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.” Colbert, not surprisingly, bested the poor author, Nassir Ghaemi, (a New York Times article gently criticized him, too), but the book is wonderfully thought-provoking, and perhaps could prompt some intriguing discussion among religious professionals.
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 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 suffering. It is not that these titans overcame their illness or managed to achieve much despite it. 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 Stylites (squatting on a pillar for a few decades? Are you kidding?). And what might this mean for ministry and even for clergy evaluations (which I wrote about recently)? 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 cause people to think, “Now we're on the verge of stellar leadership”?
Don’t we hide our darkness, or at best, seek ultra-confidential support if something’s awry in our heads? We all know internal struggle, but isn’t there a game of pretend (or obtuse) optimism that insists -- even if everybody else wages dreaded combat against mental issues -- it is still the clergy person who should be immune, or long-since healed?
Eugene Rogers (in “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 is not merely a burden to overcome, but an actual gift of the Spirit to the church -- not merely to those individuals among the body who battle darkness, but the church and its endangered institutions? If the church is indeed in its own “dark night” (as Elaine Heath wisely claims in “The Mystic Way of Evangelism”), do we need the unstable -- those who have barely hung-on by a thread, women and men who’ve been to the abyss -- to lead? Can unromantic and terrifying-yet-peculiarly hopeful-gifts of inner pain be used for the benefit of God’s church?
James Howell is senior pastor of Myers Park United Methodist Church in Charlotte, North Carolina.