Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Mental Illness and Great Leadership

     Okay, so I enjoy the Colbert report far more than most sermons I hear (including my own).  In a recent episode, I giggled as Stephen Colbert interviewed an author – and I promptly ordered the book:  A First-Rate Madness: Uncovering the Links Between Leadership and Mental Illness.  This poor author, Nassir Ghaemi, not surprisingly was bested by Colbert (and gently criticized in The New York Times), but the book is wonderfully thought-provoking, and perhaps could prompt some intriguing discussion among religious professionals.

    Himself a psychiatrist (and specialist in mood disorders) who teaches at Tufts, Ghaemi explains with great clarity various dimensions of depression, mania, hyperthermia, neuroticism, and other mood disorders, and then assesses the way some of our most brilliant leaders – especially during times of crisis – have suffered from these at-times debilitating illnesses.  We may be familiar with Churchill’s “black dog,” or the intense darkness into which Lincoln would plunge, the overwhelming depression of Martin Luther King, Jr., or the near-suicidal bouts of agony endured by Gandhi, the scary symptoms exhibited by Gen. William Sherman, or the frantic mania of media mogul Ted Turner – not to mention the self-evident insanity of tyrants like Adolf Hitler.

     What we are unfamiliar with is Ghaemi’s best insight into the function of the suffering.  It is not that these titans overcame their illness, or managed to achieve much despite their illness.  Ghaemi persuasively illustrates the way depression fosters not just sympathy but realistic assessments, the way the manic can be energetic and creative when others are sunk in despair, the way survivors of inner torment develop a kind of resilience, without which leadership breaks down during times of duress. The sane, men like Neville Chamberlain or George W. Bush, simply do not have the stuff during a crisis; they do fine when all is running smoothly; but in times of peril and national distress, they simply cannot rise up and lead heroically, having never suffered much themselves.  For those who combat mental illness, darkness is not a strange land; horror is not an unfamiliar terrain.

     Can you say “theology of the cross”?  How many of the great saints, theologians and heroes through Church history might Ghaemi analyze and discern to be laden with mental illness?  Luther, surely; Francis, no doubt; Teresa of Avila, beyond question; and all those freakish ascetics like Simeon Stylies (squatting on a pillar for a few decades? Are you kidding?).  And what might this mean for ministry, and even for clergy evaluations (on which I wrote last month)?  Can we imagine a search committee pleased that a prospective pastor suffers bouts of depression?  Can we conceive of a day when a minister’s self-reported manic-depression would be cause for the people to think “Now we are on the verge of stellar leadership”?  Don’t we hide our darkness? and at best seek ultra-confidential support if something is awry in our heads?  We all know we all struggle internally, but isn’t there a game of pretend or obtuse optimism that, even if everybody else wages dreaded combat against mental issues, it is the clergy person who should be immune – or long since healed?

   Eugene Rogers (After the Spirit) wrote that the Spirit has so arranged things that our limitations are intended for our benefit.  Could it be that our darkness, our craziness, is not merely a burden to be overcome, but an actual gift of the Spirit to the Church? and not merely to those individuals among the Body who battle darkness, but actually the Church as the endangered institution that is is?  If the Church is indeed in its own “dark night” (as Elaine Heath wisely claims in The Mystic Way of Evangelism), don’t we need the unstable, those who have barely hung on by a thread, women and men who’ve been to the abyss to lead, for the unromanticized and terrifying but yet peculiarly hopeful gifts of inner pain to be used for the benefit of God’s Church?