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“Love endures (God’s kind of love) with patience and serenity, love is kind…” 1 Corinthians 13:4 (AMP)
Every day I work alongside people who find themselves at the fringes and margins of society because of their mental illness. For most of these people, living with a mental illness means living in isolation from others throughout much of their lives due to the social stigma associated with the illness. The world, for them, is a very lonely place indeed.
Sometimes the only social contact a person living with mental illness ever has is with their Consultant Psychiatrist, Psychiatric Nurse or Social Worker whom they may rarely see. They have no friends and if they have any at all, chances are that friendship must have developed in a hospital that they were once admitted to and therefore most of their friends are likely to be people who also share a mental illness. In some cases, their families too have abandoned them because of the shame of their mental illness and they are treated as outcasts. Where families remain supportive, they themselves may suffer isolation and rejection from other families and friends because of the stigma of mental illness.
Apart from having to carry the burden of the disease, people living with a mental illness also have to endure much of the prejudices and myths held by our society. For example, it is a popular belief that people with severe mental illness such as schizophrenia are usually violent and dangerous even though such people are often frightened, confused and are themselves, trying to grapple with and understand the strange experiences happening to them. Another example is that depression is a sign of emotional weakness and that people who become depressed are just weak willed or wimps and must just ‘get over with it’. The negative expressions we use in society of people with a mental illness, further marginalises them. For instance without thinking much of it, we use derogatory terms such as ‘crazy’, ‘loony’, ‘those mad people’ or he/she ‘lost their marbles’. Together these misconceptions and negative connotations contribute to stigma and the shame of having a mental illness or being the person with the illness.
The result of society’s negative attitude to mental illness means that people living with the illness often count themselves as unwanted misfits in society and therefore carry with them a low sense of self-esteem, low confidence or low self-worth. They may often devalue themselves, their potentials, skills and talents and may not see themselves as having anything meaningful to contribute positively to society. If it is true that much of our self-worth is derived from our perceived worth in the eyes of others, then people living with mental illness don’t have much to expect from others about their intrinsic worth. People living with a mental illness find little affirmation and/or expect none from others. They respond likewise – not expecting much from themselves or fail to find any sense of belief in their own abilities or capabilities – that is if they think they have any. They find themselves trapped in a vicious cycle – giving up easily on themselves due to connotations that come with their illness and the definition given them by the illness, while at the same time the illness itself drives them into further conditions of isolation and misery.
How is it possible to break from such a vicious cycle? I believe one of the most powerful ways of people coming free from this cycle is through the demonstration of the power of love. Often times (apart from the paperwork that gets in the way), the help I give to people in my line of duty involves giving lots of time to listening and sharing in other people’s concerns, hurts, fears, worries and just being there for them when they need someone. Sometimes this involves extending myself in ways that does not come naturally to me, like completing forms.
I believe that as Christians, there is a healing and transformative process that takes place in the receiver as we demonstrate the God-kind of love that we have both experienced and received. The scripture reads from Romans 5:8 that,
“But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
This is how we come to know how much God loves us. In John 3:16 the bible puts it in another way,
“For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son…”
Better still this love is not one that we have only encountered or tasted but we also possess through the indwelling of God’s own Spirit. The bible says in Romans 5:5 that,
“…the love of God has been poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit who was given to us.”
In turn Jesus challenges us to live out the same kind of love when He teaches about the God-kind of love in John 15:13 that, “…greater love has no one than that of a man who lays down his life for another…” (my paraphrase). Laying down our life for another may not necessarily be in the literal sense, only of having to die as Christ did on Calvary. Nevertheless it involves a measure of death in the sense of sacrificing something of ourselves each time we extend ourselves for the benefit of another person. Reaching out to a person with mental illness is certainly not one of the most rewarding activities in the world, but surely it is to the end of laying down one’s life for another. I know from experience that sometimes the very person whose interest you attempt to seek, could be the same one from whom you may receive resistance or ingratitude. Perhaps such a person has always felt unloved or even hate themselves and therefore expect no-one to show them love. Hence when they encounter the least expected gesture of love, they shut down or raise barriers in response instead of opening up to receive it. Love requires a response, reciprocity, a change or transformation on the part of the receiver, which may be too difficult for some to undertake.
But this is where it takes God’s kind of love to persevere beyond such ‘barriers’ and ‘walls’ built through years of difficult and bitter experiences of life. In 1 Corinthians 13:4 we read that “love suffers long and is kind”. In other words God’s kind of love does not give up easily on another. The original word for God’s love in the Greek language (Agape) can be translated as ‘the love that acts for the best interest of another person even when they least deserve and expects nothing in return’. This kind of love is divine and is also extravagant but it is the same kind of love that God has poured into the heart of each believer by allowing us to share in His divine nature (Romans 5:5).
It cost God to demonstrate this love to mankind. Why should it be any less for you and I?