Friday, March 27, 2009

Little Gray Cells of the Soul

First Baptist Church of White Plains, N.Y., hosts a monthly "Movie Night" in which members gather for food and a great old film. This month's show is A Beautiful Mind, Ron Howard's 2002 bio of John Forbes Nash, the Nobel laureate and famous psychotic.

Like most films, Mind flirts with reality but generally misses. Russell Crowe, who portrays Nash, is handsome, dimple-chinned and charming. Nash, on the other hand, is skinny, pasty, disagreeably eccentric, and -- well -- creepy. Crowe's Nash is faithful to his wife. Nash's Nash is unreliable and deceitful. Ultimately, the real Nash is as funny and charismatic as your dull old math professor, assuming he had been nuts. (The real evidence lies in JFN's actual Web page at Princeton:

Even the movie's scenery is illusory. When Crowe and his imaginary friends seem to stroll through Princeton's leafy campus it may take a clergyperson to divine that the scene was filmed elsewhere. Not because it requires metaphysical acuity but because the scenes were staged in the inner courtyard of Union Theological Seminary in Manhattan. (You've also seen Union portraying the fictional Hudson University and other academic backdrops in the Law and Order Series on the NBC and USA networks.)

The Hollywood gimmickry used to show the inner workings of Nash's mind makes psychosis seem like a diverting experience. His dark delusions take on celluloidal flesh in the form of his college roommate Charles (Paul Bettany), Charles' niece (Viviene Cardone) and the mysterious Defense Department operative William Parcher (Ed Harris). The predictably trench-coated Parcher, aware of Nash's mathematical genius, enlists Nash to search for Soviet codes in American magazines and newspapers. 

Of course no such Soviet plot exists (they were never that smart) and soon Nash's wife Alicia (Jennifer Connolly) senses there's something amiss about using layers of magazine clippings as wallpaper. She arranges for her husband to undergo a regimen of insulin shock therapy and psychotropic drugs and soon the likable cadre of imaginary friends -- Charles, the niece, Parcher -- disappears. And just when theater goers had started to think of them as  BFF, best friends forever.

It's a great story up to this point, and screenplay writer Akiva Goldsman did a creditable job of rendering the unfilmable recesses of Nash's mind in screen metaphor. In real life, Nash's psychosis was more arcane. The delusions were real, the dangerously obsessive behavior was real, but there were no imaginary friends for comfort and diversion. Nash had to face it all in the dank solitary confinement of his brain. Real life for Nash was a horror show unlike anything on the screen.

And that is what makes his story so compelling. In the film, Nash laments the fact that the drugs drain him of emotions and prevent him from making love to his beautiful wife and he decides to forego the treatment. He resolves to use the power of his exceptional brain to remind himself that his paranoid delusions are not real and to set them aside, in effect pretending they don't exist.

As any therapist or sufferer of paranoid schizophrenia will tell you, that's quite a trick, possibly even impossible. The very nature of the illness is that the delusions are convincingly real, realer than reality. I once knew a woman who believed she was a man and had the genital evidence to prove it. She thought others who could not see it were crazy, not her. It takes more than mathematical genius to sort out that something is not real when your senses tell you it's real. 

Viewers of A Beautiful Mind are invited to conclude that John Forbes Nash accomplished the impossible and used brainpower alone to free himself of paranoid delusion. Maybe it happened, maybe it didn't, but film viewing is always an experience of suspending one's perception of reality to allow the mind to be entertained. Too, there may be other clinical explanations for a remission of crazy, and one can only hope they will be explored in an episode of House, M.D.

But groups like the First Baptist Church of White Plains may view the film with more than a clinical eye. John Forbes Nash's story attracts attention not only because his mind is beautiful, or above average, but because of underlying questions of what the brain represents. As Mind reminds us, the fragile brain is the dwelling place of personality. Somehow, in ways medical science is only beginning to sort out, the little gray cells and and electronic synapses are the stuff of everything that is us: thought, perception, reason, emotion, humor, and love. 

Mental illness disrupted the synapses in Nash's brain. Oliver Sacks, in a series of books on the brain, reminds us that tiny lesions, strokes or tumors can change everything about us. Nice people become nasty, loving people become hateful, Alzheimer's patients lose the memories of their loved ones, and -- as Sacks notes -- men mistake their wives for hats. Of all the scary maladies the human species faces in a lifetime, brain anomolies are among the scariest.

For people of faith, the ultimate question is this: if the little gray cells in our heads are the architecture of our personality, is our soul contained in the urn of our skull? If our brains cease to function normally, what happens to our soul? 

People of faith believe that the eternal soul is a temporary resident in our frail bodies, and the soul is liberated to life in abundance when the body dies. But where is the soul when the brain is altered while the body lives? What is the state of the soul in a paranoid schizophrenic woman, or in an Alzheimer's patient whose memories have gone, or in a severely retarded boy or, for that matter, in a sociopath who never feels the pangs of conscience? In the inner recesses of the mind, does a whole and healthy soul reside awaiting the liberation of death?

Nearly a year ago my family and I lost a dear friend to leukemia, a 23-year-old man with autism. Joseph, our daughter Katie's best friend, was disabled with pervasive developmental disorder (PDD) and he lacked the cognitive skills to live independently. He talked and acted like a much younger child. He may never have fully comprehended the nature of his terminal illness, yet despite it all, he was loving and empathetic and had a most beautiful soul.

Some time after he died I dreamed I was in our kitchen, talking to Joseph. I can't remember the topic of conversation, but I noticed immediately that his vocabulary, diction and expression were free from the signs of his lifelong disability. He was talking with the calm reason of a mature and thoughtful young man. 

I tend to think that dreams are random images that your brain throws off during REM sleep and I won't attempt to analyze this one. But I suspect it suggests an unconscious assumption we all share. 

Whether we have beautiful minds or not, we all have beautiful souls.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Outrageous Bonuses

Exclamations of pain and disbelief greeted news that the National Council of Churches has given bonuses to its employees.

"How do they justify this outrage?" asked President Obama when White House Religious Affairs Director Joshua DuBois informed him of the NCC action.

Even before the President's outburst, DuBois had found himself the target of bitter criticism from Republican leaders in Congress.

"Why didn't DuBois do anything to stop the NCC?" asked Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Ia), pounding the podium with his fist. "And why did he take so long to inform the President?"

"Oh my God," said House Republican leader John Boehner, carefully spacing out his words. "The real question is what the White House knew about this and when did they know it?"

National Council of Churches General Secretary Michael Kinnamon sought quickly to clarify the nature of the bonuses.

"These are spiritual bonuses," he said. "Their value cannot be calculated in material terms."

Examples of the bonuses included additional stars on previously granted crowns, enhanced luster on old robes and eternal leases on heavenly mansions (of which there are many), Kinnamon explained.

"We don't hand out these bonuses to all our employees," he added. "Only to those we wish to retain."

Asked about the bonuses during an accidental turn into the White House press office, DuBois said they were small in relation to rewards handed out by other churches and their impact should not be exaggerated.

"The President is confident that his recovery package is supported by the American people, financial-wise and spiritual-wise," he quickly said before his exit was blocked by Helen Thomas.

But Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said the NCC extravagance could indirectly end President Obama's honeymoon with the Congress.

"Sure, the NCC bonuses have no financial value," McConnell said, "but their moral and ethical value is incredible. The fact that so many of our business and political leaders were morally and ethnically bankrupt is what got us into this mess in the first place."

It is "patently unfair to hand out these perks to NCC staff instead of to thousands of spiritually impoverished bankers who have no hope of ever seeing them," he said.

President Obama said he agreed the American public had a right to be angry at the NCC bonuses but he saw no Constitutional remedy available to him.

"The wall of separation between money and souls is guaranteed by the First Amendment," Mr. Obama said.

But the President, a United Church of Christ layman until his resignation last year from Chicago's Trinity UCC, said the NCC bonuses "don't make me feel good about moving my membership to a church in an NCC member communion here in Washington."

Kinnamon said the President "has the same right as all Americans to worship where and how they please," and he declined to release the names of NCC staff who had received the bonuses.

Even, so, Kinnamon said, "In the public interest I am asking those employees to return their bonuses, at least in part."

Asked for specifics, Kinnamon shrugged.

"Half the stars, anyway," he said. "And a mansion or two."