Confronting Reality

by Nancy Scott


This year’s Oscar for Best Picture went to the film A Beautiful Mind, which tells the condensed life story of Nobel Prize-winning mathematician John F. Nash, Jr. Caught between genius and madness, he engaged in a life-long battle with the delusions and paranoia of schizophrenia. With the support of a caring community, in which he was loved and valued, he was able to live a normal, though somewhat eccentric life. While his illness was brought under greater control once newer “neuroleptic” drugs were available, these medications so dulled his mind, the place where his brilliance lay imprisoned with its torment, that he chose to forgo their help and work hard at other solutions. The film leaves out, among other things, the years in real life that Nash spent in and out of hospitals. By the end of the film, we see a mostly recovered Nash, who has the ability to distinguish between delusion and reality, though to do so requires deliberation and choice.

Dr. Nash’s story raises excellent questions about the nature and treatment of mental illness. A March 10th New York Times editorial by Courtenay M. Harding (“Beautiful Minds Can Be Reclaimed”) cites studies which show that well over half of diagnosed schizophrenics actually recover substantially without medication and are able to live independently and lead productive lives. Similarly, John Modrow has written an autobiographical account of his experience with schizophrenia, How to Become a Schizophrenic, in which he contests our common notions about the origin and treatment of this malady.

Certainly, in the case of schizophrenia, the line between reality and delusion can become blurred beyond distinction. It illustrates, in dramatic terms, the simple words of Scott Peck in The Road Less Traveled: “Mental health is the ongoing process of dedication to reality at all costs.” In this sense, Dr. Peck sees mental health as a continuum—from “unreality” to reality. How “healthy” we are depends on how well “connected” we are—to reality. Indeed, this has been the perspective of the mental health professions for decades. That is, until recently, when these definitions were replaced in the textbooks with definitions about “feeling good” and “reported quality of life.”

Much counseling these days is guided by a value system aimed at helping us feel better rather than helping us be more connected with reality. In fact, various counseling strategies lead people away from reality by advising mostly behavioral solutions that either foster an intense discouragement or promote our capacity for self-righteousness. The field’s focus has shifted from Dr. Peck’s understanding of mental health (pursuing reality) to the modern view of “helping people feel better.” John Nash’s story is quite dramatic. For most of us, the differences are subtler, yet just as significant. To illustrate this, I offer the following story.

Gwen sailed through her fortieth birthday and never felt better, but then she began to experience changes in her body that were foreign to her. It felt as if the body she had known for so long and had finally grown to accept—and even like—had been replaced one night while she slept with a body that belonged to someone else entirely. She never thought she would struggle with getting older, but these changes were quite unsettling. She decided it was silly to worry about it, and she brushed it off and moved on. In fact, she began moving faster and faster. She dropped in on her adult children more often, helping out with shopping and baby-sitting, as well as redecorating her daughter Sally’s living room.

Sally became upset with her, however. She experienced her mother’s energy as invasive, and began pulling away from her. Gwen did not understand Sally’s reaction. It upset her, and she in turn withdrew from Sally. Eventually becoming quite depressed and unable to do much of anything, Gwen decided to see a Christian counselor she had heard about at her church.

The counselor explained that Gwen’s depression was related to her conflict with Sally and that Sally was going through a normal individuation process and needed some distance from her mother. The counselor suggested that Gwen would do well to become involved in things other than her daughter’s interior decorating, perhaps investing her energy in serving the church or doing volunteer work. She suggested that if Gwen did not feel better soon, perhaps she could recommend a medication that would help Gwen feel better.

This counselor worked at helping Gwen feel better, rather than helping Gwen see reality better. Unfortunately, as a result of this counseling experience, Gwen moved further away from reality rather than closer to it. Her symptoms continued, but more importantly, Gwen missed an opportunity to grow in wisdom. She also missed an opportunity to understand herself better and to understand how to love her daughter better.

Gwen could not see that her daughter’s reaction to her had anything to do with Gwen’s increased activity in the face of getting older. Gwen felt self-justified. Since she was trying to help her daughter, her daughter was at fault for not being able to accept her sincere helpfulness. She saw herself as helpful and right, and she saw her daughter as ungrateful and wrong. She missed knowing more accurately who she is and who God is and how best to love her daughter.

So, what is the reality Gwen moved away from? The reality is that God has put us in a world where we must ultimately face our own death and decay in this body. To face that we are going to die is difficult. It just is. As Gwen’s body changed, she worked overtime to avoid the uncomfortable truth that she was aging and would one day have to face her own death.

Gwen’s loss of youth was hard, and the loss of a better relationship with her daughter made it even harder. Rather than knowing and grieving these losses, she became depressed. If she had moved “toward reality” instead, she might have made various discoveries. She might have discovered some painful truths, like how afraid she was of dying or how sad she felt when remembering her own grandmother had died of ovarian cancer shortly after her menopause began. But she also might have had the opportunity to understand something more accurately about reality, life, God, what He promises and what He does not. She might have had the opportunity to become a softer person with her daughter or to become more compassionate with her aging mother, with whom she was growing more and more irritated. Life is a process. It is not tidy. But it is the life God has given us, where joy and sorrow are inextricably linked.

We are by nature “choosers.” In extremely complex ways our biology interacts with our “choosing mechanism,” our will. We make daily choices that move us “toward reality” or “away from reality.” John Nash’s delusional acquaintances were not real. The film depicts the painful experience wherein he began to separate what was real from what was not. Once he knew that difference, he had choices to make—to move toward his delusions or away from them. Even apart from understanding all the “hows and whys” of his delusions, he made a deliberate choice each time he walked by them.

Life is a series of problems that must be solved if we are to grow in wisdom. When our current map of reality collides with new information, like Nash or Gwen, we are faced with a choice. For Nash, the choice was between reality and delusion. For Gwen, the choice was whether she would recognize her aging or deny it. We can either assimilate new information and grow, solving the problem at hand, or ignore new information and proceed to function with our outdated map. If we choose to grow, we face the discomfort of a paradigm shift, like Nash when he finally gave in to the truth that his delusions were not real. If we choose instead to function with an outdated map of reality, our seemingly small problems can grow into bigger problems. Scott Peck also writes, “One of the roots of mental illness is invariably an interlocking system of lies we have been told and lies we have told ourselves.”

Our commitment to not knowing reality is a fundamental element of our human rebellion against God. In very creative and often unconscious ways, we resist knowing truth; we do not see well. On a deep level, we do not want to know that we are creatures, created by God, Who is in control of us in a way that we are not.

To be “in reality” is sometimes a painful choice, especially when that reality is uncomfortable and uncertain. This is when our rebellion is most likely to show itself. Because we do not see well, we need help. Most of all, we need the Spirit of God. Apart from His work in opening our eyes, we are locked in our blindness. Part of the evidence that God’s Spirit has broken into our hearts is our interest in knowing what is true, our hunger to see more clearly, even when it means we must disown ideas and beliefs we have held closely. This can be a painful process whereby we untangle what we have believed and change course. For example, we may move from believing that God does not exist, to believing He does. Or, we may move from believing that the God who exists is the enemy, to believing that He is Good.

We also need each other. We need people in our close relationships who are pursuing truth and who are willing to tell us the truth. In recognizing the complex ways that our conscious and unconscious choices influence us, we can benefit greatly from those we trust, those who see us, sometimes more clearly than we can see ourselves. Our mental and emotional health is at stake. But even more importantly, our souls are at stake. Spiritual health as well as emotional health comes from the decision to pursue reality at all costs. In spiritual terms, as fallen creatures we are committed to defining truth and reality on our own terms. This is rebellion.

Life is difficult. Beauty and pain are both a part of our human experience. There is no quick fix to the pain of our lives. God will do His work in His time. And for this we must wait. In the waiting, this life points us to a better Life_to whet our appetites for the Life to come, where tears will finally be wiped away. Yet, there can be substantial healing here and now. We are broken and will never get this life completely “right.” We can understand ourselves better, however, and we can work to modify our assumptions and interpretations and to respond to our failures with integrity and wisdom. This is reality. Choosing to be “in it” is a slow and arduous and rewarding and painful and joyful and life-long process. Yet, there is tremendous hope for discovering Real reality and living in it, with all its pain and joy. By the grace of God, may we pursue truth with all our hearts, and may we find wisdom and Life and beauty in the midst of this broken world.

Copyright May 2002 by McKenzie Study Center, an institute of Gutenberg College.

Nancy Scott