Saturday, 23 October 2010

Bloody Woman

I have never liked crowds, but this one is the worst I've ever seen: a shifting mass of bodies, jostling for space. The smell of sweat fills my nose. For the umpteenth time, I consider what I am about to do, and shudder. If I go ahead, my burden might be forever lifted. If I do not, I might…die? Either way, I'll never be the same again.

* * * * *
My name is—but what does it matter? It has been long years since anyone called me by name. Mostly, they stop talking when I approach, and when they do talk, it's in whispers. Sometimes, I've caught things like, "Bloody woman!" But that is rare, for I hardly see people. Or, to be precise, people hardly see me. They don't want to.

My crime? I was guilty of the longest period ever, as far as anyone knew: twelve years. It started shortly after I was married at fifteen, after I attained womanhood, as was the custom. Our wedding was delightful, the talk of the town: my father could afford it after all, and I was his first daughter. But I had hardly got used to being married—my third month—when it started. Or rather, it wouldn't stop. My flow had never been heavy, and it still wasn't, but now it just wouldn't stop. The cramps were the worst.

Initially my husband was supportive, but it wasn't long before it started to get to him. You see, under the Torah, a woman on her period is unclean while it lasts, and for seven days after. So is anything or anyone she touches. Normally, it's a small inconvenience, but with my unending flow, that law quickly became an unbearable weight. Seven days became seven months, and there was no end in sight. The inevitable whispers began, and spread like maggots: "She's unclean." I was an outcast, a leper with good skin. I couldn't go to the market or the temple. At home the blood, unseen, drove a wedge between my husband and me: ceremonial uncleanness would be bad for business. I couldn't cook for him, conversation became stilted, sex was out of it. Not that sex could have produced anything of course. Within a year, my husband had divorced me.

Before the divorce, my father built me a house on the outskirts of town, and I stayed there with only a couple of slaves for company. He also provides a monthly allowance for my upkeep, but that was as far as he could go, poor man. He has never come to see me. In the meantime, I have spent my time seeing all kinds of doctors. I have drunk evil-tasting potions, suffered the most agonising procedures, even had exorcisms done. I spent large sums of money. (In my desperation, I even saw a medium once, something forbidden by the Torah.) But the blood flowed on.

And then I heard of Yeshua Bar-Yosef.

My maidservant it was who told me of him, six months ago. "They say he heals all kinds of diseases!" I'd heard that before, naturally. But the girl would not rest. Soon, she started going to hear him whenever he came around, and would come to tell me of his words. One day, she angered me. She was taking my clothes to wash, and started to talk of him again, imploring me to try. I was in a foul mood, and commanded her to be quiet. She stopped talking, looked intently at me and, voice breaking with feeling, said, "Why will you not try, my lady? What do you have to lose, who have already lost all?"

I flew into a rage and beat her out of my sight. And then I went to my room and cried for hours. Anger and sorrow tore my heart apart. Anger at God and man, and sorrow for all had I lost, for all I never had. And in my ruptured heart, her question rose again: "What do you have to lose, who have already lost all?"
What indeed? It took months, but slowly the idea began to grow in my mind and to take hold of me. Slowly, hope began to stir in my heart, and with it, fear…

* * * * *
Now, I stand at the edge of the crowd, watching. I know Yeshua from my servant's frequent descriptions, but I wouldn't need them. It is obvious who the centre of attraction is. The fear roils in my heart still, but there is faith too. I believe Yeshua can heal me, but I fear what he may do when I carry out my thought. No matter. My mind is made up. Muttering a quick prayer, I pull up my veil and joined the crowd, jostling with the rest.

As I draw nearer, careful not to touch anyone with my bare hands, I hear whispers in the crowd that he is headed toward the home of Jairus, whose daughter lies dying. My heart thumps: who knows what awaits him at Jairus' home, what may hinder him? At that moment, a space appears out of nowhere, and I see him barely five feet from me! I breathe thanks to the Almighty and plunge through, feeling the press close in behind me. Keeping my face to the ground, I grab at the fringe of his garment.

Two things happen in that instant. I feel a…how shall I describe this? This is no bodily feeling, and yet I feel it: my flow has ceased. But I can hardly rejoice, for the second thing happens: he spins around, the force of it throwing me back, onto the ground. "Who touched me?" he asks, his voice firm and clear. Terror swells in my heart. It is as I feared: my doom is about to fall. I shall be denounced forever for daring to touch a holy man in my uncleanness.

"Someone touched me," he repeats, as though to a challenge. I do the only thing I possibly can: falling at his feet, my heart filled with an unfamiliar mixture of dread and wonder, and my voice no louder than a whisper: "It was I, my Lord. I have had a flow of blood lasting these twelve winters, and I…I heard you could heal me…and indeed, I am healed." I falter, but go on. "I touched because I feared you would not hear me… Forgive me, my Lord. Have mercy on an unclean woman and presumptous."

I feel a tug on my arm, and go limp with new fear. But it is his hand, and he is pulling me to my feet. And with a tenderness I have not heard in long years, he whispers: "Cheer up, daughter. It was your faith that made you whole." I look up, and I see him smiling, a wide and generous smile. I realise I too am smiling. Then he blesses me: "Go in peace, and be whole in all things." And he beams at me again.

"Let the Master go! Your daughter is dead." The man is speaking to Jairus, but he spares me a withering look. I do not care, for Yeshua has smiled on me. I feel sorry for Jairus, though, and for his dear daughter. But Yeshua looks keenly at him and says, "Don't be afraid, Jairus; just trust me." And I know everything will be alright.

The crowd moves on, following him to Jairus' house, but I stand there, frozen in wonder. I have longed for this day so long that I had given up hope that I would ever see it, and now it has come and I can hardly believe it. I feel like clean laundry, like a baby new born. I am whole, and no one shall call me "bloody" ever again.

Thursday, 14 October 2010

"Spiritualising" Mental Illness

"Isn't mental illness largely a spiritual thing?"

I'm asked that often. Sometimes it's more pointed: "How do you reconcile your faith with your practice?" One or two people have even gone so far as to insist (tactlessly, but perhaps understandably) that I could not possibly believe in what I do as a mental health service provider!

An explanation is obviously in order.

Broadly, there are two reasons for assuming the cause of a thing to be "spiritual": either natural causes don't explain it enough, or natural solutions don't work. To many, both reasons apply to mental disorders. Ergo, they must be "spiritual". But this thinking is gravely flawed, in both its basic premise and underlying assumption.

First, the premise. It's simply not true that natural causes don't suffice and natural solutions don't work. An increased understanding of mental illness has helped us to better explain it via natural factors: genetics, upbringing, personality, life experiences (especially misfortune), physical problems or disease and so on. And on the whole, drugs and other natural treatments produce remarkable results.

As for the implicit assumption, in the common perception of mental illness, that everything results from either natural or spiritual causes, that too is wrong. It's not an "either-or" thing, but "both-and": both natural and spiritual causes simultaneously, not one or the other. And unless I'm grossly mistaken, that's what Christianity (to which I adhere) insists on. (I don't think other religious people would disagree.) Either everything has a spiritual dimension to it, or nothing does.

Viewed this way, then, spiritual and physical explanations, instead of being opposing and mutually exclusive, are simply two different, but complementary and equally valid perspectives on the same phenomena.

And the implications? Well, for one, schizophrenia and depression are no more spiritual than malaria and headaches. (If that still sounds preposterous, do you now see why?) And a psychiatrist has no more need for "protection" than any GP. It also means that an explanation from one angle doesn't in any way nullify a complementary explanation from the other.

So where (as in most cases, I imagine) an illness is due to some germ or other environmental cause (known or unknown), the spiritual element may simply be considered to be acting indirectly via the physical medium. You have a headache? Take paracetamol. Or pray. Or both. Your choice, depending on how you see it.

What about direct spiritual causation, such as a demon jumping on someone to produce an unnatural fever? This view allows for this too, but I don't think direct is the norm. And I'd put my money on the person having gone dabbling in some weighty spiritual matter. Even then, I wouldn't totally rule out a possible natural angle. Take the records of Jesus raising Jairus' daughter from the dead (as spiritual as it could get), and immediately instructing that she be given food: the supernatural miracle would yet require natural sustenance.

If all this seems merely academic, rest assured that the damage done to the mentally disordered by people of faith is very real. While much of that damage is probably rooted in our frequent failure to practise what we preach, I think some of it is also the result of an unfortunate inability to reconcile faith with science. It is to address the latter that I have written.

Friday, 1 October 2010

Nigeria at 50: In Defence of Hope

Imagine a man just out of work who loses all that's dear to him in a raging fire: home, possessions, mementos, maybe a child or two. All he has left is his wife, one child and the clothes on their backs. No insurance. What options are available to such a man?

Well, there's suicide, for starters. No? Why not? After all, what does he have to live for? His now-decimated family? True, there is that, but wouldn't his inability to provide for them only make him more depressed? Maybe not. Some, in the face of such tragedy, are able to press on in stubborn hope. Such a hope will necessarily have little in the way of material basis. Yet, without it, there can be no moving forward for our man. (There's one other option, of course: he could simply plod on drearily, without hope and without dignity, but that's hardly worth considering.)

So, is Nigeria at fifty worth celebrating? I think so.

Yes, things are bad, very bad. Indeed, to say Nigeria's a giant of a mess is no exaggeration. Of course, there's good, too, but there's a very real sense in which that seems outweighed by the bad. What then? Shall we give up on the only nation we have? Well, do we give up on our families, riddled with flaws as they often are? I think not.

I choose to celebrate Nigeria, not because it's where I want it to be, or because it's done all its duty to me, but simply because it's mine, for good or ill. And I intend to work on the former. Yes, I heartily deplore the mindless celebration that, admittedly, seems largely on order. But I'm equally tired of those who see only the bad and do not offer any help. If you really believe Nigeria is hopeless, then why do you even bother discussing the subject? Please.

I believe there's a place for a sort of reflective celebration, one tempered with thoughtfulness. A celebration driven not by ignorant bliss or simplistic optimism, but by the kind of hope that's not afraid to look grim reality head on. The kind of hope that makes suicide a non-option for one who has lost it all.

I dare to hope, even if it kills me. And while I hope, and work where I can, I will celebrate.


"As I have begun, so I will go on. We have come now to the very brink, where hope and despair are akin. To waver is to fall." (Aragorn, in JRR Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings)