Scientists disagree on its causes, treatment, and prevention. Government regulations seem slow and, in some cases, counter-productive. Truth is elusive, yet many claim to have it. I must be talking about Covid-19, right? Actually, no, I was talking about mental illness.
There is a sense in which, when coronavirus first invaded our news channels, some of us who have been living close to serious forms of mental illness had a sense of deja-vu. My friend Daniel, who has endured fierce battles in this arena, called the first news of mental illness a “mental pandemic at home” – the experience of a “world of confusion, self-doubt, and uncertainty in one’s private sphere.”
Denial and Fear
Quite often, our first reactions to any new, unfamiliar reality that batters against the walls of our comfortable lives are denial and fear. Denial may win out for a while, because it’s more comforting. With mental illness, it includes reassuring statements such as: “It can’t happen to our family,” “It’s just a phase,” or “There’s no such thing as mental illness.”
But fear often lurks in the background, and grips us with unusual intensity, because we can’t do much about something that we can’t predict or understand. And fear manifests itself in different ways. It can paralyze or compel to rush action.
In either one of these reactions, reason is one of the first casualties. We have seen this happen in some ways with the recent pandemic. “To be honest, I lost a lot of faith in normal folks reasoning abilities,” my friend Daniel continued. “I watched as a lot of college educated folk around me made bad choices and clung to beliefs in order to feel better. When facts were not known, they happily filled in the gaps with anything that confirmed what they wanted to hear.”
Faced with an unexpected, unprecedented challenge, we often launch on a hurried search for quick answers. That’s what we have been accustomed to do. When we have a problem, we Google it. If something breaks, we find someone to fix it. We have rush delivery for whatever we need and fast-acting medications for most ailments.
In the case of mental illness – especially the most serious kinds – none of these measures work. We feel puzzled and confused. What’s worse, we soon find out there are still many grey areas that are being studied and researched. And even if we find a useful guide that can give us a basic knowledge, we discover that each case is vastly different. We have learned to trust in science, and feel lost when science can’t provide definite answers. We have gained a great deal from scientific exploration over the past few hundred years, but there is still much we can’t explain –more than we are willing to admit.
When my son was first diagnosed with schizophrenia, I felt simultaneously unprepared and compelled to take action. I bought every book I could find and struggled to understand contrasting views. All this, while my son was suffering next to me, even more frightened, confused, and frustrated than I was. There was a sense of urgency, and a sense that I could never manage this new situation. I oscillated between apathy and frenzy.
Accepting our Limitations
Andrew Solomon, author of several books on mental illness and diversity, contests the idea that fear can be opposed by either flight or fight. “We are not hunted game, and those are not the only options. There is also the possibility of acceptance, with its corollary of understanding and its ultimate manifestation in embracing what is alien.”
Solomon is writing on the subject of travel and its benefits in understanding other cultures. But this can be applied to anything we find hard to understand. There are things we can’t just escape, whether by ignoring them in blissful denial or by employing every quick fix we can find.
Accepting that there is much we don’t know or understand is difficult. We can blame the enlightenment or the scientific revolution, but the truth is that, from the Garden of Eden, man has always chafed at limitations and yielded to the lure of higher knowledge.
Accepting limitations takes humility – a posture that rarely comes naturally – and puts to the test both our trust in God and our empathy towards others. “Man has a hard time accepting this humble stance,” my friend Ed, who has also had to deal with the perplexing nature of mental illness, told me recently. “I believe that matters of the brain are a glimpse into the complexity of the imago Dei. And if we can’t comprehend the deep nature of God, why do we think we can easily grasp His images?”
Our trust in God grows through the revelation he has given of himself in Scriptures and in Christ. I have always found great comfort in the answer to Question 4 of the Westminster Shorter Catechism: “What is God? God is a Spirit, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable, in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth.”
We can trust that God will always be infinitely, eternally, and unchangeably wise, powerful, holy, just, good, and true in everything he does. This reality holds fast through any storm and uncertainty.
But this God is also infinitely larger than our comprehension, and his actions often elude our reason. He’s both imminent and transcendent, theologians would say. Sometimes, his transcendence is difficult to accept.
Historically, human beings have often erred in their interpretation of God’s transcendence. Some have emphasized it to the point of seeing God as completely alien, distant, and uninterested in human life. Others, like the Gnostics and mystics, have tried to penetrate it. Others still have tried to limit it or deny it, because a god that can be fully grasped is safer and more manageable. Most of us probably oscillate between these attitudes at different times in our lives.
Acceptance is the key, both in relation to God and the mystifying realities around us. Jesus had to repeatedly remind his puzzled disciples of this. “What I am doing you do not understand now, but afterward you will understand” (John 13:7). They understood gradually, but the full understanding is reserved for later. “Now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face” (1 Corinthians 13:12).
The Beauty of the Unknown
But acceptance doesn’t imply a gloomy resignation to the narrow confines of our limited understanding. That was our predecessors’ mistake in the Garden, when they believed that what was hidden to them was essential to their ultimate fulfilment. “The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law,” the Bible teaches (Deut. 29:29). In other words, what God has revealed is perfectly sufficient for our lives.
And it’s more than sufficient. “The children of mankind take refuge in the shadow of his wings,” the Psalmist tells us. “They feast on the abundance of your house, and you give them drink from the river of your delights. For with you is the fountain of life; in your light do we see light” (Psalm 36:7-8).
We often don’t realize that our attempts to bring God down to our limited understanding are counterproductive. We might think that a full understanding of God’s plans and purposes would bring us peace. In reality, it only creates an idol, a limited god that fits into the narrow confines of our human perception.
“For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Is. 55:9). When we chafe against this reality, as if God owed us full and immediate explanations, we can remember his unfathomable plan of salvation of his seemingly unredeemable people – a plan that no creature could have ever conjectured.
The puzzling acts of God in his creation and providence are only a part of the immense mysteries of his love for a people who continues to rebel and defy him. And it’s in this love that he continues to govern this world and uphold his creatures.
As the 19th-century poet Ann Ross Cundell Cousin wrote:
Thou’rt holy in Thy providence, Lord God,
If I but understood!
I dwell in doubt and sick suspense, Lord God,
Confounding ill with good.
One dawn-streaked opening leads to light above,
Christ alway loved Thy will,
and proved Thy will is love.
Simonetta Carr is the author of numerous books, including Broken Pieces and the God Who Mends Them: Schizophrenia through a Mother’s Eyes, and the series Christian Biographies for Young Readers (Reformation Heritage Books).
 Andrew Solomon, “Travel as the Antidote to Xenophobia,” http://andrewsolomon.com/articles/travel-as-the-antidote-to-xenophobia/.
 A. R. Cousin, “The Clouds Are the Dust of His Feet,” in Immanuel’s Land and Other Pieces, new and revised edition (London: James Nisbet & Co., 1896), 180.