About twenty years ago, there was a man in our retreat house that seemed to be suffering from some form of mental illness. And because of that, was causing some problems with those who were simply trying to have a quiet retreat. I went over to have a visit with him and to talk a bit so I could see what the problem seemed to be. He was a nice man, in his early forties, well groomed and friendly; though he had trouble communicating in a way that made me feel (doubt) that there was any real connection. His reactions were a bit left of center, so I could understand how he could have an unsettling affect on those who were staying in our retreat house. His sense of boundaries was weak and his reactions were immediate and seemed to be without any kind of forethought. So the psychic waves he was causing were getting stronger as time past. At the conclusion of the talk I tried to explain to him how he was unintentionally affecting people around him and asked if he could tone down his reactions a bit. He smiled at me saying he understood and he volunteered to leave on his own. I asked him if he needed any money, or a ride to the bus stop, or airport. He did ask if I could take him to the Holiday Inn near the air port but he did not need money, his family was well off and supplied him with enough monies to live comfortably.

As I was driving him to the Holiday Inn, he began to expound on how the universe works and the term ‘the cosmic dance’ was the central concept that he used. I could not follow him down every avenue he was trying to take me, but I tried to listen and see what I could learn from him. One thing I did discover and being young at the time I was also surprised, at how deep and penetrating some of what he was telling me was. I could not enter into his understanding of the boundary-less universe that he inhabited and found it both interesting and terrifying at the same time; a bit overwhelming for me at the time. After a while I kind of toned him down to try to process some  of the ideas he presented to me. I also thought that his presentation was put forth in such a way that he seemed ‘crazy’ and perhaps he was, at least as far as our understanding of consensus reality goes. He was on to something, this I could see, but it was also ‘out there’. What ‘out there’ points to I am not sure, but I did find him interesting and felt sorry that there was not some forum that he could use so that he could feel seen, heard and understood.

So I drove him to the motel and helped him carry his luggage to his room. He insisted that we keep the door open while I was there, so I propped a chair to stop it from closing. When I brought up the last bag he put a note into my hand and asked me to please not open it until I got back to my car. So I pocketed it, shook his hand and left. When I got to the car I opened the ‘note’; it was not written in words but in a complex symbol of some sort that had meaning only to him. Perhaps this simple work of art had great depth of meaning for him, but for me there was no way I could decipher what it meant to him. Perhaps that is why he asked me to wait until I got to the car, since he was used to people not being able to understand his commutations and was simply tired of the chore of explaining himself.

As I was driving back home I contemplated the loneliness he must live with on a regular basis. A man of deep intelligence, yet unable to share with anyone on any deep meaningful level; this being doubled because he could not take in what others were trying to communicate with him. I know that I did not help in any way to alleviate his mental prison, no matter how vast his concepts are.

In some cultures those afflicted or those who were different were considered sacred and were allowed to act out, talk out, and play out their inner thoughts. I can understand that, for this man did have a luminous quality to him, which he lived in a place filled with mystery and perhaps he had insights that could be helpful if some way to communicate them could be found. I wonder what would happen if one day he does meet someone who understands him, would he then be normal. For once he is understood his isolation would not be total; would he then be like the rest of us?

I think ‘normal’ people often feel lonely and misunderstood and also unappreciated, yet there always seems to be those with whom communication is possible which gives a certain appearance of normality. We conform, play the game. This is important, for without that it would be impossible to have any form of cultural corrosion. Yet it is too bad that we can’t find some way to allow those who suffer from ‘mental illness’ to live out what they are trying to say until the time comes when they actually are heard, appreciated and most importantly understood. True, there will be cases when psychotropic medicines will be needed, but I wonder how many people are kept in a drugged stupor because they simply make those around them uncomfortable. There is probably no answer to this and I am not trying to give one. Yet I often wonder, if allowed to act out until no more acting out is needed, would that bring healing?

I suppose if we all lived in small villages this could be possible, since everyone would share with looking out for those different and contribute to the process and help each other carry the frustrations that may entail. However today that is not possible, so perhaps there is no answer to this very painful question, at least the way things are today in our modern fragmented culture. I do know that living on the street in a big city is not an answer either. For there, their isolation seems to be complete and permanent. A cold, harsh, and uncaring environment will only drive them deeper inward making any kind of real interaction almost impossible. There are many of them trapped in private universes with no way to bridge the communications gap that we ‘normal’ people often do with great difficulty and often failing in the process. At least we can try and at times we succeed which saves us from being labeled ‘mentally ill’.

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Mark Dohle

Mark Dohle

I am 62 years old and have lived in the Atlanta area since 1971.  I am Catholic and my faith is important to me, yet as I age the mystery continues to deepen, so I read broadly and try to keep things somewhat open ended. I work with the aged and the dying. I was in the Navy for four years and I guess I am life of center when it comes to politics, but not too far left. Actually, I am kind of a political moron.

I am the third of  11 children; ten still alive, one died in in 1958, three days after birth.