My wife Lizzie is schizophrenic.
Lizzie is a real sweetheart (sometimes … sometimes Lizzie’s mean, angry and demanding).
Taking care of her – bathing, dressing, feeding Lizzie– can be a royal pain-in-the-ass. “What a life I’m having,” I tell myself, with maximum self-pity, as I’m scrubbing Lizzie’s rear end and she farts into my hand.
“Ain’t life grand?” Lizzie says as she smiles up at me, ignoring the fact that I’m applying Preparation H to her hemorrhoids, after treating her psoriasis, injecting her with insulin, and making sure she’s taken a handful of prescription drugs.
I can easily make Lizzie laugh. She finds joy in the smallest things.
This time of year, I clip a California golden poppy from our backyard and place the flower in a vase by her bed. Lizzie, because of her disabilities, spends most of her time in bed.
At night the poppy closes up tight, dies. But in the morning, as the sun pours into the bedroom, the poppy opens, springs back to life. Spreads its vibrant, buttery-orange petals.
Each morning, Lizzie is full of wonder. “God’s glory,” Lizzie says. “The flower’s smiling at me. God is smiling at me.”
But when Lizzie is in a schizophrenic episode (as she is today), when the meds don’t work, her life is torture.
The poppy shuts down; God’s glory ceases.
Lizzie can’t control her thoughts. She hears voices. The voices constantly criticize and taunt her.
She can’t tell me exactly what the voices say.
I can’t imagine what goes on inside Lizzie’s head, but I know it’s bad.
In your mind, in your mind
One foot on Jacob’s ladder
And one foot in the fire
And it all goes down in your mind
In Your Mind lyrics, sung by Johnny Cash
Lizzie is paranoid, anxious, angry — every minute of every day the episode lasts.
All I can do is hold Lizzie and tell her I love her. “I know … I know,” I whisper in her ear, even though I really don’t know.
Holding Lizzie doesn’t help her much (well, maybe it helps me).
Lizzie’s schizophrenic world is ugly, brutal, threatening. No rest. No peace. No safe, quiet place.
The not-so-funny thing is, this may be the way the world really is
I sometimes think the mentally ill see life stripped of illusion. They’ve lost that buffer the sane have against stark, cold reality.
Without that buffer, reality hits heads on.
It’s a train wreck.
No wonder Lizzie is anxious, angry, disturbed.
On that happy note, let me say something about Truth:
I don’t like it.
I’m comfortable with my illusions, my fantasies, my myths.
I think we have religion, God, a Higher Power to help us deal with Reality, deal with Death, deal with uncomfortable Truth.
After a couple of days, the poppy petals fall off and I toss them in the trash.
Where is God’s smile now?
Where are the snows of yester-year? Things come and go. Death takes all.
Why is Lizzie mentally ill? How does her cruel mental illness fit God’s Grand Plan?
Lizzie has no free will. Her mind is not her own. In an episode, Lizzie can’t make responsible decisions. If there is an afterlife, how will Lizzie be judged? What does her life mean if there is no responsibility?
I myself struggle with decisions. My thoughts may not be my own. Am I under the influence of illusions, delusions – the protective barrier I keep against hard, cold reality?
Is illusion what I need to survive, to stay sane? Is this what our species needs to not simply give up in despair, to continue on so we can pass our genes from one generation to the next?
Is God anthropological or real?
A struggle between faith and what my senses tell me. A struggle between the human and the divine. A struggle between hemorrhoids and poetry. What does it all mean?
Which is why I’m so upset with Lucretius, a poet and philosopher who lived more than two thousand years ago.
Lucretius strips God’s smile from Lizzie’s poppy. What are we left with?
The Roman philosopher Lucretius explains the whole enchilada of existence in an exquisitely beautiful poem written a few decades before the birth of Christ. The manuscript, after a thousand years of neglect, resurfaces in the 15th century, and changes the course of human thought.
I came across Lucretius in a book I’m reading, The Swerve by Stephen Greenblatt. This is from the book’s preface:
The stuff of the universe, Lucretius proposed, is an infinite number of atoms moving randomly through space, like dust motes in a sunbeam, colliding, hooking together, forming complex structures, breaking apart again, in a ceaseless process of creation and destruction.
There is no escape from this process.
When you look up at the night sky and, feeling unaccountably moved, marvel at the numberless stars, you are not seeing the handiwork of the gods or a crystalline sphere detached from our transient world.
You are seeing the same material world of which you are a part and from whose elements you are made.
There is no master plan, no divine architect, no intelligent design.
All things, including the species to which you belong, have evolved over vast stretches of time.
The evolution is random, though in the case of living organisms it involves a principle of natural selection.
That is, species that are suited to survive and to reproduce successfully endure, at least for a time: those that are not so well suited die off quickly.
But nothing – from our own species to the planet on which we live to the sun that lights our days – lasts forever. Only the atoms are immortal.
For Lucretius, this bare-bones understanding of the world we live in opens new, exciting possibilities.
Lucretius thinks his epicurean philosophy is liberating.
Wonder did not depend on the dream of an afterlife; in Lucretius it welled up out of a recognition that we are made of the same matter as the stars and the oceans and all things else. And this recognition was the basis for the way he thought we should live—not in fear of the gods but in pursuit of pleasure, in avoidance of pain.
Stephen Greenblatt, author of The Swerve
The meaning of life, says Lucretius, is to pursue happiness. Happiness found during our short time on earth not in the struggle for power and wealth but in friendship and the tranquility that comes from contemplating a universe where no miracles or gods exist, only the immutable laws of nature.
Imagine there’s no heaven, above us only sky
Lucretius’ poem, De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things), was lost for more than a thousand years.
When the manuscript of On the Nature of Things was discovered and circulated in 1417, Lucretius’ provocative ideas helped spur the Renaissance, jumpstart scientific inquiry, and shape the modern world.
That’s what Stephen Greenblatt’s book The Swerve: How the World Became Modern is all about, how Lucretius’ poem was found in a remote monastery in southern Germany and how On the Nature of Things, a radically secular poem, influenced great thinkers through the subsequent centuries.
Lucretius was a favorite of Machiavelli, Montaigne, Sir Thomas More and Thomas Jefferson, who had five copies of Lucretius in his library. That’s why, in the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson wrote the famous phrase, “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.”
I see the spirit of Lucretius in the video of physicist Richard Feynman explaining the transcendental beauty of science and the natural world. (View this incredibly moving video here).
Lizzie in the arms of Jesus
Someone else, who also lived two thousand years ago, gives far more meaning to Lizzie’s life (and mine) than Lucretius does.
“Where, oh death, is your victory? Where, oh death, is your sting?”
…a triumphant view which bursts upon the soul as it contemplates the fact that the work of the second Adam has repaired the ruins of the first, and man redeemed; his body will be raised; not another human being should die, and the work of death should be ended. Barnes Notes on Bible
The poppy will flower again, when the sun fills the room.
History is the trick
Played by the
Living on the Dead
What is history
but a lie agreed upon?
I’m getting to be an old man. I get uneasy when myths I’ve cherished since childhood are shattered.
And that’s why another book I recently read also shook me up.
Freedom From Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945 by David M. Kennedy
Freedom From Fear is a comprehensive and colorful account of the most convulsive period in American history, excepting only the Civil War – a period that formed the crucible in which modern America was created.
But you’ll have to wait for Reality Bites, History Sucks, Part II, to learn more – and I guarantee a Big Surprise.
I thought World War II was the Good War, heroically won by the Greatest Generation. I also thought there was a God, who so loved people He sacrificed His only Son so that we could find redemption and life everlasting.
I’ve got to stop reading books like Freedom From Fear and The Swerve, if I want to preserve the myths.