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June 24, 2018

Demons of Dismay


Anthony Bourdain was a chef, author, and documentarian known for exposing his audience to things unseen and parts unknown of our world. He was found dead in a hotel earlier this month, an apparent suicide.


In his acclaimed TV series, “Parts Unknown,” Bourdain said that he had “some dark genie” inside of him.[1] It drove him to heroin. Bourdain eventually got clean, but that “dark genie” seemed to reside. He talked about a sense of isolation, that he was “kind of like a freak.” Bourdain confessed to his viewers that an “insignificant thing” like a bad burger in an airport could lead to a “spiral of depression” lasting for days.[2]


Ending his life was a live option for Bourdain. He revealed to his audience, “There have been times, honestly, in my life that I figured, ‘I’ve had a good run—why not just do this stupid thing…jump off a cliff into water of indeterminate depth?’”[3] That “dark genie,” or as others have said, “those personal demons” pushed him off that cliff at the age of 61.




A Gerasene man said that he was “Legion,” that many dark demons resided in him. He was isolated, living among tombs on a hillside sloping to the sea. His personal demons made him a danger to himself and others. People restrained him with shackles and chains, but the man broke free. He was cast out to live among the dead, in caves near a cliff edging the Sea of Galilee. There, he shouted in dismay as he hurt himself. There must have been times when he figured, “why not just do this thing…jump off the cliff into those waters of indeterminate depths?”




The Gerasene man was said to have an unclean spirit. In the modern world, it can be said that he had a mental illness or psychological disorder. But in the ancient world, people had no other way to talk about the dark thoughts and moods that cause destructive behavior. Now, many agree that depression, bipolar disorder or schizophrenia is caused by a mix of genetics and the stresses of circumstance and situation. Back then, many agreed that such disease and disorder was caused by demons. It is no longer helpful or right to make such judgments. And yet, we still call the resulting dark thoughts and moods “personal demons” because they plague people without consent. No one chooses such anguish. Mental illness is a disease. Its pain is a force against our will. While not a demon, it is demonic.[4]


The Gerasene man was isolated, pushed beyond the margins of society. His civilization had insufficient means to help him—they shackled and chained him. He was removed to an indecent place that only worsened his state. Two thousand years later the same thing is done. People who suffer from mental illness or psychological disorders are isolated, made to feel like freaks. Without adequate insurance coverage, affordable and respectable care, or even resources to find appropriate help, many who suffer end up on the streets or in detention centers which have proven to worsen symptoms. Understanding of mental illness has advanced, but our society is far behind in providing necessary care.


Mental illness is treated as if it is something only a few suffer. However, according to the National Institute of Mental Health, 1 in 5 U.S. adults live with a mental illness like depression, bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, or severe anxiety. That is nearly 45 million people.[5] With so many suffering, we must now address the stigma. Even though more is known than ever about mental illness, negative beliefs about it have increased on account of how it is portrayed in news media, TV series and movies. People who suffer in this way are often believed to be incapacitated or more capable of terrible violence. Because of these beliefs, the suffering are kept at a distance. They are excluded. They are isolated.


It is widely agreed that mental illness is caused in part by the stresses of an event or a place. One thing that has always caught the attention of readers is that the demons of the Gerasene man are called “Legion.” A legion was a regiment of around 6,000 Roman soldiers. They occupied the region to enforce order and submission to the Roman Empire. The demons that oppressed the Gerasene man signify the oppression of the Gerasene land. Roman domination caused psychic distress and mental anguish. The Gerasene man symbolizes what happens when people are forced into submission and oppressed. There is both physical and mental torment.


I cannot imagine the mental anguish of being separated from my son, but this is the pain experienced by under-documented and detained parents across the nation. This is the agony of at least two men now in the Ordnance Road Detention Center in Glen Burnie. It is the distress of children taken from their parents. And it is the darkness of families detained indefinitely for being dubbed “illegal.” This is a nation that not only fails to care for psychic distress but creates it.   


The Gospel of Mark describes the grim situation of a suffering man in the 1st century. I have described the situation of psychological suffering today. It is no less grim. But Mark tells us that Jesus entered into this situation. Jesus traversed a stormy sea in order to meet a dangerous and detached man. Going there would have been difficult for him and his disciples. They were Jews and this was a Gentile land. Jesus went to tombs and beheld a man in contact with corpses. His religion taught him this place was defiled. He ought not to go there. Nevertheless, he went. Jesus joined this man in a place no others would go. His presence as much as his power healed the Gerasene man. We don’t know how long it was that Jesus remained there. But in his presence the darkness was dispelled. The man did not jump off the cliff to waters of indeterminate depth; Legion did, that “dark genie,” those personal demons were driven to the depths of the sea to die. Jesus came close and Legion fled far.


“What can you do when you see someone else trapped in his mind?” asks Andrew Solomon in his award winning book, The Noonday Demon. “You can, sometimes, manage to join someone in the place where he resides. It is not pleasant to sit still in the darkness of another person’s mind, though it is almost worse to watch the decay of the mind from outside. You can fret from a distance, or you can come close and closer and closest.”[6]


I don’t think he meant to, but Solomon describes what Jesus did for the Gerasene man. While everyone else feared at a distance, Jesus’ faithfulness drew him close. Jesus went to the place the man resided. He ended the isolation.[7] He went to the darkness of the tombs and came near a man with an even darker frame of mind. He listened to the cries of dismay. He acknowledged the self-inflicted wounds. He sat there until, as Mark says, the man was “in his right mind.” Jesus stayed until the man was renewed.


We marvel at the climax of this story, when Jesus commanded thousands of demons into thousands of swine who then plunge off a cliff to death. But the marvelous part of this story is in the beginning, when Jesus went to a place of darkness no one would go. Even more, he took his disciples there as a way of saying, “any who wish to follow me must follow me even here.” Jesus went to the dark places, the tombs, he went even to hell. His light dispelled the darkness. And Jesus Christ imparted his light to us so that we may go to those consumed in darkness, that they might see the light of day.


After the suicides of musician Scott Hutchison, fashion designer Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain, all in a short time, news articles and social media posts included pleas to call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline. This is surely one way that our society is trying to meet the needs of the suffering. But this alone will not do. Those who have wrestled with deep depression and suicidal thoughts and have made it through alive attest that what saved them was the faithful presence of another person. A friend of mine recently wrote that the only reason he stands on this side of things is because a friend rolled up his sleeves and entered the void for him.[8] Another friend said that a well-placed text from a faithful friend was enough to expel the demons of the day. The Gerasene man proclaimed throughout his land that what saved him was the man named Jesus who entered his dark world and healed him with the power of his presence.


When the Gospel of Mark tells us that Jesus took along his disciples across a stormy sea to the land of Gerasa, it is saying that this is the work of the Church. We go where Jesus goes. We go where Jesus is. In the margins. In the shadowy places. In the places of distress. In the detention centers. In the homes of the hopeless. And we go to do as Jesus does. We dispel the demons of dismay with our presence. We pray the prayers that otherwise can’t be spoken. We hold onto hope for those who have lost it. We keep faith for those who can no longer believe. If we are the body of Christ, this is what we do.




The horror of mental illness, especially depression, is in the isolation. The despair is in the sense that even the outstretched hand is not able to be held. The distress is in the doubt that anyone will catch the fall. The misery is the feeling the depths are indeterminate. The fear is in the forsakenness.


And yet, the story of Jesus Christ is that of God entering a world of darkness, God bearing sin and sorrow, God on cross and in tomb, and God beyond the grave. There is nowhere God has not gone or is not now in. There is no suffering God does not know or is not now in. God’s hand is not outstretched, it already holds. Isolation be damned. Nothing—not demons, disease, or disorder—can finally separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. Let us show that this is the case wherever we can.




[4] I am indebted to Kathryn Greene-McCreight’s Darkness is My Only Companion: A Christian Response to Mental Illness and Marcia Webb’s Toward a Theology of Psychological Disorder for their discussion of mental illness and Christianity.


[6] Andrew Solomon, The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression, 436-7.

[7] Solomon, The Noonday Demon, 437.