Here Comes Your 19th Nervous Breakthrough

A Crisis Represents an Appetite for Growth That Hasn’t Found Another Way of Expressing Itself.

David Zahl / 4.15.21

A couple months ago, CJ highlighted an article that I haven’t been able to shake. I’m talking about “Bring Back the Nervous Breakdown” by Jerry Useem in the Atlantic.

The basic idea was that in centuries past a person didn’t need to have a diagnosable pathology to, occasionally, experience life as too much. The full-on collapse, especially during midlife, was not something that needed to be explained or even defended. It was not the end of the world, you might say, and we lost something important (and gracious) when we lost that permission. He writes:

For 80 years or so, proclaiming that you were having a nervous breakdown was a legitimized way of declaring a sort of temporary emotional bankruptcy in the face of modern life’s stresses. John D. Rockefeller Jr., Jane Addams, and Max Weber all had acknowledged “breakdowns,” and reemerged to do their best work. Provided you had the means — a rather big proviso — announcing a nervous breakdown gave you license to withdraw, claiming an excess of industry or sensitivity or some other virtue. And crucially, it focused the cause of distress on the outside world and its unmeetable demands. You weren’t crazy; the world was. As a 1947 headline in the New York Herald Tribune put it: “Modern World Viewed as Too Much for Man.”

The nervous breakdown was not a medical condition, but a sociological one. It implicated a physical problem — your “nerves” — not a mental one. And it was a onetime event, not a permanent condition. It provided sanction for a pause and reset that could put you back on track…

But in a society reflexively suspicious of rest, getting a restorative break tends to require a formal mental-health diagnosis. Otherwise, you risk getting called a slacker. 

It could be middle age, or it could be the pandemic, or it could just be East Coast life in the 21st century, but I feel like I’m surrounded by people having breakdowns. That’s just not what we call them. Flipping out, bailing on everything, blowing up your life, even deconstruction — these are the terms we’re more comfortable with, and we usually employ them in hushed tones that suggest something irredeemably scandalous. Which is too bad, since they all ignore the redemptive side of what’s going on (while upping the pressure to keep it together and thereby ensuring that the breakdown, when it comes, is that much worse).

A breakdown, according to Alain de Botton, is a long-overlooked inner conflict bubbling up. Those things we’ve consciously put to the side and ignored finally come to light to have their day in court. There’s a cost to always keeping up appearances or playing the role life’s given us, and the breakdown happens when we finally buckle under the mounting pressure.

Yet what looks like chaos from the outside is actually a bid for health. It “represents an appetite for growth that hasn’t found another way of expressing itself”. Look close enough, and you’ll usually find that there’s something God-given going on, in fact.

There’s an AA truism that says “pain is the touchstone of all spiritual progress,” and radical and unpleasant as it sounds, I think the line applies to life in the upside-down kingdom of God. It’s also profoundly good news, since so much of life is dictated by pain.

I also think of the apostle Thomas, about whom the lectionary spoke this past week, and his encounter with the risen Christ. Who knows how much grief Thomas was dealing with, or why he had broken off from the group the week after the crucifixion. All we know is that he was on his own and almost definitely in some kind of acute pain following the loss of his friend and teacher.

We also know that he had a double name, Thomas Didymus or Thomas the Twin, which is always worth paying attention to in the Bible. I like to think it signals that he wasn’t just a biological twin but someone who, like all of us, had something of a twin nature, a hidden inner conflict. That is, he contained more than one “person” within himself. Both devoted disciple and unsure unbeliever, who both craved belonging but went his own way.

Thomas was conflicted, in other words, just like you and me. And just like us, he experienced that conflict, or dis-integrity, as painful.

You’ll notice that his ultimate integration is not facilitated by willpower or argument. It comes through connecting with his savior’s own pain — or, more precisely, through Christ braving the locked doors to thrust his wounds on Thomas. That’s when he has his collapse: when he realizes that the wounds of God — and the breakthrough they represent — are real.

The breakdown culminates in that classic exclamation, “my Lord and my God!” You can hear the relief. The peace. The integration.

It’s no mistake that this longed-for singular focus is directed not inward but outward, toward Jesus himself, AKA God, AKA that-which-is-not-you. Clarity is not to be found within the human soul, always at war with itself. Instead, it is the result of something Other, graciously compelling our attention, often against our will, and in the midst of our manifold preoccupations and certainties and sufferings.

I doubt it was a one-time thing, by the way. Nor do I think it’s a coincidence that Thomas, as tradition has it, was the one who traveled furthest to spread the Gospel — all the way to the southern coast of India. Because there’s something deeply generative about a person who’s been allowed to break down in such a momentous manner. Something free, something dynamic. The opposite of a slacker, you could say. We should all be so fortunate.

May God precipitate such breakdowns in all of us this Easter, as non-explosively and with as little collateral damage as possible, and grant us the vision to see the hope they enact in lives of others.

What is it Buechner says? “Resurrection means that the worst thing is never the last thing.” Amen to that.