You hear it all the time: “Perception is reality.” Sometimes, that’s a hard thing to accept, but it says a lot about how we act and react to the world around us. And for any who do magic, it’s a very important, even crucial maxim. However, it also relates to how we determine who is ‘sane’ and who isn’t.
Of course, I’m sane… I really am.
I mean, really… I am…
Sane, that is.
(Here’s some advice: Do not try to prove you are ‘sane,’ because the harder you try, the worse it gets.)
Our spirituality, probably because it’s based on personal experience rather than a specific book or codified statement of faith, has a wide variety of expressions. That is a polite way of saying some of us think and act in ways that make others uncomfortable because those others do not share our form of reality, our ‘world view’ or our perceptions. Even amongst ourselves the differences are great enough to cause discomfort, though we pride ourselves on being ‘tolerant’ about such things. Sometimes it’s difficult to know whether we should view another person’s reality as being acceptable or a sign that they are mentally ill.
Do not feel alone about this. Professionals in the mental health business have the same problem. What is classified as mental illness sometimes is about as fuzzy as a 30-day-old hunk of bread. Oh, another thing… without even trying hard, I’ve found (so far) over a dozen different definitions for what defines a person as mentally healthy! It is definitely a difficult subject because some of these definitions contradict others. Truth be told, everybody seems to exhibit signs of mental illness at times… just as we exhibit signs of mental health at other times. The biggest problem is that hardly anybody can agree which is which.
I bring this up because it directly relates to the work of a minister. In Wicca, as well as several other varieties of Paganism, each person is proclaimed to be a priest or priestess of their religion. Put as simply as possible, this means that each of us is charged with discovering our relationship with the gods and what that means. Since everyone will discover something different, we each will have a different take on that charge. But one of the things that seems to be consistent is we inevitably end up doing ministerial work. Ministry does not necessarily mean we go out and preach or have a congregation come to us each week. It means that we help others discover their own relationship to their gods. But that means we have to evaluate what is helpful and what may be harmful. Eventually, the problem comes up as to whether a person is operating from a mental illness or not. Most of us are not in the mental health business and it’s difficult to make such judgments.
For any who find themselves in the middle of this problem, I would offer some advice. Even though you may not have any training in psychology, there is a simple ‘test’ you can apply any time you question another person’s ‘sanity’ (or, maybe, your own!). Actually, it is two-fold: Is the person able to operate in the world (that you perceive) without seriously harming themselves or others? And (and this is a really important one), can a treatment be implemented that provides for a more suitable reality base? If a course of treatment reduces or wipes out a person’s reality base, it must build another one in its place or the ‘treatment’ is nothing more than a way of removing an inconvenience from society. Now, we might not know what a person’s treatment might be because we aren’t mental health professionals. But many of the people who are out on the streets and in need of treatment are not getting it for one of two reasons.
The first reason is simply this: we cannot afford it. That’s a cruel reality, but it’s true. It might be better to say we will not afford it, but it amounts to the same thing. The cost of care is enormous for some of the worst cases and it is easier to ignore them unless and until they become a big enough problem that society decides the person has to be institutionalized for their (and our) own good. Of course, society has to pay for such institutionalization. And very few of those who get put in any kind of institution will ever be made ‘better.’
The second reason is based on the first. The laws and attitudes of our society basically say that people who need treatment are weak, non-productive, and somehow less important than Joe Average. If they require treatment, they should seek it on their own. Even though there exist programs that some of these people could make use of, most of them could no more afford treatment than fly to the moon. And, to complicate it more, most of them do not want to be ‘treated.’ The medications used to treat many of the symptoms of ADD, bi-polar, schizophrenia, depression, and other common and serious mental illnesses are bitter pills for most of these people. The ‘treatment’ is often more disturbing to the patient than the ‘disease.’ A lot of treatments are for the benefit of society, not the patient.
All these problems aside, when it comes to dealing with people, anyone in our faith group should understand that there are going to be some pretty strange folks show up and we need a way of relating to them that does not harm them or the rest of us. Simply ‘diagnosing’ them as crazy is not going to help anyone and quite possibly do irreparable harm. Even medical professions take an oath that says, ‘Do no harm’.
What can we do?
I think the first thing we can do is what other faith groups require their ministers to do: Take some classes in psychology so you can better understand the problems and symptoms of people who have mental illnesses. Educate yourself on what is known about human psychology and the clinical treatments for some of the more severe conditions. Do not ignore the problem. Everyone is affected by mental illness.
The next thing we can do is to make ourselves more compassionate. The Buddhists base much of their religion on this one word and rightly so. Compassion does not mean feeling sorry for somebody; it means (quite literally) to feel with the other person, to understand what it is like to be in that person’s reality. Of course, that does not mean we should somehow make ourselves crazy. It means we should gain an understanding, through education and reflection upon our own lives, of what the other person is experiencing. Being ‘different’ is often painful, no matter the degree of difference. Being afraid is always painful. Imagine what it would be like to hear voices that are coming from nowhere and plotting against you. Imagine feeling useless and without any joy day in and day out. Understand when a person refuses their medication because it makes the world seem lifeless.
None of this requires us to tolerate any activity that harms us or the people around us. If somebody is acting in a way that places us in danger, treat the problem at hand. Without a doubt, our religion can attract some pretty strange people no matter by what yardstick you may judge them. But remember that these people have seen the world through the lens of a different life. Their perception is their reality. If they have a physical problem (and most mental illnesses do have a known physical aspect to them) that causes them to experience a wildly different reality, they deserve our compassion just as much as a person who has an injury to a visible part of their body. They are just as much children of the gods as anyone.
In the role of priestess or priest, we often are required to conduct our lives in a manner that demands more effort. That’s part of the ‘office’ of the priesthood. Educating ourselves on the various aspects of the human mind shouldn’t be ignored. Acting with that knowledge may complicate things, but it should never be viewed as a burden. It is but one of the ways we can make ourselves and our world (as we perceive it) better.