Monday, April 27, 2009

The Soloist

Yesterday, as the rain was pouring down and the tornado sirens were blaring, I sprinted through the rain into the theater to watch The Soloist—a movie about the relationship between Steve Lopez, a journalist, and Nathanael Ayers, a homeless man with schizophrenia who was once a student at Julliard.

After emerging from the Warren, still damp from the drenching I got on the way in, I reflected on how much I appreciated the movie. It does not trivialize mental illness; it does not make fun of its protagonist, as do so many depictions of the mentally ill. It was a touching tribute to the relationship between these two men. That’s why I was so surprised at some of the reviews of it I have since read. The film was not brilliant, I suppose, but I don’t think it deserves many of these criticisms.

The criticism that perplexed me the most was that the film is not realistic. I suppose that is true, in some respects. Perhaps not all of the characters were completely developed; perhaps the imaginary orchestra that begins playing whenever Ayers lifts his bow is a bit over the top. On another level, though, the filmmakers got it exactly right.

For those of you who have experienced mental illness or have loved someone struggling with mental illness, I recommend this film because it illustrates some of our pain, fear, and joy. For those of you who have not been affected by mental illness (or, at least, not yet), I recommend this film because it may help you to catch a glimpse into our world.

It captures the frustration and pain of feeling deep mental anguish while surrounded by those who cannot see that anything is wrong. It captures the struggle of caring for someone who doesn’t always want help, who doesn’t always recognize that they need help. It captures the confusion of caretakers trying to decide how hard to push for a treatment that is unwanted. It captures some of the societal issues that have contributed to the problem of mental illness—homelessness, overly strict (in my opinion) laws about patient consent. It also captures some of the joy when those we care about are well enough to accept—and to give—love.

Some say the film fails because it tries to do too much—that it can’t work out all of the complications brought in by having a homeless hero with schizophrenia who also happens to be a brilliant musician. This is one of the things that I like about it. It’s messy, and so is mental illness. If it tied the story up in a nice little package, it might leave viewers happier, but it wouldn’t be true. It doesn’t try to pretend like Ayers is suddenly healed because someone cares for him; it doesn’t pretend like the progress he’s made is irreversible. It rejoices in his happiness, precarious as it is, all the while reminding us that people aren’t just cured from mental disorders, that relapse is always a terrifying possibility.

Most of these reviews I disagreed with, but only one made me truly angry. This reviewer complained that we are given no explanation for why Nathaniel Ayers developed schizophrenia—a complaint that, to me, reveals how very little its author knows about mental illness. I, too wish I had some explanations, but they aren’t forthcoming. No film director can simply explain away mental illness.

Those of us who have seen mental illness up close and personal often wish that we had an explanation. We think up lots of them—genes, parents, friendships (or the lack thereof), poor eating habits—the list never ends. But we never really find the answer. We narrow it down to our best guesses, and we know that genetics and environment both play a part, but we can never know for sure if a different set of circumstances might have led to a different result.

And we never stop wishing. Even when we see that good has come from all the pain, we can’t help hoping that, in the future, good will choose an easier path.

I hope that the next time I visit the Warren, it won’t be in the midst of a tornado warning and that I won’t be dripping by the time I enter through the door. Even if those circumstances repeat themselves, though, I’d be happy to run through the rain again as long as I find another movie like The Soloist inside.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Balancing on a broken world

For I have time for nothing
But the endeavor to balance myself /
Upon a broken world.
--Amy Lowell, "September, 1918"

I feel as if the weight of the world were crashing down on me tonight.

I just finished watching a movie called "Pray the Devil Back to Hell"-- a documentary about the way women in Liberia helped to end their 14-year civil war. It's an inspirational film about women who decided that someone had to end the war, and, since no one else was going to, they would. It is a decidedly hopeful film, one where a seemingly unsolvable situation is resolved.

This is accurate. Those women helped to bring peace, and Liberia has made incredible strides since the war ended just six years ago. But as I watched the film, I found myself again and again bombarded with facts that I already knew, yet preferred to forget. Up to 10% of Liberian children were used as child soldiers. Women and children were senselessly raped and maimed. Thousands were killed. Thousands more were displaced.

Since the war ended, Liberia has begun to recover. Infrastructure is slowly being rebuilt, and democracy is taking hold. Despite this, the Liberian people remain desperately poor; their condition has improved, but it is still far below what most of us would consider livable.

Difficult though this situation is, to me, that is not the worst of it. It seems to me that physical hardship is nothing compared to the psychological and spiritual damage that has been done. How can a child begin to recover from seeing her parents killed? How can a child recover from being forced to kill his own parents? How can a mother forgive those who raped her child?

If this were just the case in one country, I might be able to push it to the back of my mind, to act as if it were an isolated incident, one that is heartbreaking, but, ultimately, an event that has no effect on me. But more and more I see this as simply indicative of the human condition. Guatemala, the Congo, Sudan, Bosnia, Iraq, Afghanistan-- this is just a smattering of the places that have seen unimaginable evil during my lifetime.

I wish that I could say that those who have committed such atrocities are unlike the rest of us. But I don't believe they are. I believe that I, in the right circumstances, could be just like them.

I bought a book this weekend called Good News about Injustice. It is by Gary Haugen, the president of the International Justice Mission. I've only just started reading it, so I can't tell you much about it, but I believe the gist of it is that the good news about injustice is that it is temporary-- that God is just and will bring justice, and that he uses us to do it. I believe that this is true.

I also believe, though, that God's justice is not the best news. In places like Liberia, where many of those responsible for atrocities are victims of even worse atrocities, where does justice even begin? If there is only justice, where is hope?

I believe that better news is that God is merciful.

Yesterday was Easter, and a few days before was Good Friday. Good Friday commemorates the worst of crimes against humanity-- and against Deity. The name seems bitterly ironic, at first, for a day on which Evil put Good to death. But I believe the day deserves its name. On this day, Good defeated Evil by bearing all of the pain and sin of the world. "The punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed" (Isaiah 53:5).

It is because of this that I have hope.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Letting Him work through my work

A volunteer at Hospitals of Hope asked my coworker a couple of months ago, "When you get up in the morning, do you look in the mirror and think, 'I save lives'?"

I don't know about for him, but for me, the answer is "no."

Part of the reason for that is that it's easy to get caught up in the details of all of the day-to-day work and easy to forget the reason why I'm there. It's easy to forget the ways that God is using our work to make a difference in the lives of people around the world. Far too often, my focus is on completing the task in front of me and moving on to the next one without thinking about the point of my work. Too often, I view it as a job, not a ministry.

The other reason is that, in reality, we don't save lives. We do our best to make sure that the proper people and equipment get where they need to be, but ultimately only God can control the results. Nothing that I can do will have any effect unless God blesses my work. It is frequently humbling to see the ways that God uses us, often in spite of our best efforts.

John Piper writes in Don't Waste Your Life, "the essence of our work as humans must be that it is done in conscious reliance on God's power, and in conscious quest of God's pattern of excellence, and in deliberate aim to reflect God's glory." I just read these words the other day, but they reflect an effort I've been making. I want to learn to live in reliance on God's power, reflecting his glory through my work. As I work, I want to keep in mind that I am here to serve but that the results of my service are in God's hands. And, really, God's hands are a pretty good place to be.