Waiting for the Messiah

Advent scene - a forest of trees covered by snow, with snow falling - by Grant Lemon

Waiting for the Messiah

This Sunday marks the beginning of Advent. The word “advent” means that something has come into being or into view. Something happens; something arrives. The season of Advent is about the arrival of Jesus, through his birth, yet Christians continue to wait for the Messiah to come again, to save the world from its evil and misery, and make creation new again.

Christians are not the only ones awaiting a Messiah. Jews anticipate the Messiah’s first coming. Muslims wait for the Mahdi who will prepare the way for Jesus. Kalki, the 10th incarnation of Vishnu will destroy the world and birth a new universe. We long for someone to save us from evil, to destroy our enemies and reward our friends, to build a paradise once again.

Advent scene - a forest of trees covered by snow, with snow falling - by Grant Lemon Love and Mercy

I just finished watching “Love and Mercy,” [1] a film about imprisonment and salvation. Singer-songwriter Brian Wilson, who co-founded the Beach Boys, starting hearing voices and music in his head when he was a young adult. Finally, after a psychotic break that disrupted his music career, his first wife hired the psychologist, Eugene Landy, to help him. Landy diagnosed Brian with paranoid schizophrenia and gave him massive amounts of psychotropic medication.

Mental illness is its own kind of imprisonment. When voices rail at us from inside our own minds, there is no escape. Medication can help, although it rarely takes away all of a person’s symptoms. As if hearing voices wasn’t enough to make Brian miserable, Landy managed, though manipulation and abuse, to imprison the musician even though no bars held him captive. Once Landy got himself made Brian’s guardian, he over-medicated him, directed every aspect of his life, and controlled his finances. To further intimidate Brian, Landy cajoled, bribed, berated, and screamed at him.

According to the movie, Brian was saved from this nightmare by Melinda Ledbetter, the woman who became his second wife. Looking for a car, Brian wandered into the Cadillac show room where Melinda worked as a saleswoman. Brian reached out to her, and she became involved in Brian’s life. Over time, she came to understand the hold Landy had over him. Eventually, she gathered enough evidence of the psychologist’s malpractice that the family could sever the psychologist’s relationship with Brian and get Landy’s license taken away. Another therapist diagnosed Brian more correctly with schizoaffective disorder, allowing him to get appropriate treatment, and he went on to forge a new musical career.

Waiting for a Savior

Melinda saved Brian’s life. You might say, she was his Messiah. Brian wasn’t passive in the process. He found a way to talk privately with her in the showroom, called her at her home, and figured out how they could escape Landy’s constant supervision, at least for a little while.

For her part, she felt compassion for this mentally-ill man, responded to his overtures, and even came to love him. Then she did everything she could to save Brian from his prison. For years he had been under Landy’s power. He felt lonely and scared. Who knows how many people he reached out to before Melinda reached back? Yet his waiting was rewarded. Eventually, his Messiah arrived.

Most Messiah stories are about restoring justice and righteousness to the world. Everyone knows that some people are good and others are evil, and when the Messiah comes, he will destroy the evil ones, leaving paradise to those of use who know how to take care of it. We love this story, not least because we know we are the good ones the Messiah will reward, and we tell the story of this battle between good and evil in myths, fairy tales, and science fiction stories. This battle may be metaphoric, as in the understanding of jihad as an internal struggle against our own base urges. It may be literal, as in Melinda’s fight against Landy.

Who Is Evil?

Was Landy evil?

I guess that depends on how we define evil. In his article, “How Should We Respond to ‘Evil’?“, Steven Paulikas claims that evil is not a thing so much as a kind of myth or a “black hole of thought.” In other words, evil has no substance. It isn’t an “axis,” as George Bush suggested, and it can’t be represented by any color or class of people. We don’t know evil ones by their career, or even by their mental health diagnosis.

As Paulikas explains, the philosopher Paul Ricoeur enjoins us to respond not to the perpetrator or the act of evil itself, but rather to the one who has suffered from cruelty and cunning. Rather than exacting revenge or trying to stamp out evil, which we have failed to do no matter how much strength and how many weapons we have used against it, Paulikas suggests we  do what we must and what we can to provide healing for the wounded and to prevent further suffering. In fact, if we spent less time trying to retaliate, we might find we not only had more time to nurture and support others, but there would be less evil in the world.

I don’t know that Landy was evil. The movie showed him berating and belittling Wilson. In one scene, he went to the Cadillac showroom to have it out with Ledbetter, shouting obscenities and threats through the closed door of her office. Finally he screamed at her to open the door. And, with one swift movement, she did. Then she stood facing him, silent and unmoved. Surprised, he was rendered speechless and, muttering angrily, went away.

Responding to Evil

Ledbetter won. Not because she shouted back or hit him, but because she stood up to him. Landy was deflated. In his life, he did ugly, stupid, hurtful things. His lust for money and power overwhelmed his clinical judgment. Does that make him evil?

To some degree or other, we all do ugly, stupid, hurtful things. Does that make us evil?

How many times do we have to yell at someone before we become evil? Does it matter why we lash out at others? What if we’re terrified or exhausted from lack of sleep and overwork? Does that excuse our action? What if we were yelled at and hit and locked in closets when we were kids? Does that make a difference? What if we hurt others in our addiction, or if we lack a conscience? And what if a person bombs an entire village, but does so because she believes it will save the world? Is she still evil?

Trying to decide who deserves to die, who needs treatment, and who simply needs to some sleep is a complex process, fraught with errors. Eventually, though, it may not matter that we correctly label the evil one.After all, trying to eradicate evil doesn’t work. Executions, feuds, and wars have never vanquished the evil from our world. Given what we know about the power of positive and negative reinforcements, we’d probably do better to simply ignore the evil doer than fight her.

Longing for a Powerful Messiah

To do so, however, goes against our emotions and instincts. We love to claim we know who is evil and who is not, to separate the world cleanly and simply between the good and the bad, especially when we’re one of the good people. We love our stories of Messiahs so powerful no Satan can withstand them, and if our Messiahs vanquish the enemy with actions as evil as any ever perpetrated, that’s all right, because it’s in the service of the “good.”

Melinda Ledbetter did not destroy her enemy. She didn’t need to. The law was recourse enough for her. In the end, Landy rebuilt his life, though I like to imagine he did less damage afterwards.

That, however, may not be our concern. It may be that our task is not so much to destroy evil in the world as to heal the victims, to soothe the suffering, and to set right as much as we can. Rabbi Jacob Staub, in “Waiting for the Messiah,” admits that Jews wait longingly for the coming of the Messiah, a righteous and wise ruler who will bring peace because of how he rules. Yet Staub doesn’t think we need a mystical Messiah who can suspend the laws of nature and bring suffering to an end as if by waving a magic wand. He believes we ourselves have the power to usher in the messianic era, the days when peace and justice will reign.

Being Our Own Messiah

We may be waiting for a Messiah, but, Staub writes that while we wait we can pave the way for this wise ruler to appear. We can do good in the world. Notice the suffering and less fortunate, he suggests. Reach out to them and provide comfort, nurturing, and support. By doing what we can to alleviate the misery of those who live in this world, we become Messiahs in our own right.

Brian Wilson may have been longing and waiting for someone to save him from his abusive psychologist, yet he did not wait passively. Melinda Ledbetter may have been furious at Landy for hurting Wilson, yet she didn’t lash out, or even try to destroy him. She simply did what she could to release his grip on Wilson, then she helped find the musician competent, effective help. She relieved his suffering by loving him, caring for him, and getting him support.

Perhaps the Messiah will come less as a warrior announced by flashing lights and clashing swords, but more as a gentle, loving presence who lifts us up, heals our wounds, and helps us find our way in the world. In the meantime, while we’re waiting for this gentle Messiah to come, we can all be little messiahs, reaching out to one another to create our own little paradise wherever we find ourselves.

In faith and fondness,

Barbara

Credits

  1. Love and Mercy, Dir. Bill Pohlad, Perf. John Cusack, Paul Dano, Elizabeth Banks, Paul Giamatti, Dist. Liongate, Film, 2014.
  2. Paulikas, Steve, “How Should We Respond to Evil?,” Opinion, New York Times, June 27, 2016, https://www.nytimes.com/2016/06/27/opinion/how-should-we-respond-to-evil.html?smid=fb-share&_r=0, accessed 11/25/16.

Photo by Grant Lemon, from Unsplash