At this point Festus interrupted Paul’s defense. “You’re out of your mind, Paul!” he shouted. “Your great learning is driving you insane” (Acts 26:24).
In the middle of Paul explaining how it is he came to know Christ, Festus, the Roman leader in Judea, tells Paul that his knowledge is making him lose his marbles. Paul insists that he isn’t a raving madman, and he’s speaking the truth. As I read this scripture, I wondered if it was one of the first recorded instances where someone made a connection between knowledge and madness. Though the connection isn’t one of the most prevalent in American culture, it’s still there. Those who know things and those who desire knowledge are often perceived as outsiders.
Consider the phrase “Ignorance is bliss” and the tropes of the “mad scientist” and “evil genius” that pop up in literature, comic books, television shows, and films. Characters like Victor Frankenstein, Mr. Freeze from Batman, and Professor Moriarty from the Sherlock Holmes novels are intellectually brilliant, but they are in no way to be admired. They’re villains, and we’re supposed to fear them and their worldview. In part, we ascribe their inability to be good people to the fact that they know too much. Another example goes back to the antebellum period when slave owners felt they would “ruin” their slaves if they taught them how to read and write. The slave wouldn’t be “content” if they could spell their name or read a newspaper.
Why have we linked knowledge with mental illness or moral deviancy and happiness with obliviousness? Why do we think that knowing will be our downfall?
As a PhD candidate who struggles with depression and anxiety, I’m disturbed by the idea that knowledge makes one suspect or insane, and I’m curious about what this suggests about the way we view those with mental illness.
In Ecclesiastes 1:18, Solomon writes, “For with much wisdom comes much sorrow; the more knowledge, the more grief.” Curiosity killed the cat, did it not? But perhaps answering my questions, or satisfying my curiosity shouldn’t be the motivation behind my inquiry. Perhaps understanding the consequences of knowing is a more useful task.
Every morning I take some time to sit, read scripture, and think. This small act, only about 20-30 minutes, helps focus my attention on the day in front of me instead of the 5,000 possible days lingering in the future. My anxious thoughts tend to precipitate my depressive moods, so I try to get ahead of both. Anxiety leads to catastrophic thinking in my case, and catastrophic thinking leads to false conclusions. For me, anxiety means that every misstep is only the first on a path of inevitable doom. If I don’t have a good writing day, then I’m not going to finish my dissertation, I’ll never find a job, and I’ll be a disappointment to my spouse and family.
Is this logical thinking? No, but anxiety doesn’t care.
The point is I only began this ritual, these attempts to work on changing my thinking and redirecting my thoughts, when I learned more about how depression and anxiety, particularly my depression and anxiety, work.
I had to learn.
I had to know what my diagnosis meant and what practices I could adopt that would alleviate some of the symptoms. Proverbs 12:15 states, “Fools think their own way is right, but the wise listen to others.” Ignoring my symptoms or diagnosis wouldn’t have been bliss, but a subtle acquiescence to continuing the vicious cycle that had been hindering my ability to live and enjoy the day.
Reading the Bible every day helped. Reading more about how others dealt with their anxiety and depression helped. Acquiring knowledge helped.
Do I enjoy having this knowledge about myself? The knowledge that I have anxiety and another bout of depression could be waiting a few months down the road? No, I can’t say that I do.
Sometimes it is challenging to live with the knowledge that anxiety is part of my life, part of my spouse’s life now, and to know that I have limited control over how anxious I feel or when I tumble into another depression. However, knowing that I will eventually have a good day and I will come out of my depression has steadied me.
I don’t say this to suggest that my experience will be true for all. One thing I do know is that anxiety and depression manifest in unique ways for every person.
But I can say with confidence that my learning, my knowledge of what my anxiety is and how depression will affect my life, isn’t driving me mad.
Ignorance isn’t always bliss, and neither is knowledge. Can we sometimes feel burdened with the knowledge that we have? Of course, but burdensome knowledge does not have to be destructive; we can use it in constructive ways. We can use to better ourselves and others. We can use it to flourish and to grow.
Psst, you might like On Masculinity
Comments will be approved before showing up. We don't allow comments that are disrespectful or personally attack our blog writers.
At the moment, the assumption to question is that we humans have a right to be on earth and that it will indefinitely support us. When the very ground is taken from beneath our feet, where can we stand? What is left to us, when the familiar forms of our physical existence are taken away? Nothing, perhaps—yet I wonder.
I would charge that tree at sixty miles per hour, the following curve rated for thirty-five. Headed home after school, in the after-practice gloam, in the dark after work—to turn, or not to turn? That was the question. It was an option. Something to consider. I suspect most of us don’t think of this as a decision, per se, but it is. Every day, we decide, even if for most of us the answer has become reflex.