Psychotherapy in the desert

Fame and faith can consume a man. They can make for a deadly combination. Imagine the man who had so much of both that people became convinced that he was divine… and he allowed himself to be convinced, as well. If you saw him walking through the desert, muddled with hunger and delusion, your heart would surely go out to him. You would want to help. Of course you would.

When I was in college, a friend of mine suffered from a psychotic break. He was eventually diagnosed with acute schizophrenia, but that diagnosis only happened later: after he’d stopped eating, shaved his head declaring that he didn’t have the “right” to own hair, and then tried to poison himself. I saw him in the hospital that night, his mouth ringed with black from the charcoal the medics had force-fed him, his eyes red and wild. And it threw me back to all the conversations I’d had with him in the months leading up, where I could tell that something was wrong but I didn’t know what.

He was an intelligent guy, and very articulate. But he would phase in and out of lucidness, his mind wandering off into conspiracies about “higher powers” and creatures that were always watching and who would punish you if you made bad decisions. Sometimes he would claim he had powers himself, and that the rest of the humans were “mere shadows” compared to him.

Those conversations were frightening, because he was so plainly earnest. He believed to the core of his being, every word that he said. So, I tried to use the only conversational tactics at my disposal: logic and reason. I asked him for evidence. I challenged his logic. But nothing I could say would penetrate his delusion. “They are watching us,” he would simply mutter over and over again, “they see everything.”

When I imagine Lucifer in the desert, watching over a rail-thin man who has been starving himself for weeks on end, my heart goes out to that poor fallen angel. Lucifer is seeing a man who is wrecked by mental illness, a man who is on a literal path to self-destruction. The man is consumed by the myths and stories that people tell about him, and that he believes about himself.

If I were in Lucifer’s shoes, I’d want to help poor Yeshua, too. Lucifer knows the importance of evidence and skepticism, so naturally he tries to use that tactic to get through to Yeshua:

“If you are really some kind of divine being, then why don’t you throw yourself off of this cliff? Come on, if you really believe all this stuff: prove it with your actions rather than your words!”

But it couldn’t break through the mental illness of Yeshua’s faith, who simply replied: I don’t need to provide evidence, I know what I know.

It reminds me of my schizophrenic friend in college: coherent, semi-rational,  but completely unable to recognize the delusion in his own thoughts.

After Lucifer gave up on Yeshua, Pan decided to give it a try. Pan knows the importance of earthly pleasures and indulgences, and his heart went out to the starving man in his self-imposed abstinence. “Hey, bro… at least make yourself come bread and eat. What are you accomplishing by starving yourself?”

But Yeshua’s mental illness consumed him, and he claimed that he didn’t need actual food, he could survive just on his own willpower and beliefs.

Finally, Satan appeared, and attempted to reason with Yeshua one last time: “You’re destroying yourself in abasement to some imaginary being who has imaginary rules… this is absurd! Why are you doing this to yourself? Bowing down to an invisible, impalpable, unknowable entity is insane, don’t you see that? You might just as well bow down to a rock! Or a horse! Or, even me! That’s how ridiculous it is!”

Quite naturally, when this story was transcribed by others, they described these events somewhat differently. But this is how it actually happened.

And you should think about how you would act, too. What would you do, if your friend was out there, a shattered man, broken by mental illness, killing himself in the desert with paranoid delusions about superpowers and an invisible being watching over his every move. How would you try to help him?

Would you try to reason with him, like Lucifer?

Would you try to get him to take care of his body, like Pan?

Would you try to get him to see the oppressiveness of his delusion, like Satan?

Maybe you would take a different tactic completely. But if you have any compassion in you at all, you would surely do just as the Devil did, 2000 years ago on Mount Quarantania, when he tried to talk poor Yeshua out of his delusions and bring him back to the eternal light of reason.