Religion and Insanity

Pagans talk to gods and spirits, who sometimes answer. We see and interact with entities that are not human sometimes, we undertake to create magic, believing that we can change the world through will alone. We talk to animals and trees as though they were our equals. We see meaning in dreams and random events, believe that we can foretell the future, we may think ourselves psychic or able to feel the emotions of others. Pagan readers of this blog will likely be nodding.

Now take a step back, and think about the conditions that are deemed delusional and dangerous by mainstream society.

There is a very fine line between religion and insanity. There are a lot of people out there who, if they’d been supported in a pagan community would very likely never have gone to the medics over the state of their minds. I know several, one of whom has since found a shamanic path and gained some control over his life and experiences.

The medical profession does not, as a body, believe in spirit, or that the voices in your head are meaningful and need listening to. If you say that the gods are testing you, then they may see that as being a medical condition that needs fixing.

How do we know we aren’t mad? How can we be certain that our unconventional experiences, the very things that make us pagan, are not just a manifestation of mental illness? Where do we draw the lines? I recall a guy who came to an open event, convinced that people were being attacked by demons and that a war was about to start. He was very serious. I had no idea how to relate to him, could not engage with his world view, had no idea if he might actually be ill.

How do we deal with folks who already have mental health labels? Do we step away from them? Support them? Risk reinforcing ideas that are damaging them? Risk leaving in distress someone who might be able to reclaim their life with a pagan world view to help them make sense of it? There are no easy answers to this one, and every individual will prove different. It’s an issue that anyone active on the pagan scene will likely run into sooner or later though.

Way back in my college days, I minored in psychology. One of the questions that came up is how you distinguish between normal-crazy and actual crazy. Most people have foibles, things they can’t deal with, phobias, strange beliefs and other such eccentricities. What was suggested to me was simply, is it functional? If someone believes they are the living incarnation of Zeus, and this enables them to do productive things with their life then fine, maybe they are. If they opt for standing on window ledges wearing only a toga and threatening to throw thunderbolts, less so.

It’s the one key question to ask of magic as well – does it work? Does what you believe enhance your life, or is it making you miserable, suspicious and unable to function? If your belief sends you out talking to trees and making up stories, all well and good. If it makes you feel like the gods are telling you to kill someone, then not ok at all. From a certain perspective, every last human being is insane. The human condition is not a rational one.

So, how should we as pagans deal with mental health issues, both our own and others? With compassion, patience and an open mind. Don’t assume anything. Beliefs that enable happiness and enrich a person’s life are good. Beliefs that enable folk to get by in the world and not be ground down by experience, are to be encouraged. Beliefs that harm and bring destructive behaviour and misery, are never good, no matter how pagan a dressing you put on them.

12 thoughts on “Religion and Insanity”

    1. Remember… When you talk to God it’s called praying. When God talks to you it’s called scizophrenia…

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  1. I know lots of people who have been put on meds because they heard voices and saw things. My mother and Aunt are two of them. Personally, I knew them before they were on the meds, obviously, and I don’t think they were crazy. Now, though, I think the meds have made them completely whacked.

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    1. You know what’s funny about the mentally ill, medications, and the Wicca/pagan believers?

      I still see all the same things I did before meds plus some. I still hear the same things, plus some, My power
      has increased because I can stay calmer and control it better, but I’ve also been celibate since Feb of
      last year and I know that has the biggest affect on things. hehe

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  2. Excellent article, Bryn.

    I can speak from both sides of the equation. My father was mentally ill and my mother was gifted, but most of the people in the small town I grew up in believed they were both crazy. There is a distinct difference though if you’re paying attention.

    My dad would hallucinate, voices and images telling him to kill or hurt people. One instance happened in the hospital that he was committed to when I was fourteen. The doctors believed he was doing better and allowed him to share a room with another patient. A few nights after he moved into the room his roommate woke to my father having a heated conversation with something in the corner of the room. When he asked him what the hell he was doing my dad informed him that there was a 7 ft. tall cobra that insisted that he kill him. Let’s just say the male nurses that night got a work out when the panic button was hit.

    On the other hand, my mother saw visions and heard voices that always warned her about things before they happened. One of the incidents that illustrates the difference between her and my father occurred when I was nearly two years old. My mother exhausted and over-heated one summer afternoon put me and my brother down for a nap and she laid down as well about an hour later she was woke from a deep sleep by an insistent voice in her ear.

    Get up! Hurry or they’ll get her.

    Thinking she was dreaming she started to lay back down and the same voice, more insistent this time, came from the direction of the bedroom window. Terrified and knowing she was fully awake she went to go check on us in the other bedroom. I was gone.

    Searching the house she discovered that I had pushed one of the kitchen chairs to the back door and clambered up to unlock the screen. When she got outside, she discovered to her horror that I had crawled under the fence and was a mere 1-2 feet from the edge of the highway we lived on, diligently trying to dig up a tiny cedar with my plastic shovel.

    The next day she had my dad replace the wooden fence with a 6 foot wire one. After the work was done she went and dug up that cedar and planted it in the corner where I had made my way through the old fence as a reminder of what had nearly happened that day. As far as I know that cedar still stands there.

    Her voices helped protect me that day. If anyone tells me that is crazy I will tell them that they are a close-minded fool.

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    1. Thank you. I inherited the gift from my mother, it runs on her side of the family. I’m nowhere as powerful as my mother was, but I know how it feels to be viewed as nuts. Yet at the same time those people who publicly would call me crazy are the same folks who would later come to me for help when they had experiences they were afraid of.

      Go figure. 😀

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  3. This article hits the nail on the head for me. Many of us can’t talk to anyone about our strange experiences for fear of being locked up or worse.

    It reminds me about the highest levels of divine experience in Sufi mystic teachings. Certain things cannot be communicated in words at all, and to attempt it will sound insane. It is the basis of a genre of poetry. Rumi and Kabir, writing in Persian and Hindustani, are two of my favorites. Rabiya of Basra is a famous female exemplar.

    And Jesse has been looking over a book of mine which has some strange things, disguised as fantasy. I hope she is charitable!

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  4. This is a difficult subject, I am a registered psychiatric nurse by profession (trying to change careers!) What has been sited is true and in them, there is a big difference between florrid psychotic episodes and voices from spirit. However, there are many shades of grey imbetween. In particular, bi polar or manic depression can be severely harmful but then, some of the greatest creations can come on that brink before tipping into the grandiose and florrid. I remember reading research years ago that stated that 40% of actors and those in that field suffered from manic depression. Yet, most hold down their careers and many are undiagnosed and manage this as part of their creative and ‘tormented’ life. There are many artists who suffer the same. No one questions psychodelic art created on an LSD trip or music created with a cocaine kick and yet the medical team may well call some such persons personality disordered and many may well be!
    I think you are right Brynneth to a degree, about if it is functional. Sadly though many artistes suffer depression and never need medical assistance until they have that suicide attempt. Many people ‘cured’ by the mental health institutions are simply silenced and held in a ‘therapeutic’ straight jacket because of the medication they take. The ‘Shamanic’ illness is mistaken for mental illness and the person is held in that torment via the drugs or a land of deadness where they might spend years wandering limbo landscapes. In a community that knows and acknowledges this, it would be seen as part of the process. I have looked at some of my clients before and ‘felt’ that the person inside is trapped in some backwater somewhere unable to get out. It is horrible to see.
    I think there are a number of people under the mental health teams that may well function better in a community setting. As an adjunct to this, I want to site an example of what should be a normal reaction and this is a personal one, but, I might add, it is not an isolated example. My son had died and we were going to see his body and his girlfriend was histerical with grief but the woman leading us to his body was utterly unfeeling and kept asking us to keep her under control (like a dog!), All that the girlfriend was doing was crying and finding the overload of emotion, difficult which could be seen in her attempts to walk on occasion. In exasperation at the continued outbursts of fresh tears or sobs, the cold lady said that she thought we should take the girlfriend to the doctors so she could be given a tablet to calm her down! I was outraged at the time. However, as a society we do not allow strong emotions to be shown, we like to keep everything hidden. This in turn, I believe, can add to people having problems that become labelled mental illness. As pagans, are we part of the shades of grey, or are we simply still functioning and staying under the radar?

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  5. Many thanks for sharing your insight Kaarina. I’ve visited people in institutions and would agree that doping people to the eyeballs is no solution, and that the pathologising of intense emotion is a serious wrong. But yes, as you say, no easy way through any of this and no tidy solutions.

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