“Why did God give me mental illness?”

19 12 2010

This is Chabad.org’s answer to the difficult question of “Why did God give me mental illness?,” a subset of the age-old question of, “Why does God cause good people to suffer?” or the slightly easier, “Why does God let bad things happen to good people?”

If we think that this–“Why did God give me mental illness?”–is a good question to ask (see below for an alternative), then their answer isn’t bad. It boils down to:

1. God gives each of us both challenges and the means to overcome them. So God isn’t setting you up for failure any more than he sets anyone else up for failure. You may just have greater challenges than others, but that also means that God gave you better skills and talents for overcoming them. I found this thought very comforting when I was younger. I learned something similar about the Akeidah [binding of Isaac] when I was studying that in school–God tests those whom he is sure can pass the test. God only asked Abraham to sacrifice his son, his “only” son, Isaac, because he knew that Abraham wouldn’t.

2. God hopes that we’ll use these challenges and our talents at overcoming them to help not just ourselves, but also others. We may help others who don’t share our problems, as well as those who do. That was a huge motivation for me to start this blog and it also motivates each and every infrequent post. I need to take my pain and suffering and use it, as much as possible, to (a) show others that they aren’t alone and (b) show others that hope is possible, when I am feeling hope. (I only feel hope sometimes, but such is life.)

Of course, this answer is only good if we think that God gives us mental illnesses for a reason, as opposed to a more laissez-faire attitude towards theology, which is more like: God may be ultimately in charge, but he doesn’t make small decisions like deciding why I got depressed instead of my neighbor, Ms. Perfect. Good things happen and bad things happen and that’s how God wants the world to work, but he doesn’t muck around in the details. I have mental illness because of a combination of biological vulnerabilities and a crappy childhood, and it really sucks, but that’s just how it is. God lets bad things happen, but He doesn’t do them to us. (Likewise, God lets good things happen, but He doesn’t personally choose us to be the recipients of dumb luck.) Sometimes, it is easier to think this way. Certainly, when discussing the Holocaust or why innocent children die, it’s easier to think that God just kind of lets the cards fall where they may, based on human agency, in regards to the little details.

I am pretty sure that both attitudes towards God’s intervention in the world are defensible from a traditional Jewish perspective, but feel free to disagree.

Do you have other answers to “Why did God give me mental illness,” or think that Chabad.org’s answer is good, bad, or neutral? How do you deal with theology and your struggles in life?


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15 responses

20 12 2010
Marci

In some ways it’s refreshing to hear a take like that. When you think about it in a broader context, including other chronic conditions like cancer, infertility, fibromyalgia, etc. it makes it seem almost like there’s a purpose for our personal suffering. That thought is rather soothing.

Cancer is a bit of an exception, but other chronic conditions, like depression and infertility are largely transparent to the outside. On the inside, they’re huge, gaping, unmistakable wounds that seep at the best of times, and bleed profusely at the worst, but no one even notices. Fibromyalgia, insomnia, migraines; more silent killers. The pain is real, but because there’s no outward physical manifestations, people tell you to move on, to forget it, that it’s all in your head. And to hear, even once, instead of, “Well, maybe G-d doesn’t want you to have children. Maybe that’s not His plan,” “Maybe G-d wants to educate people on just how debilitating this condition is,” it’s amazing.

Instead of, “It’s all in your head;” a voice saying, “How can you make it better? How can you reach people? How can you take your blues and turn it into a blessing for the improvement of the world?” It’s not the sole thought that will get you out of bed in the morning, but it could be one of the thoughts that helps.

This doesn’t touch upon whether I believe it, although to some degree, I do. I know that your blog has touched me and helped me through some dark places, so I’ve seen the power of positive suffering in action. Why specifically you should have to suffer to help me suffer a bit less is paradoxical, and whether it’s a divine gift that you’ve been given, or an accident of circumstance is a theological quandary. It brings to mind the James Joyce quote from Ulysses, “…as well him as another…” Why you? Why me? That’s getting to the very heart of theology.

Why any type of adversity? To imagine there’s any single answer is foolishness, but why not this one? Why not this message of hope and promise, that my suffering will be transformed into the light and hope of others. That my pain will be treasured and my suffering made holy by virtue of the comfort and ease that following the path I’ve cut through my own thorns can bring.

22 12 2010
leah

I think I mostly wanted to comment to say thanks for this post, which really just hit home. The God question has been looming large for me for the past year plus. It’s funny–it never would have even occurred to me to frame it as “Why did God give me mental illness?” That’s just not my kind of theology. My question is more like “Why does God let me feel so alone?”

And I know that the answer has to be that it’s not God, it’s me who’s not letting God in. I accept that at some level. But at another level, it’s hard to accept when one feels like one is trying so hard and when one wants the connection so badly.

I could go on and on and maybe I will at another time but the long and the short of it is that last year at about this time, I started getting involved with a twelve-step group for people who share my primary coping behavior pattern. It was really helpful at first, but the longer that I tried to work on developing a relationship with a higher power, the more painful it became. It did do some amazing things for my davening experience for a while, as I connected to some of the pleading….But I never felt like I got anywhere and no one could give me any advice on how to get myself closer. “Just be open…” is not helpful. I stopped going to meetings for a while and then went back after about six weeks off. And everyone was talking about how much their higher powers were helping them. I left with a distinct feeling that my higher power must want me to be miserable or not want to have anything to do with me or something. Which gets back to this post. (I basically gave up on the group at that point, though I might go back were I ever to find the higher power connection I felt I needed.)

I don’t know exactly how to tie it back. I could say something about knowing that other people are also suffering lessening the sense of being alone. Sometimes it does. But it’s not what I’m looking for, if that makes any sense….

Maybe I’ll come back and clarify if I have some clarifying thoughts.

3 01 2011
Borei Hoshech

I am sorry for the delayed response to your two wonderful comments.

Thanks for your comment, Marci. It was really very uplifting and affirming. So, thank you.

Leah, thanks for your comment, too. I only really framed it as “Why did God give me mental illness?” because that’s how the Chabad website framed it. I honestly don’t think I would have asked that particular question, in those words, otherwise.

I sometimes think that the whole higher power thing is what keeps me from going to a 12-step kind of group/meeting for some of my own coping mechanisms that are fairly destructive. I don’t know. It’s hard. I honestly just don’t think about God most of the time. He doesn’t feel like a major character/player in my life the way that he once might have.

I also find, though, that it can be helpful to have a God to be pissed off at. My relationship with God, such as it is (positive, negative, apathetic–all are true at times), sometimes helps me because it helps me clarify my feelings. I find it easier, I think, to feel feelings *towards God* than I do towards myself, at times, or towards other people. Anger, embarrassment, shame, humility, pride, gratitude, desperation–all things I feel, and that, sometimes (really, only sometimes) a relationship with God helps me feel more clearly, and then understand things better as a result. I have trouble feeling feelings, so that may only be my issue, and not any of yours. I don’t know.

4 01 2011
feeling stuck

I think what Leah said is so profound. (Don’t worry Marci I liked what you said also)!…
…From what I was taught growing up in the Yeshiva World, the reason for suffering all boils down to G-d wanting us to reach out to him for help and ultimately making a connection to Him. If you think about it, isn’t intersting…I sit feeling very stuck, depressed like crazy, in and out of addictive behaviors, and I know fully that I just need to “let go and let G-d”, turn to HIm, submit myself to His Will and be VULNERABLE!!!…but it is the hardest thing in the world to do for me. I guess what makes it hard is the whole “G-d not being available to our 5 senses thing” and so I say to myself why bother, or who says He will really help me out, etc.
However, what I am starting to (try) and realize is that it is not about asking G-d for help per se…Yes, we want to feel G-d inside of us, feel close to Him, etc. But, we all know that when our behaviors are not “good”, that is what decreases the ability to feel close to Him. So therefore, the converse is true. When we do behaviors that are correct, (or should I say…that is in our best interest) it is easier to let G-d in.
So in conslusion to this Megillah that I am writing…when we are feeling down and stuck and hopeless, it is not about trying to “feel” G-d, at least in the beginning. It should only be about doing the behaviors and actions that we know are in our best interest I.e., Torah and Mitzvos (which of course include all the “mundane” aspects/activities of our lives, such as getting out of bed in the morning…etc) So, “Turning our lives and our will over to G-d should only be about actions and not worrying about D’vaikus and feeling close to HIm, etc. It should be about the mere knoweldge that we are doing actions that Hashem wants us to do which allow our feelings of guilt and shame to start to lift which will only then allow us to start “feeling Him”. But again, those feeling I dont’ think will necessarily happen right away.

In order that I can sound like a borken record I will summarize my point…I need to start taking one step at a time to do the actions I know are in my best interests which ultimately is G-d’s Will. The feelings for Hashem will com in time. I just need concentrate on the the simple fact that if I put on Tefillin this morning I submitted and did Hashem’s will. Even if I didn’t like it and had the worst Kavanah. I need to be happy and proud that I did what was expected of me. And in time, the Kavanah will come. But I am happy with myself that my actions were one and the same with Hashem’s.

I would love to hear feedback on this…I hope some this made sense…I sometimes get long winded about things so I apologize for all this being very lengthy.

19 01 2011
Marci

Stuck,
I don’t know that doing Mitzvot has necessarily helped me feel close to G-d. In a lot of cases, it’s made the emptiness feel more echoing. Like I’m heading towards a G-d who can’t be bothered to meet me partway. In those cases, I feel like that I’m in the Poltergeist hallway, where suddenly G-d seems even further away and the hall the longer the more I run down it.

Part of it is remembering that quote from Pirkey Avot, that you can’t serve the master with an eye towards reward. That feeling of closeness is a reward that maybe I haven’t deserved yet. I do subscribe to your “Nasey v’nishmah” philosophy; that the doing is the important thing and eventually the feeling will come after it, but I’ve learned not to wait for the feeling. Not to rely on it. That way lies further depression. When emptiness is returned for effort, it feels even more depressing and so I find myself reminding myself that I do these things for my own improvement, not to enhance my relationship with G-d. That this haskafia, this basic restraint on my nature, is for me. Anything that might come from it is an unexpected, probably undeserved blessing.

3 05 2011
Bob

The whole thing about letting go to let God in is that you don’t actually try to reach him. Rather, you simply allow it to happen. I find peace internally when I simply “let him in”. In other words, its not an act that you find God through conscious effort. God works in your life when you just stop thinking about it. I’ve seen him answer my prayers but only when I let go of it after I pray. If I start to obsess about it, I am only giving myself unnecessary stress. The result is much better if I just pray and then forget about it. The answers come in their own way and time.

12 12 2011
xx

god gave me mental illness beacause you have to be mentally ill to believe in it

20 12 2011
Jan

but my daughter who is bi polar and is on meds to balance out the chemical imbalance in her brain wont stay on the meds – i think when you have a disease that requires medication you have to stay on it – God has allowed doctors and scientists to develop medications that help with illnesses including mental illness but they dont do any good if you refuse to take them.

1 01 2012
Nicole

“Good things happen and bad things happen and that’s how God wants the world to work, but he doesn’t muck around in the details.” It doesn’t seem entirely logical to say for a fact what God does and doesn’t do. Maybe He is present in the very smallest threads of the tapestry that is human life and experience. If God didn’t want something to happen, it wouldn’t; everything exists or happens because God willed it to be so (even when I do something as trivial as walking left instead of right). I sure don’t know what exactly He’s up to, or if it’s even humanly possible to comprehend His actions until we speak to him personally. Can we truly attempt to paint a face as mysterious as God’s? This may seem like a petty argument (and it is off-topic), but human understanding of God is a big issue we must all consider at some point. All that being said, thank you for this uplifting article — I definitely needed some solace and answers.

19 02 2012
martin

You left out the part where chabad talks about turning the curse into something good. I thought their post on depression was very insightful, they said that those depressed happen to feel small. So they have the ability to recognize the small blessings in every day creation.

17 03 2013
Adriana

I just wanted to say thank you so much for posting this, I have been struggling with depression and anxiety and for a few months suicidal thoughts also, and although I know in my heart God only lets things like this happen to those who can handle it, seeing someone else say it, someone else who has also had struggles in their life really helped me, thank you so much.

7 06 2014
Jeff

Or God could just be a big jerk who likes playing favorites and making some people miserable. He sits up on His throne and makes choices….she gets the perfect life, he gets born without legs, she is born to perfect parents in the wealthiest nation, he is born to complete screw ups who abandon him to the trash heaps of the ghetto. And a million other ways in which he chooses some to prosper and some to suffer.

And that “God won’t give you anything you can’t handle”? First, it isn’t Biblical and second it’s a lie. If He didn’t give some more than they can handle, they wouldn’t kill themselves or reject Him.

26 08 2014
maryann

I know unkind people who I think need to learn more lessons than I need to learn. I wonder what God has in store for these jerks.

10 02 2016
Jeff

If God was looking to draw me near by giving me mental illness, then He made a MASSIVE mistake. It didn’t draw me closer, it drove me away. The real kicker is that he is supposed to know me so well that He would have known I would be driven away from Him. That means He did it for a reason, a reason that can NEVER be justified. I wouldn’t even wish this on Satan, and yet God afflicted me with it? And He wants me to love Him? You’ve got to be kidding.

10 02 2016
Borei Hoshech

Thanks for the great discussion, everyone!

God could definitely just be a big jerk.

And there definitely seem like better ways to draw humanity closer to God than by giving some of them mental illness.

You won’t get any argument from me on either issue.

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