Saturday, March 17, 2012

As Smoke Is Driven Away

I was having coffee with my friend (who is also my pastor) and, within the natural course of the conversation, he handed me a metaphorical key.  It was an answer I had been seeking and, in fact, an answer that, to some extent, I had already found.  I told him that, since he had preached on Psalm 68 the previous Sunday, I had been reading the Samuels, specifically the life of King David.  He said, "So much of my own mental health comes from that section of scripture."

Intellectually speaking, I understand that having heroes can be a good practice, to set up a standard toward which to aspire.  I feel like I've always been too cynical to do this properly.  I don't have Homeric heroes who are perfect human specimens.  I don't have great, perfect men up on pedestals whom I fancy myself to be like.  But show me a smarty-pants with glaring personal flaws and I'll immediately put a poster of them up in my bedroom.  I mentioned Spalding Gray before and thought of my internal list.  Alexander Woollcott could be venomous and childish.  Andy Warhol was, in some ways, an extremely destructive force in the lives of those he surrounded himself with.  Glenn Gould makes me look socially well-adjusted.  Ben Franklin hated his son.   

I asked Laurie before writing this how she would respond if someone asked her "Does Paul consider Karl Lagerfeld one of his heroes?"

She hesitated, "I wouldn't say a hero.  Certainly he admires his work a great deal and he is a person of great interest to Paul, but he wouldn't want to emulate Mr. Lagerfeld."

I think I put certain people in flimsy, biodegradable hero baskets for two reasons.  Firstly because it's an out, a way to distance myself from the hero if I choose.  Secondly because I know my own failings and admiring people with failings keeps me from despairing under their harsh gaze in my own less admirable moments.

Let us rewind the narrative to a few weeks ago when I was wrestling with some of my more persistent demons.  As I mentioned above, the Sunday morning exegesis of the 68th Psalm (which you can listen to or download for yourself here) had me thinking of what I knew of King David.  He was a lowly shepherd and the runt of the litter.  He killed Goliath.  He got chased around by a mad king.  He misbehaved with/for/towards (as well as diverse and sundry other prepositions) Bathsheba and paid for it.  But I also knew that he was a peculiar figure in the Bible in that there is all of this highly personal, emotional response to what he was going through in his life contained in the book of Psalms.  I mentioned to Laurie that I was hard pressed to think of another Biblical figure like this.  You have stories like Abraham's near-sacrifice of Isaac with almost no emotional exposition, only the bare journalistic facts of the story.  You have some peripheral emotional exposition in the Prophets and the Epistles.  Laurie said, and quite astutely I think, that the only other person in scripture she could think of that had a similar thing, albeit more briefly, was Mary.

So, I went right home and picked up the Samuels and starting reading about David from my own place of plaintive prayer.  Laurie reminded me, upon reading my previous post about Spalding Gray and my recent epiphany associated with same, of one of my pet peeves (and hypocrisies).  I so often see people associating themselves with people in movies or television shows or behaving as if they are the star of their own movie or television show.  Boy oh boy, did I ever enter this reading expecting to identify with David.  But what I found was myself identifying with having a mad king chasing me around inside my own head. I feel like I have the guy in there who trusts God and tries to do what is right, good, to live holy and with austerity and virtue.  I also have a guy upstairs who goes barking mad every once in a while.

David lives in a world of absurdities in the Existential sense of the term, especially in his pre-annointment days.  He is destined for royalty entirely without designs toward that end.  His people are threatened by a seemingly insurmountable foe and, in one of the early manifestations of the Salvation from Death by way of a Savior motifs contained within scripture, David is able to defeat the undefeatable all the more remarkably with the barest minimum of a weapon.  There is also crazy, crazy Saul who fixates his raging malice on David for no good reason at all.  The madness leads to the end of Saul, Jonathan, and many others, as well as to the ascension of David to the throne.

How does David handle all of this?  He focuses on what is pleasing to God and walks in beauty and righteousness.  He will not tolerate regicide, or any disrespect to the office of King, although I suspect some practical aspects of one destined to be king himself in setting the example of meticulous reverence of the Divine Right of Kings.  Perhaps it is another image of Christ in the Old Testament in a "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you" example.  I felt that this is driven home when, long after the strife with Saul is over, David honors Mephibosheth.

I mentioned before and in my previous posts my psychological "Goliaths" and "Sauls" if you will.  I mentioned earlier my rejection of chemical intervention in my psychological battles, but also hastened to add that I am not prescribing that to anyone else.  I've known people who genuinely can't make the 4 foot long, blue-green, screaming cockroaches on the walls disappear from their sight by mere will-power and chemical intervention may be a helpful solution for those people.  I suffer from mere hysterical misery and know that I grow stronger with each successful experience in overcoming my own manias, by the grace of God of course.  Martin Luther said:
"I would have nothing whatever if I did not plow and sow. God does not want to have success come without work, and yet I am not to achieve it by my work. He does not want me to sit at home, to loaf, to commit matters to God, and to wait till a fried chicken flies into my mouth."
In this, I know that I am blessed.  I know that there are others less fortunate than I.

Of all of the vices available to humankind, Worry is the most attractive strumpet to me.  Worry comes to me with ease, indeed, often comes to me unbidden when I'm not paying attention.  As a result, I would often feel, if I ever would even reflect on such a thing, that worry was compulsory or entirely beyond my control.  Yet my propensity for worry was, in and of itself, a self-destructive act, perhaps the grandest act of self-destruction I've engaged in thus far.

 As David says,
 "Fret not yourself; it tends only to evil."
I think when I go searching for avenues to mental health in my reading material, what I usually seek is an instruction manual.  "Do a), b), and c) and then you will be mentally healthy."  Imagine my consistent disappointment!  In the writing of and about David, however, I find something very different.  I find hope.  Hope in spite of myself.  Which, in the end, I think is one of the main attractions of religion for humans. 

1 comment:

  1. The first verse of Psalm 68 is inscribed upon the massive carved oak fire-place which was once in the home of Sir T.B.