I’m delighted to be here!
I’ve just come back from a stay at a psych ward, and I feel better than if I’d come back from a five-star vacation. Really, I do. Let me explain. Or at least just try.
I think the point I’ll begin is at is that I called my doctor’s office asking for an appointment to check in with her, and her nurse told me, “Just go to the ER.”
So they brought me to the ER, and before long, they had gotten me to a safe place, and I am genuinely glad they got me to a safe place, because within hours of getting to a safe place, I was subjected to an unprovoked physical assault.
By this time I was operating on like one neuron at this point, and my sluggish thoughts realized, “He’s getting ready to get violent with me.”
Then he punched me in the face and knocked me to the ground.
Then a sluggish thought ran that it would probably be a good idea to kick him in the groin.
So I attempted a weak enough kick to his groin, and astonishingly enough, it actually connected.
That slowed him down.
Then after another second, a sluggish thought ran, “In a self-defense situation, you’re supposed to make noise.” So I shouted, “HELP!” and then “STAFF!” And within seconds, they got him away from me. He didn’t get to strike me again. Within seconds after that, I was being lifted off the floor and taken away. (And by the way, this is a squeaky-clean “win” from a martial arts perspective.) They took my blood pressure, which was 150 over something like 150, and the nurse said, “Fight or flight;” a blood pressure of 150 or perhaps higher is just what you want in that situation!
I was sent down for a CT scan and for stitches, because I was bleeding slightly as I’d sliced my lip. The CT scan was squeaky-clean, no brain injury, and the person responsible for giving me stitches looked at the wound closely and said that stitches weren’t even needed. The cut didn’t even justify stitches, and I didn’t even get a goose egg. Bad posture for the win!
Not terribly long after that, a woman in scrubs (I guessed she might be part of the hospital legal counsel who put on scrubs to avoid intimidating me) came, apologized from her heart, and told me I would have the option of pressing charges. I just shrugged it off, to her surprise. But let me explain why, giving two decoy reasons before the real reason.
Decoy reason #1: I was hoping to leave the country within weeks, to go to the Holy Mountain in Greece, and I simply had no interest in being involved in any legal battle.
Decoy reason #2: I think it’s a horrible thing to lock a man away in prison. I don’t say it’s not justified; I don’t say it’s not warranted or justified; I also don’t want to jump on the political bandwagon protesting mass imprisonment. If we’re going to insist on “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth“, I’d really rather say, “He punched me and knocked me over, I kicked him in the groin hard enough, let’s call it even already!” than see him locked away in a cold, dark, creepy, dangerous, terrifying dungeon for years. Which is what a prison is. That’s not the
lex talionis “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” in the New Testament. It’s not “an eye for an eye” in the Old Testament either, for that matter,
Now, the real reason: I had simply lost interest in all further involvement in the conflict on my part within minutes of the hospital staff starting to care for my needs. As the sign in front of Pleasant Hill Community Church has said, forgiveness satisfies more than revenge. (I am, none the less, grateful that the hospital explicitly told me I could press charges.)
There are some other things which I don’t think I’ll be as quick to shrug off. I had my first conversation with a prostitute, for instance, and that and other conversations were among the most edifying conversations in my life. I don’t mean that they were either pleasant or that they were Hallmark moments; the whore was surly and rude to me. And I did quite deliberately say “whore,” because I overheard her introducing herself as a “whore!” But after a flustered conversation with a social worker, I was told that my proposed conversational goal of “Just treat her with respect.” was absolutely appropriate, and if anything her total failure to return or even recognize my respect, just helped me see how seared she was as a human being. When she called herself a whore, really quite loudly, I understood more in one minute than I had in decades of reading the Bible why Jesus Christ himself was so incredibly quick to hang out with prostitutes. (Maybe someday I’ll meet a real porn star!)
That wasn’t the only thing that affected me. At all. I also met a young woman who had recently been raped.
There was a group session, and I asked, “May I say something that may sound strange?” She said, “Yes.” Then I reached inside and pulled out something from the vilest memory of my entire life, and told it to her. In front of other people. Then I said, slowly, “Healing is possible.” And it was very clear from her “Thank you,” that I had done exactly as I had hoped. And, for the first time in my life, I was grateful for what I had gone through.
After that conversation, I deliberately related to her distantly. Even if I thought she trusted me. I spoke to her but from a faroff distance and kept conversations short, but I gave a good many of them. When she was discharged, her eyes were shining. Oh, and by the way, we waved goodbye, with no hug offered on either side. Apart from what I know about boundaries that have been trampled on and what it’s like to feel like your boundaries are not in the right places, staff had a very clear rule against touching. (Plus, I had managed to relate to her in a way that made that rule a total irrelevancy.)
I also… Ok, time for me to sound Christian and very pious; I apologize that I haven’t been able to scare up WWJD socks, just these tactical boots. There was a man with the scariest tattoos I have seen. Yet. And a T-shirt I can only describe as an icon of Hell. And then he trusted me, I don’t know why, enough to start pouring out his heart, and I felt very, very small, and sheepishly realized that perhaps the big, stinking sin I should be attending to was my judging him when that’s not what Jesus would do…
The voices… Oh, the voices! I don’t know how to explain this one. I’m tempted to say that the voices were the worst part of the the lot. But only tempted.
I was minding my own business, getting my medications from a nurse, when a voice said something odd and caught me completely off guard. And then I heard it again, and again, and again. Voices. Saying the same thing, the same stupid thing, and it was all self-referential. Like I’d spent waaaaayyy too much time staring down the rabbit hole of Douglas Hofstadter’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid. Which I have. I’m a recovering mathematician, like it or not, and I’ve been known to respond to an opponent’s carefully-thought-out position and simply say, “I play the self-referential incoherence card.” It got to the point where I asked one of the ward’s staff members to check whether insurance would pay for singing lessons for the voices in my head. I mean, if I have to listen to voices, is it really too much to ask that they at least be able to sing once in a while?
And let me boast a bit. I have perfect pitch. I love good music, especially if it is live, and even if I choose to spend my time in silence. And I’d prefer singing from the voices in my head that is not in a called “F three quarters sharp.”
And what the voices were saying, over and over again, was, “Do you hear any voices?” “Are the voices any better?” “Have you had any auditory or visual hallucinations yesterday today?” That part of my experience was bizarre and unprecedented for me, but fortunately enough that particular psychiatriac symptom stopped cold the moment I was out of earshot of the ward. It was incredible! (I’m writing that one off as a fluke.)
Amputation is also a horrible, horrid thing! It may be funny enough on Monty Python that, when John Cleese is in the process of getting himself so worked up that he’s dragged away to the hospital for overacting, he has been holding his arms behind his back the whole time, and he says, “I’m not a whole man,” to which one of the other man quickly and sympathetically adds, “Yes, and you’ve also lost your arms.”
But amputees in fact do not feel like they are whole people. Amputees look like they are less than fully human, they feel like they are infinitely less than fully human, and phantom pain is really only the beginning of the nightmare.
A poet by the name of William Earnest Henley lost one leg to tuberculosis. Then he was told he’d lose the other. He enlisted the services of a distinguished surgeon who performed five surgeries on his remaining foot, and saved his remaining leg.
Out of that horror, he wrote (“Invictus” is Latin for “Unconquered”):
Invictus, by William Ernest Henley
Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be,
For my unconquerable soul.
In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.
Beyond this place of wrath and tears,
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years,
Finds and shall find me unashamed.
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishment the scroll,
I am the master of my fate.
I am the captain of my soul.
“Invictus”, Latin for “Unconquered,” is a poem that has inspired many. It is considered a classic of Victorian Stoicism, it is very famous and has impressed many people with real problems, it was quoted word for word by murderer and terrorist Tim McVeigh in the moments before his execution, and if you do a Google search for “invictus white nationalism” you’ll get over forty thousand—
Did I really say that?
Did I really mean to say that?
Yes. I did.
“Invictus” is squeaky-clean as far as being free from racism, but “Invictus” is the biggest monument to arrogance I have ever met in a poem, and it is an industrial strength magnet to the kind of idiot who actually finds it attractive to try and take racism and make it a heroic virtue.
I therefore wish to extend this classic poem a slight, um, Professional-Courtesy:
Invictus, second draft, by Christos Jonathan Seth Hayward
Out of the pitch black of my sin and vice,
Chosen only of my own free will,
I thank the God beyond all knowing
For my yet still fighting soul.
In the cunning net of His Providence,
I have spurned kindnesses for my good,
Gifts I have fought as chance left me,
Bloodied, but more deeply bowed:
Beyond this life of pleasure and pain,
Lie the Gates of Heaven and Hell,
Battered I still make my choice,
Seeking neither to bolt nor bar,
From inside, the gates of Hell.
Narrow is the path and strait the gate:
The entrance to Glory beyond,
All trials and tests named in the scroll,
Thy Grace my wounds have bound with salve.
I thank the ranks of men made gods,
Who cheer me on to join their choir,
Thou blessest me beyond any fate,
That I could ever know to ask.
Thy Glory is to transfigure me,
To Live, Thou Thyself:
I AM the Master of my Fate!
I AM the Captain of my Soul!
soli deo gloria
“Soli deo gloria”? What does that mean? Let’s get back to Bach.
When I played the organ, which was my favorite musical instrument, I loved Bach. I would take the theme to his Little Fugue in G Minor, and improvise on it for hours. (On an organ or piano, if I didn’t have an organ handy. I tried not to be picky.) Even if I played it in the wrong key.
Bach was in the universal habit of writing, at the end of every single one of his manuscripts, the letters, “S.D.G.” These letters were an abbreviation of “Soli deo gloria,” Latin for “To God alone be the glory.” Wheel of Morality here, this is a reminder that it in fact is possible to be both great and humble.
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