The Ahab Syndrome: Embitterment as Mental Illness

You know somebody like this.  I’m talking about a person who is consumed with anger about having been treated unjustly.  A  person who can think of little else but how to wreak revenge on the person or persons who caused his pain.  A person who talks about this injustice incessantly, and who can’t seem to get on with his life.  Now psychiatrists have named this quality and are saying that it is a bona fide mental illness–it is known as “embitterment.”  It could also be called “the Ahab Syndrome” for Melville’s Captain Ahab, who was willing to sacrifice his ship and his men to capture the white whale that had taken his leg. 

Dr. Michael Linden, the psychiatrist who named this behavior, says that people suffering from the syndrome are generally good people who have worked hard at something–such as a job or a relationship–and then suffer some unexpected loss.  They get fired.  Or the wife runs away with their best friend.  They turn into helpless victims and stay mired in their hate and aggression.  Linden says that these people rarely come in for treatment, because they feel that the problem is outside, in the world, not inside themselves.  “They are almost treatment-resistant,” he says.  “Revenge is not a treatment.”  (La/Times-Washington Post, 5/26)

The same day that I read the Post article reprinted in the Oregonian, I read another piece: it was the horrific story of a mother who picked up her two children, a daughter 7 and a son 4, from their father for a weekend parenting visit, and then forced the children off the Sellwood Bridge, apparently an act of revenge against her estranged husband.  (Oregonian, 5/27)  The little girl was saved only by the quick action of a stranger who heard the children scream.  The man, David Haag, went out in his boat, found the children in the water, and dived in after them. Haag said he thought the girl had been holding onto her little brother, for they were right together in the water.  But he could not save the boy, who was already dead.

I look at the picture of the mom on the front page of the paper–her name is Amanda Jo. She has long dark hair, disheveled now; a dazed look on her face, she looks almost like a child herself.  What could she have been thinking, to push her two babies off a bridge?  What could she have been feeling?

This mom had lost a custody battle for her children–this was the second time she had lost custody of a child, for this past February, the court ordered an older son, by a different man, to stay in the sole custody of his father.  I can only imagine that she might have felt helpless and hopeless.  And because she could not control the courts or her husband or her own out-of-control life, she exercised influence over others by hurting the children.  She had become truly mentally ill.  Her act was akin to the man who loses a job and then goes in and shoots up the office.  Or the man who shot people in a Nashville church because his estranged wife used to go there.  I’ve been treated unfairly, they say.  And somebody has to pay.

It should be said, however, that even though few people will kill to justify themselves, most of us have sucked on this bitter rag of revenge.  At some time or other, we will have been treated unfairly–by another person, by society, or just by the universe in general.  And this typically makes us very, very angry.  Generally time takes care of our bitter feelings, and we move on to more productive activity.  We forget.  We may even forgive.  We understand that justice is not something we can expect or demand, in this world. 

Speaking of justice, now–what would justice be for this woman?  What would you say, if you were on the jury?  What crime is more horrible than killing one’s own children?  What demons are at work within this woman?  Are they different from the ones at work in you and in me? 

I have no answers to these questions.  I am struck with the horror of the crime.  I wonder at the reaches of human pain, about the genesis of evil.   I acknowledge the darkness in myself and in all of us.


Learning to Love

In my last reflection I commented on David Brooks’ recent review (5/14) of Josua Wolf Shenk’s essay “What Makes Us Happy,” found in the current issue (June 2009) of the Atlantic.  Brooks says that the researcher, George Vaillant, discovered through his longitudinal study of the lives of Harvard men that “the only thing that really matters in life are (sic) your relationships to other people.”  Brooks muses about Vaillant’s life, a life lacking in warm relationship and intimacy, and concludes, “Even when we know something, it is hard to make it so.”

I just read Shenk’s article and found it fascinating.  It was one of those on which I used a magic marker copiously.  Shenk gives summaries of various case studies throughout the article, and he also from time to time reports interesting conclusions which Vaillant came to during his intensive study.  A few of these are the following:

“. . . a glimpse of any one moment in a life can be deeply misleading.  A man at 20 who appears the model of altruism may turn out to be a kind of emotional prodigy–or he may be ducking . . . <a> kind of engagement with reality. . . ; on the other extreme, a man at 20 who appears impossibly wounded may turn out to be gestating toward maturity.”

“. . . mature adaptations are a real-life alchemy, a way of turning the dross of emotional crises, pain, and deprivation into the gold of human connection, accomplishment, and creativity.”

He sites the seven major factors that predict healthy aging, both physically and psychologically: employing mature adaptations, education, stable marriage, not smoking, not abusing alcohol, some exercise, and healthy weight.

But at no place was Vaillant more powerful and articulate, says Shenk, than when he describes the significance of love and intimacy in our lives.  Vaillant was asked in an interview in March 2008, “What have you learned from the Grant Study men?”  Vaillant responded: “That the only thing that really matters in life are your relationships to other people.”

Perhaps Vaillant was so keenly aware of the importance of relationship because his life has always been fraught with such difficulty in that arena.  So how is it that someone can know so much and yet find it so difficult to put into practice what he clearly understands?  Vaillant answers this question in a profound and moving statement in his book Adaptation to Life. Speaking of his male subjects not from a scientific, but more from a philosophical or even theological perspective, he writes: “Their lives were too human for science, too beautiful for numbers, too sad for diagnosis and too immortal for bound journals.”

So yes, the process of learning to be fully human, the process of learning to love openly and deeply, is in the final analysis, a mystery.  We don’t understand why we do what we do, or why we fail sometimes to become what we most earnestly desire to become. 

However, in my last reflection I did promise you an answer, and an answer I will give.  Love is the most powerful force that exists, and love can be taught.  It is best taught in the first 18 months of a child’s life, and if a child is separated from mother during those years for any reason, or if a child is abused, or if a child is with parents who cannot for whatever reason nurture the child, then learning love later in life will prove difficult.  But except in the most profound cases of deprivation, it will not prove impossible

People who need to learn about love can do so by being with people who know how to love, in community and in intimate places in their lives.  Often helpers are needed–skilled psychotherapists for sure, spiritual advisors, massage therapists, yoga teachers, etc., etc.  A loving community is essential.  In the best of all worlds, the love-deprived person will be able at some point to enter into a long-term, intimate relationship with someone who is good at loving and who will love the person exactly as he or she is. 

Is there any guarantee?  In this world, there never is.  We just don’t know.  But we can do our best to increase the odds.  We can love, and we can reach out for love.  In the end, we’ll find that Vaillant is right–it’s all that matters. 


What Is the Secret of Happiness?

I was fascinated by David Brooks’ editorial (NYTimes 5/12, A23) on an article entitled “What Makes Us Happy?” by Joshua Wolf Shenk, to be published in this next issue of the Atlantic.  In short, the article (now available on line) describes a longitudinal study done by one George Vaillant over a 42-year period on a group of 268 of the most promising young men of the Harvard class of 1942.  Among them were John F. Kennedy and Ben Bradlee. 

These young men were the creme de la creme: they were intelligent, sophisticated, advantaged in every way.  They had been selected from the rest of the entering class because they were considered the most well adjusted.  Since they were college sophomores, they have been visited by researchers regularly and studied in every aspect of their living.  The results are known as the Grant Study, and they are summarized in Shenk’s article, which I have not as yet had a chance to read–but eagerly await.

Judging from their privileged beginnings, one might expect that these men would grow into highly successful, happy individuals.  The life stories, however, show quite a different outcome.  Brooks points out that one third of the men ended up suffering at least one bout of mental illness.  Many would be plagued with alcoholism.  A few, understandably, could never admit that they were gay, until they were of an advanced age. Brooks is struck, he says, by “the baffling variety of their lives.”  What causes us to make certain decisions, to follow life-giving as opposed to destuctive paths?  And a man who seems to do well in one phase of his life might just fall apart in the next phase.  Why?

The study apparently produced some correlations.  Correlations don’t prove, but they do suggest.  The men by and large did better as they aged.  Those who suffered from depression were much more likely to be dead by their early 60′s.  But it’s George Valliant’s final conclusion that is the most profound and the most instructive to us all.  In a video he says, “Happiness is love.  Full Stop.”

Ironically enough, love always seemed to elude Valliant himself, Brooks reports.  When he was 10, his father, who seemed successful and content, shot himself beside the family pool.  The mother removed the children from the house, and Valliant never saw the house again.  There was no memorial service.  Valliant married three times, returning then to his second wife.  For long periods he was estranged from his children.

Brooks concludes, poignantly, “Even when we know something, it is hard to make it so.”

Yes, this is true.  But I have a response to this statement.  Stay tuned for my next reflection.


Religion as a Bridge to Reconciliation

During Archbishop TuTu’s recent visit to Portland, some of us were asked to participate in panel discussions on several related topics.  I was asked to be on a panel entitled “Religion as a Bridge to Reconciliation.”  The following is part of what I said in my introductory remarks:

The word religion comes from the prefix re, meaning back and the Latin ligare, which means “to bind” or “to bind back” or “to reconnect.”  One might say that the function of religion is to repair the illusion of our separation.  Religion should play a natural, a logical role in reconciliation–to bind us together in common values of love, compassion, justice, and forgiveness.

Unfortunately, religion–and I can speak with real authority only of the Christian religion, which is my own–religion most often seems to do the opposite: it serves to separate and to divide.  Christianity has such a bad reputation that the very use of the word in the common vernacular connotes “one who is rigid in belief,” and people who are not religious are wary of those who are, for these unconverted individuals–those unwashed in the blood, so to speak–too often have been targets for conversion and have not been respected as the persons, theological and otherwise, that they are.

Of course, all religious people are not Fundamentalists by any means, but even so, when any group of people begin to say, “My way is the way, my path is the only path,” the result is division and acrimony.

In fact, religion then becomes no different in this way from any other ideology, whethers an idealogy of communism or capitalism or racism or deconstructionist thinking.  One who becomes an ideologist, or a true believer, begins to exist in a closed system.  Whatever fits into this chosen system is labeled “true” and whatever does not is labeled “false.”  The curiosity, spontaneity, and growth of such an individual become limited.

Because each of us is troubled by a multitude of interior forces we do not and will not ever totally understand, it is our nature to look for a system which explains our angst and which makes us feel safe within the walls of that system.  We do not see that system as arbitrary, as created by humans who are terrified of our own inevitable demise, and so we reify those structures–that is, we come to believe that there is a concrete reality there.  Therefore, we cling to these beliefs as to life itself, and whatever threatens them must be challenged–or perhaps stemped out, eliminated.

Given this very human and very pervasive problem with religion, one can see why religion often fails to be a sturdy instrument of reconciliation.  At the same time, we know that there have been instances when it has been.  I’m thinking of enlightened leaders who have internalized the radical way of being that seems to be at the heart of all major religions–the radical way of love, compassion, peace.  Violence and retribution have no part to play.  I’m thinking, for example, for Martin Luther King, Jr., who taught non-violence in the Civil Rights movement; or Gandhi, who practiced satyagraha, or passive resistance, to free his people from British rule; or a more recent example, the Amish, who forgave the man who gunned down their children in a Pennsylvania schoolhouse a few years ago, because these gentle people could do no other: forgiveness is their way of being.

So if we mean by religion, a spiritual commitment to love and compassion and non-violence–if we mean by religion, a radical change of being in which the individual or community understands that we are all one and that love and forgiveness are central to their being, then yes, religion is the essence of reconciliation and a path to that difficult state.

But if we mean by religion–which we generally do–an institutionalized set of beliefs, then, no, just the opposite.  For religion in that sense divides people into the righteous and the unrighteous, the saved and the unsaved, the good and the evil.  And of course if we have made “the other” evil, then the righteous must have control over the evil ones.  We righteous ones can then project all of our shadow side onto these evil ones, and then Christians can smile as we say things to gays and lesbians like, “I hate the sin, but love the sinner,” or say to those of another faith tradition, “If you haven’t accepted Jesus as your Lord and Savior, you’re going to hell.”  Not to mention the generations of wars between believers of various faiths throughout the world, throughout all time.  Make the people of a different tribe or race or religion “other,” and they are much easier to kill.

So is religion a path to reconciliation?  Not until its practititioners mature as religious beings.  Not until its institutions become more devoted to the heart-lessons of their prophets than to the divisive theology of their true believers.