When Dad is sick, he watches war movies. All day, every day, until he feels well enough to get off the couch. Growing up, it meant I got familiar fairly quickly with films like Tora! Tora! Tora!, Sands of Iwo Jima, The Bridge at Remagen, and Torpedo Run. His favorite war flick, and the one he watched (and probably still watches) without fail, is Twelve O’Clock High.
Gregory Peck plays the commanding officer of a bomber squadron in the Army Air Corps during World War II. He dubs part of his unit “the Leper Colony”: every misfit, reject, and wash-out, everyone no one wants, everyone performing under specification, gets sent to that particular crew. Despite commanding such men, he turns his entire outfit, Leper Colony included, into one of the best in the theater. How? He doesn’t give up on them. He rides them hard — maybe too hard at times. His motto: “Maximum effort!” Anything, he declares, is possible if you work harder than anyone else, if you push yourself beyond your limits. When you absolutely can’t do it anymore, do it again anyway. That’s the meaning of “maximum effort.”
I’ve always sympathized with Peck’s general. Maybe it’s because I’m an INTJ, maybe it’s because I have a type-A personality, maybe it’s just how I interpret the “Protestant work ethic,” but I’ve always felt I could do anything that needed to be done if I’d just work hard enough — and I tend to hold others to that standard as well. The phrase “I want results, not excuses” is a mantra of mine, alongside other such gems as “Don’t bring me problems; bring me solutions” and “A failure to plan on your part does not constitute an emergency on my own.” It’s how I’ve lived my life for almost thirty-two years. Things are tough? Push through! Work harder! Maximum effort!
The problem with maximum effort is that, well, it’s the maximum. There’s nothing left to give, and if you try, you break.
I’ve been broken for a while now. I stupidly thought I had no limits, since I’d never reached them before. I thought I’d always have that bit of extra effort to call upon when I needed it. I was wrong. I stretched myself too far and broke.
Maybe you’ve been broken for a while, too.
This is frequently the precise point we fail as the Church: we have no idea how to care for those broken like this. Worse, we shame the broken who seek the help they need. Our society in general has a long history of stigmatizing mental illness, and that stigma seems to quadruple inside the walls of the church. Instead of offering support, we say stupid, demeaning things:
“Haven’t you prayed about it?”
“Worry is a sin, you know.”
“If you were closer to God, you wouldn’t have these problems.”
“You don’t need medication. You just need Jesus.”
“Other people have it worse. Have you just tried being grateful for what you have?”
These are incredibly ignorant statements — worse, they are incredibly harmful. All they do is make the person feel “less than”: less spiritual, less holy, less thankful, less Christian, than all the other “good little church people.” We pile guilt and shame on top of preexisting problems.
And after we’ve made it worse, we keep them from getting the help they need now even more than they did before they talked to us. They were vulnerable enough, trusting enough to tell us what was going on — and we insulted and mocked them, then told them they never need to tell anyone else, someone who could actually make things better. If we do decide, in our infinite grace, to permit them to seek help, we greatly qualify it. “If you have to see someone,” we say, “go to a Christian counselor only. No one secular, and no one who can prescribe medication.” But brain chemistry needs other chemistry to adjust it. Those pills can be very necessary for mental health. And while I certainly appreciate good Christian counselors, not everyone is going to feel safe seeing one, especially for issues related to addictions or sexuality. They’re afraid of being judged, of hearing more of what the Church People already told them.
We need to stop this nonsense. End the stigma. Encourage sick people to do what it takes to be made well. We don’t tell the amputee to be grateful they still have three limbs. We don’t tell the person with meningitis to just pray harder. We don’t tell a person with fibromyalgia it’s the result of their secret sin. We don’t tell the person with a broken leg to just stop thinking about it — and to take off the cast because they don’t need medical intervention. Instead we tell the person with the flu to see a doctor. We tell the one with appendicitis to go to the emergency room. Why do we treat those with sick brains differently from those with sick bodies? Why is the brain the one body part we refuse to help?
If you’re reading this today and you are broken, get the help you need: psychiatrist, therapist, Christian counselor, medication. If you’ve hit your limit and been pushed harder anyway, if you’ve moved beyond maximum effort and gotten hurt in the process, seek healing. Don’t let the ignorance of other people, even people you love, keep you hurting. Seek the Great Physician, yes, but go to those women and men on earth He uses to provide healing.
You are not alone. You are not less-than. You are not unloved by God just because you’re suffering right now. Reject the stigma others would apply to you.
Be made whole.