For most of his life, my father struggled with mental illness, never diagnosed. He called it “feeling blue,” but the poetic label belied the depths of his depression and its effect on the folks around him. We learned to accommodate the violent eruptions, the name-calling, the self-centeredness, the angry truck engine roaring off down the street, which meant he would disappear for a day or two. I appreciated his absences more often than not. And we tiptoed around when he slept with his head on the dining room table, making up stories about his professional failures and setbacks. “He’s proud… he’s sensitive… he’s too smart for typical jobs and that’s why we don’t have any money…” Truth was, I didn’t know what was wrong, just that he wasn’t well.
The impact of accommodating the dis-ease in the household, rather than engaging it or working through it openly, was multilayered—running away, addiction, acting out, depression, materialism, pride—the body of our family was traumatized, and my siblings and I still carry those wounds. Thanks to therapists and mentors and spouses, each of us is working through the pain by now, in large part to break the pattern. We know what happens to children and spouses and communities when a parent’s troubling issues are swept under the rug. The silence and the lack of a sensible narrative are as toxic as the rages.
At some point the stories of Jesus became a way through for me. As I read them, the Spirit doesn’t just look at our destructive behavior and tell us to stop it. It comes to where we are most vulnerable, asks us “Where do you hurt?” and shows us the impact of visiting our pain on others.
Last night I dreamed about a part of the Arthurian legend, the time when the king had been mortally wounded. The people went about their daily tasks lethargically, as if they were in a trance, or they were at odds with each other, and many felt lost. At this moment a fatherless young man named Parsifal comes of age, and he encounters the king’s knights riding along the road. Awestruck, by their shining appearance, he sets off for the castle.
But Parsifal is struck dumb by what he finds there. Instead of the glorious Camelot that he expected, he finds himself in the middle of a wasteland, where everything is sterile and cold. He discovers that the king has been wounded in the middle of his body, and had lost the powers of potency and regeneration.
The young knight wants desperately to help his king, but he, like everyone else, had no answers as to how to heal the wound. Instead his mind was filled with questions, but he dammed them up, remembering that his mother had told him not to embarrass people by probing too much. So he leaves the court on a quest for the holy grail.
After venturing down many blind paths and false trails, Parsifal glimpses the grail—the cup that Jesus purportedly used at the last supper—and as a result, he felt the king’s pain in his own heart. He rode back to Arthur’s castle and rushed to the king, who was at death’s door. Overcoming his earlier hesitance, he knelt beside his monarch and asked, “What ails thee?”
What ails thee? Where does it hurt? How are you suffering?
And the spell was broken. By asking him an honest question of compassion, the king is restored, and the inhabitants of the kingdom along with him. The king offered the young man a toast: “When you falter and fail, never forget: today holds the promise of redemption.” Today you can make a healthy choice. Today you can benefit the community. Today you can be redeemed. However dark the night has been, compassion and empathy can create a new day.
Consider the power of such a question, posed by one struggling traveler to another. What ails thee? Where does it hurt? What happened a while ago that still festers and fumes? What are you caught up in that makes you sick? What makes you or your family or the community stumble and fall?
When I was a young man, I set out equipping myself for my own quest. Like Parsifal, my initial strategy was to sheathe myself in the same armor I had seen other knights don—Ivy league degree, list of contacts, straightened white teeth and a good haircut—but all that had nothing to do with the wound in my belly. Lost and stuck when arguably I should have felt some considerable potency, I spent a year seeking my father. I found him (and myself) in endless cups of coffee shared at a Burger King, piecing together a sensible narrative of my family’s story, asking him “What hurts?” Raising the pain to consciousness equipped me to not repeat its wounding pattern.
When a leader is wounded at his center, the system suffers, and that is our reality as Americans at this moment. Whatever one’s political party, our president is not well. Deflection, distraction, self-centeredness, and bullying are not the signs of health, and accommodating such destructiveness in one who wields such power imperils the whole. I pray for President Trump every day. Republicans and Democrats at their best stand for humane values grounded in good will, good governance, elected representation, responsible stewardship of resources, and securing the well-being of the most vulnerable. Solving our problems through honest debate and respecting each other’s right to informed and differing opinions brings out the best in us. Interrogating our history with open eyes, open minds, and open hearts enables us to recapture our soaring aspirations, even as we confront that we have never yet achieved its goals for all of our citizens. We can one day. But not if we don’t ask ourselves what ails our principal leader, confront every measure of collaboration or colluding, condemn any act of or invitation to violence, seek his healing, and our own.