Method in our madness

May 22nd, 2011 | By | Category: Ministry

There was a woman running along the main road, looking strange.  Not a jogger in a track suit, but an older woman with a distant, vacant look, running as if she might be going somewhere, but without any apparent reason for her hurrying.

Perhaps there was what, in Ulster vernacular, would be described as a ‘wee want’, but what if there was?  We have moved on from the days when the slightest deviancy from behaviour determined to be normal could bring a life sentence of confinement behind the walls of an institution.  Many clergy can recount tales of visiting long-term patients who seemed to have been held in care for little reason other than they had become institutionalised.  Encountering a woman running erratically down the road maybe represents a more humane regime, than the brutality of the past.

John Simpson’s memoir of his childhood, Days from a Different World, contains the following note under 12th February 1947.

“A sinister little pamphlet called ‘Pre-frontal Leucotomy in 1000 Cases’ was published that day by the Stationery Office at a price of sixpence. Based on the theory that ‘something must be done in some mental illnesses to break the connexion between the patient’s thoughts and his emotions’, it examined the results in a wide variety of patients. When successful, it said, cutting the physical links between one part of the brain and the rest had enabled a third of the people whose cases were recorded to resume their everyday activities ‘without that emotional tension and preoccupation with hallucinations and phantasies which has hitherto handicapped them’. Another third had shown signs of improvement, though not to the point where they could be discharged from hospital. And the rest? No details were available, except that 3 per cent of them had died. It showed, said one medical writer, that the operation was well worth while in carefully selected cases. Today, pre-frontal leucotomy would be regarded by many surgeons and psychiatrists as a quite unnecessary form of torture’.

Had the psychiatrists of 1947 been working today, would they have been tolerant of the Sunday morning runner?

And what if they had lived in the First Century, what would they have made of the religious experiences and writing of the time? Would the Acts of the Apostles have seen the light of day or been described as including “hallucinations and phantasies”, and would the visionary Saint John the Divine have been allowed to remain on Patmos after writing his Revelation?

Isn’t the connection between our thought and emotions part of what makes us human?  Even if those thoughts and emotions compel us to run along the side of the road with no particular place to go.


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