Monday, May 25, 2015

A Beautiful Mind

On Saturday afternoon, one of the great minds in the field of mathematics, quite literally in the history of the world -  died.  While driving with his wife Alicia in the back seat of a taxi cab on the New Jersey Turnpike, John Nash (the main character in the movie "A Beautiful Mind" - Russell Crowe's character), inventor of a form of games theory - "an extension of games theory based on the randomness of an individual's maximization of benefits" - and recipient of the Nobel Prize - died.  In a somewhat inexplicable car crash, (vaguely reminiscent of the end of another transcendent and tragic figure, T.E Lawrence - "Lawrence of Arabia" - who crashed on a motorcycle after being lifted to the heights of fame in World War I) Nash's cab driver was trying to pass another motorist, and ran into a guard-rail and another car.  The couple were killed instantly upon impact.

What Nash will most likely be known as much for, after his death, will not only be his mathematical accomplishments, but his lifelong struggle with mental illness.

Largely because of the Oscar winning movie about his life, John Nash's descent into the depths of mental illness are well known to the world.  John Nash's unravelling from brilliant mathematician into the depths of schizophrenia, paranoia, delusion, electroshock therapy, random postcards to friends, and unintelligible mathematical formulas scribbled on chalk boards on the Princeton campus are well known to all of us.  (As a side-note, many years after Nash's recovery in the late 1990's, I can still remember seeing John Nash eat lunch in the Princeton Seminary cafeteria, while I was a student there.  The lunches at the seminary were pretty good!)

But that isn't what I want to write about this morning.  What I want to write about is how Nash eventually emerged from mental illness.

Surprisingly, according to Nash, it had nothing to do with the medication he was taking, the electroshock therapy, or his institutionalization.  Nash's recovery, again according to Nash's own memoirs, had to do with two things:

1.  Time
2.  A Decision - to return to rationality

"I simply decided that I was going to return to rationality.  I emerged from irrational thinking, ultimately, without medicine other than the natural hormonal changes of aging."

These two factors,

1.  Time
2.  A Decision

are so exciting to me as a pastor and a person who works with people through various stages of psychological, interpersonal, spiritual, and chemical challenge.  So often when people come into me with a problem, the desire is to instantly be transported from a place of pain and difficulty to a place of total health.  But this is almost never possible.  Taking the time to work through the processes of loss, heartbreak, anger, and biological makeup are invaluable.  Making a personal decision to not be bound anymore by that thing that binds us is also essential.

Victor Frankl made a similar personal discovery when he was an inmate interned in Auschevitz Concentration Camp in world War II.  What Frankl knew that he had control over, was only one thing, himself, and his decision, his "choice" to survive.  That was it.

Many years ago, a friend of mine who had been struggling with a chronic illness, visited a pastoral counselor that I know.  After months of discussion about how the debilitating illness was a daily struggle, the pastoral counselor said to the woman one morning, "Jane, this morning I want to try something new.  I want to encourage you to pretend like you are are a healthy person.  Live your life like you were healthy rather than a person who has a chronic illness.  Just do the same kinds of things that a healthy person would do with their life."  Miraculously, over time, my friend returned to near perfect health.

1.  Time
2.  A Decision

It would be a great disservice to the many thousands of people around the world who suffer from inherent, intrinsic, unalterable psychological maladies to suggest that we can simply "think" our way through illness.  Psychological illness is the same as any other kind of illness (cancer, heart disease, a virus), it is a thing in and of itself that must be treated with the best medicines, vaccines, and therapies possible.  However, in the end, it is often our own decision about how we will deal with the challenges that each of us face, that makes the difference.

One time when encountering a man who had been sick for over 40 years, Jesus, in a moment of reality and grace asked the man, "Do you want to be made well?"  The man said, "yes, but every time I try to get into the Sheep Gate pool, someone dives in before me - (AKA - I am deciding to live in the world of irrationality)"  Jesus responded by saying, "Get up and walk!"  (AKA choose, after 40 years now, to return to the world of rationality and health).  The man walked!

And we can too!

All For Now,


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