(Icon courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
As he was getting into the boat, the man who had been possessed by demons begged him that he might be with him. But Jesus refused, and said to him, “Go home to your friends, and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and what mercy he has shown you.” And he went away and began to proclaim in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him; and everyone was amazed.
When I was reading the story of Jesus healing the Gerasene Demoniac as one of my readings in the Daily Office a few days back, I got to thinking about Jesus' instructions to the now demon-free man: "Go home to your friends."
My first thought was "What friends? The guy was crazy! He was out running loose, naked, in the cemetery, and the only friends he had were the dead! What in the world does Jesus mean by this?"
I thought about the various observations I have made about people with chronic mental illness that I have known for some period of time, and my own interactions in their process. One of the things that happens many times is they might have started out with a set of friends, an intimate partner, or, at the very least, a network of people who care about them and have some degree of love and affection. As their illness builds, they either push their friends and loved ones away, or they simply "wear out" the people who do care about them and they just can't deal with the person any more and remain sane, themselves. The friends find themselves being sucked into their own situational psychic pain as a result of the chronically mentally ill person in their life. They end up behaving in ill ways because of the other person's illness, and unlike the chronically mentally ill person, they know it has to come to a stop somehow.
So in this Gospel story, I sat one evening and pondered just who those "friends" were, and I thought about the times I had been involved in the mental illness of others, and when being in the middle of that drama led to times I behaved erratically myself, and caused others to push away from me.
I've had some interesting dealings with people with chronic mental illness. I've been involved with suicide attempts of friends and relatives. I had someone try to kill themselves by flinging the door of my truck open at 55 mph and threaten to jump out. (I was amazed at how, while still driving my truck, I managed to grab that person by the shirt with one hand and yank them back in the truck. Then I became ashamed how then I became the "crazy" one, pounding this person's head against the back window of the truck repeatedly, yelling at the top of my lungs, "You go kill yourself on your OWN time, if that's what you want to do, but don't you ever...EVER...use me as the means to do it ever again!"
I once had a bipolar medical student who I had befriended to do some "grunt work" around my house for extra money, and this person had mistaken my generosity for being "best buddies," and suddenly found this person in my house all the time, literally living in my house, using my hidden spare key. When I re-established my boundaries for this relationship, this person suddenly launched into game-playing about threatening suicide, always dropping hints of suicide, of which I was supposed to respond in a push-pull relationship fashion.
I had another student many years ago who was stalking me, who became obsessed with little details of my life to the point it was seriously creepy, who implied that we had a psychological intimacy far beyond reality, and when I reported this behavior to the authorities, it triggered malicious stalking and destruction of my property, and I constantly feared my pets would be harmed.
I think about a time I "finally did what had to be done" in alerting the right people about someone's mental illness, but it was complicated by other transgressions by this person, and complicated by my own reticence to tell, because I had been sucked too psychologically far into the situation, and "telling" would reveal that I had concealed the reclusive and erratic behavior, and I had sins of my own in that situation.
I also help monitor impaired physicians, and I have been involved of many phases of impairment and recovery--and that has involved reporting impairment when I knew that my reporting would make me the "bad guy" or being involved with the intervention and telling that person the truth of how they had harmed me.
But what I've learned from those situations is that these things can have a ripple effect. The illnesses of others can trigger our own harmful psychological tendencies, and our own broken pasts, and affect our relationships with others, even when we are not the chronically ill ones. Whatever we are prone to, can "rear up"--whether it's family of origin issues, attention span issues, obsessive-compulsive behavior, depression, or simply a sense that we are not firmly grounded in reality. We can end up "wearing out" other people as a result of someone wearing US out. If we have severed ties with the chronically mentally ill person, there's a place we really just don't want to deal with that person and we are trying to move to a healing place beyond that relationship, yet we might have created pain in the lives of others while we were doing it. At times, it can create feelings of hopelessness, of failure, of resignation. It's messy, it's never pretty, and it only rarely has "the happy ending we wished for," although there are other ways it can eventually be reconciled.
So in our Gospel story, I came back to "who are his friends?" Here is a man whose world shrunk so far in his illness, that he very likely went from being a social creature like the rest of us, in his community like anyone else, to a frightening, dark world of the dead, where even wearing the trappings of humanity--his clothes--was too painful. He had reached a place where he couldn't even bear the reality of his own humanity. Yet, by a miracle, he was healed of what most of us with a modern medical eye would clearly recognize as schizophrenia.
No wonder he wanted to go with Jesus instead of stay in his town. Now healed, he knew it was far easier to move on, start over, and simply "leave his past behind" to follow Jesus. After all, there was a precedent of sorts. The stories of how the disciples came to follow Jesus was full of just "picking up and going with him." I don't think it would have been out of character for Jesus to have let this man do that.
But that wasn't what Jesus had in mind for him. He was to go home to whatever he perceived as his "friends." My guess is the man knew exactly what that meant--going directly to the people he had harmed, the people he had worn out, and the people who tried to help him but he had pushed THEM away. That's a hard assignment, and one bound to illustrate that some of his relationships would remain forever broken in this world. We're only human. Hard memories can make it not worth the mental pain to "kiss and make up," to start from scratch, to start anew as if nothing ever happened. Things where rules and laws stepped in may even make it illegal to do so. For instance, it doesn't matter how "healed" a person is, a restraining order is a restraining order. Everyone suffers consequences for his or her actions.
We are not privy to the details of how this man did that or exactly what he did to, as Jesus commanded, to "tell people what the Lord had done for him and the mercy he'd been shown," but we do know two things. We know he traveled around the Decapolis in his attempts to do that, and that "everyone was amazed."
So what did that mean to travel around the Decapolis? Wikipedia tells me that this represented several cities that are now in modern Jordan, Syria, and Israel: Gerasa, Scythopolis, Hippos, Gadara, Pella, Philadelphia, Al Husn, Capitolias, Canatha, Arabella, Raphana, and Damascus. Some of these cities have changed names. (For instance, Philadelphia is what now is known as Amman, the capital of Jordan.) Gerasa is more or less in the south end of this group of cities. Only Philadelphia was further south.
I was joking with one of my Facebook friends when discussing this reading, "Yeah, I bet he started way out on the north end and worked his way back south, all things considered." Obviously, we don't know his route map. But this is one of those times I like to let my spiritual imagination loose to "let Scripture read me," rather than me read it.
Human nature being human nature, it was probably easiest to start telling this story at a distance, rather than in the town where "everyone knows your name." After all, even Jesus knew a prophet was without honor in his home town. I like to think that as he got better at telling his faith story in the more distant towns, he was able to gain confidence and experience, and began to be healed and strengthened by that "amazement" in the eyes of others...and, after a spell, he came back to Gerasa.
We don't know how many years or months or weeks it took him to do all this preaching. So it's hard to say if he was still telling this story weeks later or years later. But I have no doubt, his story was the hardest sell in Gerasa. It could be something as simple as "Hey, aren't you the guy who ran around naked in the cemetery at night, crazy as a bedbug?" or it could be more complicated. I'm sure he ran into the people he'd hurt or harmed as a result of his illness, and got a cool reception, ranging from "I believe you have changed, but I am done with you. You hurt me too much. I can't ever let you back in," to "I don't believe you," to "I don't care." (I realize the Gospel says "everyone," but I also know we use the word "everyone" in a colloquial fashion, that usually means "most everyone," or "the bulk of them." I also imagine Scripture is reading me a little here, too--that I am showing my own hesitancy if I were in such a situation.)
This has some carry-over in our own lives, too. It means, when we have harmed others, and are in the business of being transformed and restored, it means we are called to at least try to reconcile it. It means when we are the one who was harmed, that we are called to at least try to understand that person in love, even if things will never be put back "the way they were." I think about one of those situations I was in where I had to tell the truth about someone else's mental illness even though I had been psychologically thrown under the bus by that person. I said, "I am, have been, and ever will be this person's friend. But I'm pretty sure what I'm about to tell you won't be perceived as friendship by this person, and I'm pretty sure I'll never be spoken to by this person after I say this." I think about the times I went to someone to apologize and as much as I wished that person would say "all is forgiven," I was pretty sure that was not going to happen, and odd on, my efforts would be rebuffed. I was usually not disappointed there. It's only the rare time someone can start over when I've harmed them.
But in those painful things, we have to remember "God's time is not our time."
As I mentioned earlier, we don't know how long this process took for our man in the story. Time has a way of softening old blows. God has a way of working on people over time. Even in the things that don't turn out "right" by our way of thinking, we are invited to hope that time changes things and God's time will become evident to us--if not in this life, in the life to come.