Barring being actually in the Matrix, what you see and touch is real, right? You know where you are? What you think is dependable? And what you feel is appropriate?
Usually we’d say yes, pretty much. We can take those things for granted, and go with purpose to our work, our play, our practice on the yoga mat.
Except that occasionally I can’t find my mat. Or it’s crumpled or covered in cat hair. Sometimes my body refuses to bend the way it should. And very often my mind is lost–or if not lost, at least spectacularly off-base.
As much as we like to feel like we just where we should be, our minds are steeped in bias and half baked conclusions. Our thoughts are far from a tidy stream of input-output logical steps. Our emotions may be even more unreliable. We are awash in influence from hormones and motivated by memories we don’t even realize we made.
And so just when you think you know where you are and who you are, the rug (or yoga mat) is pulled out from under you. You make mistakes. You overreact. Sh*t happens and you don’t handle it well.
Those of us with “mental health issues” are particularly aware of our own limitations. My Vulcan-like attempts at emotional control fail. My anxiety pushes its roots through my system, speeding my heart rate and scattering my thoughts. Or an awful numbness can sit on my face and my hands and I find I’ve lost that spark that made everything work. When this happens, even a yoga mat isn’t a reliable transport back to well-being: it might lie flat, but its energy is gone.
Now I strongly believe that you can think of “mental health issues” the same way you think of “body health issues”–in that, of course we will all have them to some degree. Some people have more severe “body health issues” but in the end, we all get colds and flus. Similarly, while some “mental health issues” require more treatment than others, who doesn’t occasionally find they can’t rely on the inner strength they thought they had?
No one can trust themselves completely. As bodies always break, there will always be broken links in how we think, how we feel, how we act.
This is why the Doctor Who episode “Vincent and the Doctor” is so beautiful to me, as it is to many fans. In it we come to understand Vincent Van Gogh at his most mentally ill, when he is raving and unable to function, and at his best – when the universe literally sparkles with the beauty he can see and show through his work.
You particularly see that beauty when he, the Doctor, and Amy lay on their backs and look at the stars, “Look at the sky. It’s not dark and black and without character. The black is, in fact deep blue. And over there: lighter blue and blowing through the blues and blackness the winds swirling through the air and then shining, burning, bursting through: the stars! And you see how they roar their light. Everywhere we look, the complex magic of nature blazes before our eyes.”
He can’t depend on this remarkable ability to see all that, since his moods were unpredictable. But he eventually learns through the Doctor that his gift is powerful enough to inspire generations of people. As he hears a museum curator say, “[Vincent] transformed the pain of his tormented life into ecstatic beauty. Pain is easy to portray, but to use your passion and pain to portray the ecstasy and joy and magnificence of our world, no one had ever done it before. Perhaps no one ever will again.”
This episode shows the power of that connection. Seeing someone else with your pain, your passion, paints life in a more complete picture. It makes a map where we can find ourselves, and maybe point the way towards hope.
Those who know the musical “Dear Evan Hansen” will recognize this as well, since the character Evan Hansen is able to take his own pain of social anxiety and use it to create a viral video that bonds together scores of strangers. In the video, also the show’s most popular and transformative song, he states that “even when the dark comes crashing through when you need a friend to carry you, or when you’re broken on the ground, you will be found.”
Likewise, the Doctor shows Vincent that he has ultimately “been found” by countless numbers of people, not only despite his pain but also because of it. Sadly, learning that beautiful truth isn’t enough to save Van Gogh from his illness. Amy is heart broken to discover this, but the Doctor comforts her with one of his more famous quotes: “The way I see it, every life is a pile of good things and bad things. The good things don’t always soften the bad things, but vice-versa, the bad things don’t necessarily spoil the good things and make them unimportant.”
It is easy to lose sight of that when we are in a dark mental place. But Van Gogh’s artwork, Evan Hansen’s music, and other art help us navigate our own moments of being lost in our minds. We see that the good pile of things is always out there, whether it’s the beauty of stars in sky or just life’s little pleasures. That ability comes to us in turn, and when it does, we can show it to others by painting sunflowers, writing science fiction, singing songs from a musical, or just by saying hello.
When you’re the one receiving that message, suddenly you take to heart both the Doctor’s quote and Vincent’s even more exuberant extension of it, “It seems to me there’s so much more to the world than the average eye is allowed to see. I believe, if you look hard, there are more wonders in this universe than you could ever have dreamt of.”