in the gift of a life of suffering or sadness, we have to let go of our certainties and our false righteousness. We have to let go of the belief that death won’t happen to us. Instead, we must be willing to lose the world, to lose our very minds, so that we might gain our souls.
The Woman Who Would Be God
I’m reminded of the fairy tale of the man who caught a magic flounder. The creature begged for his life. “I am not a fish,” he explained, “but an enchanted prince. Toss me back into the water.”
So the man tossed him back into the water, and the fish swam away. By that time, it was late, so the man went home with nothing for dinner.
When he told his wife what happened, she was angry. “Didn’t you ask for anything?” she wanted to know.
“What would I ask for?”
His wife is incredulous. “Our home is a horrible piss pot, and you don’t want anything else? Go back to the river and ask for a hut.”
So the man went back and called to the flounder, who quickly returned.
“My wife would like a hut,” he told the fish.
“Go home,” said the flounder. “She already has it.”
Indeed, the wife did. Though the husband was quite pleased with the small, but comfortable, dwelling, his wife was not. Soon she wanted something more grand.
So the man went back and asked the flounder for a castle. They were granted one, complete with servants and golden furniture. Soon that wasn’t enough, either. The wife wanted to be king. When she had that, she wanted to be emperor, and then pope. The little fish gave her all she asked for.
Then one day, she sent her husband to have the fish make her a god.
This the fish would not do.
“Go home,” he said. “She is sitting in her piss pot again.”
If our satisfaction comes from material things, we will never have enough. If we keep grasping, eventually our lives will become hell.
Pretending to Know God’s Mind
Another cautionary tale, but this one about the dangers of greed. Yet what if the enemy isn’t greed, but contentment itself?
If we accept our lot in life, we might never have anything better than a piss pot. After all, it’s one thing to be content with a simple life, but if we lived in the world Wong describes, with dead rats on the floor, a kitchen crawling with ants, a father who threatens us with knives, and no hope of changing any of it, we’d probably wish for safety and warmth and enough food to fill our bellies.
Maybe the preachers are right, and God wants us to have everything we desire. Maybe we should dream big, seek success, pray for prosperity. We just need to be careful not to ask for too much. Like the fisherman’s wife, we could end up losing everything.
And there’s the rub. It seems that if we give in to our lust for things, we will never be satisfied. But the prosperity gospel can be so appealing. Not only does it encourage us to give in to that lust, but we can do it in the name of God. How cool is that?
In reality, though, we never have enough. Desires of the flesh are rarely satisfied for long. Even those prosperous religious leaders, with their multi-million-dollar homes and gas-guzzling cars, never stop seeking more. They may use God-language and quote the Bible, but they are as trapped by the American dream as anyone else. They have not only bought into the myth that we create ourselves, but they imagine God approves of their creation. As if they knew the mind of God.
The Barriers We Build
In reality, the mind we think belongs to the divine belongs to us. We’re the ones who want prosperity and personal power, who think that’s what it means to create ourselves. Or maybe we believe in a different kind of god, one who cares about the lonely and the downtrodden, or rewards obedience, or one who made the world, then left us to fend for ourselves. If we can imagine it, though, it’s probably not God.
I guess that means we create God, too. Maybe neither of us is real.
Of course, that doesn’t mean we have no bodies. It doesn’t mean psychosis is the truth. Rather, it means we’re more than we know. And less.
With help, strength, and luck, we can rise above humble or miserable beginnings. Wong has grown up and become someone. If nothing else, she’s a poet. Still, she describes herself in the poem as a young girl weighed down by a life heavy as wet wool. She talks about debtors coming to collect, though we pretend they aren’t. We pretend life is kind, that we can trust tomorrow to be like today, that death will pass us by. We pretend we can be self-made.
It’s not easy to throw off the cloak of our past and become someone new. To rise from the mud after we stumble, to pick ourselves up if we are pushed, to crash through one barrier after another can be exhausting, especially when society builds bigger barriers for some than for others, but it’s not impossible. Life can be hard for everyone, but that doesn’t have to be the end.
A Little Rain
“Into each life some rain must fall,” wrote the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.  We can’t make the rain, nor can we stop it. No matter how hard we try, things won’t always go our way. That’s how life is, even for the devoutly faithful. Even for the self-made man. No matter who we are, some days we feel what it is to be powerless.
Feeling powerless is not all bad, though. It can humble us, and humility teaches us compassion. It teaches us respect and generosity and kindness. Humble people are more likely to offer the fruits of their labors, the love in their hearts. They know it will never be enough, but it will be something.
Humility isn’t subservience, nor is it self-hatred. It is the recognition that if we matter, so does everyone else. It understands that we are self-made only because others came before us and reached out their hands to help us up and opened their hearts to welcome us in.
This is how we make it possible for the next generation to create themselves out of the dust of their lives, to become something better than they thought they could be.
Living out of humility is an exercise in generosity and compassion. The idea that love can change the world, that together we can create a society of individuals who understand that we are one, may be a myth of its own, but I think it relates to the “lessening” Wong refers to in the title of her poem. When we think we deserve every toy and comfort known to humanity, we know nothing of humility. We strut and crow, but have no soul. Lessening makes us holy. Like the shattering of our sense of self, lessening connects us and makes us whole.
We Are Changed
The ones who must create their lives out of refuse and dust understand this better than most. It can be hard to find a balance between arrogance and subservience. Shame breeds both tendencies. Only when we begin to heal that embarrassing wound do we find a patient humility that allows us to make true choices in life. We don’t have to pretend to be perfect, nor need we accept the blows of life with resignation. We can both command respect and offer it. By reaching out for connection, beauty, and wholeness, we can get our souls back.
Of course, it’s only luck that makes us realize we have such a choice in the first place. That’s why it’s so important, if we see an opportunity, to offer a hand, a shoulder, a kindness. If we have been lucky in anything, if we have enough food and clothing and companionship, we owe it to the world to pass that on.
By touching another person, by looking at the world through her eyes and witnessing her story, we not only change her. We change ourselves, too.
So we can choose to turn away from one another. We can preach a gospel of gold and revelry. Then one day we may wake to find our souls have shriveled. We may find ourselves living in a piss pot, no matter how grand our home. Beneath addiction, hunger, despair, the grasping for what we do not have, lies emptiness, loneliness, fear.
Did the fisherman and his wife truly live in a piss pot, or was she so scared of truth and life that she couldn’t appreciate the beauty around her? Was she ashamed of what was nothing less than a simple and honest home? In our desperation to feel special and know ourselves as great, we create an image of who we are that cannot stand up to the truth. We create a self that isn’t pretty, for when our hearts feel empty, we cling to what we know. By holding onto to what we have at all cost, we lose our souls.
Prosperity doesn’t fill our empty hearts. Love does. It doesn’t hurt, though, to have a hut to call our own.
With help, we create ourselves. Sometimes that self shatters, which isn’t all bad. Shattering can open us up in ways we couldn’t have imagined on our own. Like Margery Kempe, we might go through the madness to arrive at a serene mysticism, to find the peace that passes understanding. Some of us are blessed with material goods, and some are not, but all of us are beloved. Our beginning does not have to define our end. We can take off that heavy, woolen coat that weighs us down, and if we owe debts to those who came before, we can pay them. We can be free, and, with the loving-kindness of those around us, we can become whole.
In faith and fondness,
- “Schizophrenia,” World Health Organization, 10 January 2022, https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/schizophrenia, accessed June 21, 2022.
- Torn, Alison, “Looking Back: Medieval Mysticism or Psychosis?,” The Psychologist, October 2011, Vol 24 (pp. 788-790), https://thepsychologist.bps.org.uk/volume-24/edition-10/looking-back-medieval-mysticism-or-psychosis, accessed June 19, 2022.
- Longchenpa, The Natural Freedom of the Mind, quoted by Merreall, John, Taking Laughter Seriously, New York: State University of New York, 1983, 127.
- Wong, Jane, “Lessons on Lessening,” The New York Times Magazine, March 20, 2022, 10.
- Bowler, Kate, Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel, New York: Random House, 2018, ebook 63-64.
- Longfellow, Henry Wadsworth, Ballads and Other Poems, 1842, reprinted on A Maine Historical Society Website, https://www.hwlongfellow.org/poems_poem.php?pid=39, accessed June 25, 2022.
Photo by Jens Johnsson
Copyright © 2022 Barbara E. Stevens. All Rights Reserved.