Madness and The Soul
Recently, I had a scary experience watching someone go mad. It happened with this lady, who is elderly but not old, and she is known to frequently do “crazy things,” which include howling (literally), getting right up in front of people’s faces and waving her hands and arms wildly, and taking unwanted pictures of people from all angles and making scary faces at them.
Things escalated the other week, as they are wont to do without proper treatment, when she came into the swimming pool area and from the immediate deck, kneeling down right next to the swimmers, started to take unwanted and even inappropriate photos of them. Suddenly, as she started to get right into this one swimmer’s face, he jumps up and starts violently splashing her. In no time, she was drenched and cowering in the corner. Then people started to yell at her, as a known troublemaker, to “get out” of the pool area. Finally, when one guy called her a pervert, I saw her turn her head and, in a scary way, give a type of sinister smile.
However, almost like Jekyll and Hyde, the sinister smile then quickly turned into a type of innocent, sheepish, and unknowing look, like a child who didn’t know or understand what had just happened or was going on. It was like the madness broke for a split moment, and the normal side was bleeding out of the crazy one.
It’s not the first time I’ve witnessed up close mental illness or even evil in people. Every time, the out-of-control thinking and behavior is absolutely frightening. I ask myself how these types of things reconcile with Judaism, faith, and G-d? Where is the person’s soul when something else inside them seems to just take over completely?
In reading, Toward A Meaningful Life: The Wisdom of The Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson by Rabbi Simon Jacobson, I feel like I got some really good insight into the functioning and interplay of body and soul in human beings. Let’s start with Genesis 2:7:
The L-rd formed man of dust from the ground, and He breathed into his nostrils the breath of life.
Hence, people are made up of two parts. The first part is the human body, which is the material aspect of ourselves. It is the container for the second part, which is the soul, that encompasses the spiritual side of who we are.
The body is motivated primarily by physical needs and the desire for self-satisfaction. The soul is the part of G-d within us that seeks to elevate ourselves above our animal selves and instead guide our bodies to do good deeds for others and connect with our maker. This is:
…the dichotomy, therefore, between the tangible nature of the body and the transcendent nature of the soul.
We can give our bodies everything that they desire, all the vast pleasures of the world, and yet, if we don’t feed our soul, invariably we end up feeling “anxiety, aimlessness, an emptiness. A yearning for something more.” That is because we haven’t acknowledged or addressed the needs of our inner self, the soul. While the body seeks to satisfy the flesh, the soul searches for meaning through elevating the worldly to the G-dly.
In uniting the body and soul, G-d gives us the ability to:
Fulfill the mission for which we were all put on the earth: to lead a meaningful, productive, and virtuous life by making this physical world a comfortable home for spirituality and G-dliness.
Moreover, through the tests and challenges of exercising our soul in this physical world, we elevate and purify it to eventually be able to connect with and bask in the glory, light, goodness, love, and holiness of G-d in the afterworld .
So what happens when someone goes mad and they lose control over their mental perceptions and actions?
While I don’t know if the Rebbe talks about this directly, he does explain that the body understands and responds to its external environment through the five senses (seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, and feeling). If you shut off these senses and you can’t perceive any external stimuli, then what is left? Just you inside. Your soul.
So when it comes to mental illness, where the perceptions of the person are delusions of paranoia, grandeur, and/or sensing things that aren’t really there, then this isn’t a defect of the soul, but of the body and mind. While the person may think and act crazy, if you could quiet all the senses and return the person to peace and mindfulness, we would find their holy soul still inside.
Whereas normally the soul guides and directs the body, in the case of mental illness, the soul becomes imprisoned in the body and mind that is sick. When this happens, a person reverts to their wholly animalistic nature, and hence, what we are seeing is like a car without a driver, accelerating and careening dangerously until, usually, a horrible accident and end.
Why do people suffer from mental illness?
Perhaps it’s to show us what happens when body and soul do not work in harmony, and the good that the body could do when under the influence of the soul is instead supplanted by the vagaries of the mind and body, frighteningly out-of-control.
After thinking about this, when I went swimming recently, I tried to really take charge of all my senses, one by one. First, I concentrated on seeing the blue water; then on hearing the waves and splashing as I swam; after this, I focused on smelling the hot, summer air and pool scent; then I felt the soft, rolling water over my hands and body, and finally, I tasted the salt water from my lips. I felt myself controlling each sense, one after the other. Maybe for the first time, I really experienced my surroundings: enjoying it; savoring it. I let my inner soul take full control of my mind and body. Oh, what a blessing this is.
If G-d grants us good bodily and mental health, we can stop ourselves from being driven by egos, self-satisfaction, and narcissism alone, and we can get control of our senses, how we perceive and respond to the world—please G-d, for sensitivity, compassion, and giving to others, and to connect spiritually with our Maker. It is our mission; it is what is meaningful; it is righteous, and it is ultimately our sanity.
On a final note, let me also point out that while we are justifiably afraid of people with serious mental illness who are acting out violently, at the same time, we need to let our souls drive our compassion and helping hand to them. Rather than lash out at them in response, we can try to get them the care they need and wish them a full and speedy healing.