Over the next several months I’ll be posting excerpts from a book that I’m writing at the moment. Its purpose is to combine memoir and theology in retelling the gospel from a mentally ill perspective. I’m super excited to be working on this project, and I hope you will enjoy it, both now and in its published form! Here’s a chapter from the Creation section, entitled “Chaos.”
“And the Spirit of God hovered over the face of the waters”
Here is one of the relatively few things that I’ve learned while fighting mental illness over the last decade: if I don’t know what I’m feeling, it’s probably nothing good. Many people imagine that depression is simply a besetting sadness that will not lift. While consistent sadness is indeed a hallmark of depression, it is only one of a range of symptoms that occurs in a depressed soul. Another one: numbness.
Physical numbness means that the body has lost sensation in one of its members. Emotional numbness means that the heart has lost sensation partially or altogether. Physical numbness generally comes with the knowledge that one part or another of one’s body is unfeeling. Emotional numbness oftentimes comes with no such warning. In fact, one’s spirit can continue for weeks, even months at a time before recognizing that it is unreceptive.
At the end of my sophomore year of college, I was almost entirely alienated from my own emotions. The prayer, fasting and scripture reading that I had practiced so diligently that year had taught me not to be attentive to my interior state, but rather to ignore it—a chronic tendency that I have while communing with God. As friend after friend asked me how I was, I earnestly replied “I don’t know,” or “OK’ in my less vulnerable moments. Let’s be honest: I didn’t really want to know what I was experiencing. Months of spiritual, emotional and sexual frustration had left me in a miserable state. I tried harder to pray, but found no release. I didn’t think that my emotions were important at all and tried to avoid them. And several times that year, I had been near-overcome with desire for a romantic relationship, but found only rejection and dismay. The result: fear, anger, sadness, guilt, shame, disgust. The fact that I was not perceiving these emotions did nothing to change their inchoate dominion over me; in fact, their hiddenness gave them strength. Paradoxically, I subconsciously felt these emotions and trembled at their power over me, but consciously I could not even name them. Since I could not name them, I could not control them. Since I could not control them, they began to control me, working both chaos and its thick concealment within the depths of my soul.
I know several people who are convinced that the theory of macroevolution is unbiblical and should be rejected on theological grounds. I know even more who are convinced that the Darwinistic model of evolution poses no particular threat to the historic Christian affirmation of the creation of everything by God ex nihilo. But I know relatively few people who are interested in reading the creation account found in Genesis as an epic, which is disheartening. Since the creation account is not a scientific account of how various objects came into being, it should not be read primarily in relation to such scientific accounts, but rather within the genre in which it was written, which is an ancient creation epic. In short, the reader of Genesis 1 and 2 should pay much more attention to Enuma Elish than The Origin of the Species, because Genesis was written within the literary context of the former, not the latter. One of the aspects that distinguishes the Genesis account among ancient creation epics is the utter sovereignty of God over all created matter, including all other spiritual forces.
But curiously, although the Genesis account never posits multiple dueling deities as other Ancient Near Eastern accounts do, it still mentions a primordial chaos: “and the Spirit of God hovered over the face of the waters.” For the ancient Israelites, water symbolized anything that was unruly, unpredictable and dangerous. After all, they lived on the shores of the great Mediterranean, the sea which would daunt their oppressors, the mighty Romans, over a millennium after they settled Canaan. The waters in the context of the Genesis account are primarily metaphorical and thus symbolize a pre-existing state of chaos prior to God’s sovereign ordering of the world. And I wonder about that chaos, because at times my very soul seems to be made of its stuff. So often, the emotional monsoons which characterize my inner life seem to have been taken directly from the primordial chaos of years past and transplanted to the present as a remnant of pre-creation bedlam.
Chaos where order ought to be is extraordinarily destructive; in fact, it is nothingness. I am most harmful to myself and to others if I do not know what emotions I am experiencing. Subconscious fear makes me defensive and bossy, subconscious shame renders me indecisive and withdrawn, subconscious anger exhausts me. But where there is chaos, God creates and calls us to create. The act of naming is essential to creation, because to “call each thing by its right name” (as Christopher McCandless of Into the Wild fame) is both to capture what it already is and to determine what it shall be. One of my particular tasks as someone prone to internal chaos is to create meaning from it precisely by naming its elements. This leads me towards inner wholeness and towards communion with others, because being able to identify that I am feeling anxious or joyful or despondent about whatever it is creates the meaning and catharsis of compassion between me and a community. Furthermore, we don’t need to identify our feelings on our own. I cannot tell you how cathartic it is for me to have a dear one say “it sounds like you’re really guilty about this” or “wow, you’re happy today!” We have no indication that the creative act of naming was completed in the Genesis account; if anything, it started in earnest when Adam named his helpmate Eve and thus laid the foundation for the new human community, created by the word of God and continued in the paradox of human identity and difference. It is not as if God created us once and for all, wound us up like little carpet cars, and then released us to go as far as we can before we need his help again. Rather, God is constantly re-creating us, continually calling us out of the primordial nothingness from whence we came.
For this reason, I don’t think that there is any meaningful difference between creation and providence, for in both we sit on the very edge of chaotic nothingness, suspended only by the will of an inscrutable God. This truth is, quite simply, terrifying.
And at times the precariousness of our existence seems so real. I remember the spring of ’17, in which my emotional life seemed to be one massive Gordian knot, chaos crossed over itself in a thousand different directions, looped, knotted, tangled, unbreakable and screaming. As that internal chaos grew ever more deafening, it dragged me slowly and inexorably towards nothingness. Before I was almost overwhelmed by the temptation to kill myself, I felt void of the desire to live. Several times I caught myself thinking that my greatest aspiration in life was to die a Christian death. I fantasized about my funeral, too. Even on the days when death seems a distant possibility, the presence of emotional turmoil is enough to crumple me and bring me powerless to tears, at the mercy of whoever is willing to withhold judgment and listen during the time it takes for me to figure out what I’m feeling and why.