Honoring the Nestorian Christians

Tuesday, August 16, 2011


A Book Review by Fred Vergara on…

Uncovering the Links Between Leadership and Mental Illness
By Nassir Ghaemi (Penguin Press: New York, 2011)

(I take time off from writing my own thoughts in order to introduce to you this new and fascinating book on leadership.-Fred Vergara)

There is such a thing as an “inverse law of sanity” and great leadership operates this way: “when times are good, when peace reigns, and the ship only needs to sail straight, mentally healthy people function well as our leaders. But when our world is in tumult, in times of great crises, mentally ill leaders function best.”

This is the essential assertion of this book by psychiatrist Nassir Ghaemi. There are four key elements of mental illness (depression and mania) that appear to promote crisis leadership. They are: realism, resilience, empathy and creativity. Ghaemi theorized that “depression makes leaders more realistic and empathic.”

Some well-known and effective he mentioned a having some form of mental illness, include General William Sherman of the Civil War era; Ted Turner of the cable media greats; Winston Churchill of World War II era; Abraham Lincoln, the acknowledged father of the American nation; Mahatma Gandhi, the acknowledged father of modern India; Martin Luther King, Jr. of the American civil rights and John Fitzgerald Kennedy, one of the most globally-admired presidents of the United States. These leaders, Ghaemi claimed, succeeded in their leadership, “not despite of but because of, their madness.”

While these abnormal people succeeded as leaders, there were some normal people who failed in their leadership. He mentioned particularly former President Richard M. Nixon, McClellan, Lord Chamberlain, former President George W. Bush and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Of course, there are also mad leaders who went the extreme way to infamy such as Hitler, Stalin, and Mussolini. These three had severe depressive episodes or egomaniacal behaviors and instead of accentuating the positive side of their mental illness, they veered towards the destructive side. The book also explained the ambiguous effect of the power of drugs. Consider for instance his assertion that John F. Kennedy’s experience with anti-depressant medicines heightened the positive aspect of his mental illness while Hitler’s drugs ironically exacerbated his egomania.The results in their leadership were extremely different.

The author wrote that there are three basic personality traits, namely: dysthymic or introvert; hyperthymic or extrovert; and cyclothymic or in-between, a little of both. That one is mentally-ill does not necessarily mean one is insane, out of touch of reality or psychotic. Most common behavior is not in abnormality of the thinking process but in abnormality of moods. Clinical depression is different from ordinary sadness. “The depressed person is mired in the past; the manic person is obsessed with the future...the depressed takes her life; the manic ruins hers.”

Repeatedly, the author suggests there is a close link between insanity and genius and that the initial stages of depression or mania are sometimes of benefit to leadership in times of crisis. He quoted a German psychiatrist, Ernest Kretschmer who said the best crisis leaders in history were either mentally ill or mentally abnormal and the worst crisis leaders were, ironically, the mentally healthy. “The brilliant enthusiast, the radical fanatic and the prophet are always there, just as the tricksters and criminals are---the air is full of them but they flourish only during crisis. In peacetime, they are our patients; we rule them. In crisis periods, they rule us.”

Science makes probabilities claims; it is not usually about proving that something is always the case, or never the case. Almost all science is about showing a greater probability that something is usually the case. In most scientific matter, especially in medicine and disease, no single exception is a disproof. The preponderance of evidence represents scientific knowledge.

“We will see that our greatest crisis leaders thrived in sadness. When society is happy, they are there seeking help from friends, family and doctors. Sometimes they’re up; sometimes they’re down, but never quite well. Yet when calamity occurs, they are in a position to act, they can lift up the rest of us, they can give us the courage we may have lost temporarily, the fortitude that steadies us. Their weakness is, in short, the secret of their strength.”

Psychologist Jamison put it this way:”in times of adversity, inspired leadership offers us energy, a hope where little or none exist, a belief in the future to those who have lost it, a unifying spirit to a splintered people.” The reason for this is that people who had suffered some form or depression or manic have a better sense of reality, more empathetic and more resilient than those who had none.  The experience of suffering makes one become more realistic about the world. For the lucky, suffering is less frequent, less severe, and delayed until it can be avoided.  For the unlucky, who early in life endure hardship and tragedies, or the challenge of mental illness, seem to become, not infrequently, a greatest leader.

The author also differentiated three kinds of empathy. Cognitive empathy means thinking another’s thoughts; affective empathy is feeling what others feel; and motor empathy means moving the way another moves. The ultimate empathy is called “pseudocyesis.” For example, a husband who gets morning sickness just like his pregnant wife; his stomach gets bloated like that of his wife; he feels pain and contraction during her wife's birth pangs. This is called pseudocyesis- false pregnancy, the ultimate empathy.

The author spared no great leaders in his list of mild mentally-ill persons. Of Martin Luther King, Jr. he quoted the Rev. Joseph Lowery who said, “To achieve social change, you have to be a little crazy. All leaders of the civil rights revolution were a little crazy, including MLK.”

The book is so fascinating that I read it in one setting right inside the bookstore that I did not have to buy it (sorry Barnes & Noble---but I bought other books too). While reading the book, I remember many years ago when we were moving house in Manila. My brother-in-law who was then president of the Philippine Psychiatrists Association engaged one of his mental patients to drive a borrowed garbage truck to assist us in moving furniture. I was amazed at his driving skill, maneuvering the truck even in a very narrow gate but I could not help but be anxious knowing he was a mental patient . When I expressed my concern, my brother-in-law said, “Don’t worry, he is in his lucid moment.”

A moment of madness, can be a moment of greatness? Read this book to find out more.

Sunday, August 7, 2011


 ‘O Lord, thou hast put salt in my mouth that I may thirst for thee.’ So fill us now with wisdom and understanding and may the words from my lips and the meditation of all our hearts, be acceptable to thee, O God, our Creator, Sustainer and Sanctifier. Amen.
Texts: Daniel 7:9-10; 13-14; II Peter 1:16-19; Luke 9:28-36
Fact is sometimes stranger than fiction and reality is harsher than imagination.
A story is told of a man looking for a job in New York City. With the current economic recession, the only job he was able to find was in the Zoo. The job? Pretending that he was a monkey! All he had to do was to put on a monkey costume, swing from tree to tree, eat bananas and peanuts and he will be paid a minimum wage. So that’s what he did. One Saturday, a group of kids visited the zoo and despite the warning not to feed the animals, they insisted on feeding the monkey with so many bananas and peanuts. So he got sick in his stomach and as he swung from tree to tree, he felt dizzy and fell into the lions’ den. He was so scared especially when one of the lions was coming straight towards him. So he began to scream and shout “Help, help.”   The lion, roared and said, “Buddy, if you don’t shut up, we’ll both lose our job.”
The story of the transfiguration of Jesus illustrates to us that fact is stranger than fiction and reality is harsher than imagination. The apostle, Peter, in his epistle swore that this was not a cleverly devised myth but an event he witnessed personally.
In this story Jesus was transfigured before the eyes of his disciples, Peter, James and John. In their sight, Jesus’ face shone like the sun and his raiment turned dazzling white like snow. It was like the vision of the prophet Daniel in the Old Testament about the appearance of the One on whom dominion and kingship and glory are given, the One who was to come into the world. Not only that the three disciples saw Jesus transfigured; they also Moses and Elijah, an allusion that Jesus was to be the fulfillment of both the law and the prophets.
The sight was too wonderful to behold that Peter, unable to control himself, offered that they all stay in the mountain and he would build three shrines: one for Jesus, one for Moses and one for Elijah. Resurrection has come on top of the mountain so why should they go down to the valley and into the City of Jerusalem where Jesus would undergo rejection, suffering and death? Like a person who has fast-forwarded a vide tape of a movie and got a glimpse of its ending, Peter wanted to freeze the experience of elation and not go through the whole mess, the twists and turns in the drama of human redemption. In other words, Peter wanted a religion without sacrifice; gain without pain; resurrection without crucifixion.
Undoubtedly, many of us are like Peter. We preach it is wonderful to be Christians but we will not go to all the trouble of proving that creed in the life that we lead and in the relationships that we create. In one recent survey in America, it was revealed that the ratio of divorces are practically the same for those who profess to be Christians and those who do not. And the ratio of broken families between liberal Christians and evangelical Christians are the same. It is hard to build community and even harder to maintain it because we do not have the patience to listen to one another and to deal with conflicts in humane and Christian way. The Anglican Communion is breaking because we, who profess to be joined by the “bonds of affection” can be as proud, arrogant, unforgiving and intolerant of one another. Even as we pray the Lord’s Prayer and remember His intercession that (we) “may be one… so the world may believe,” we hold on tenaciously to our theology of self-preservation than put our trust in God who “holds all things together.” As one old country song says, “Everybody wants to go to heaven but nobody wants to die,” not the least to die to ourselves and our built-in resistance to the unpredictable movement of the Spirit. 
In many churches, not the least among those which we know, many young people would prefer to be in the pubs and the bars and the night clubs because they sensed more genuineness, honesty and transparency in those secular fellowships. They coached their quest as “spiritual but not religious.” Among the adults, the secular world provides a stiff competition on Sundays as bargain sales and sports and great TV programs are offered. Among the new immigrants, despite their hunger for spiritual comfort, they are attracted working on Sundays because the pay is higher. The value of offering our bodies as “living sacrifices” has lost its appeal in the contemporary church where consumerism and the concept of the good life has been paganized.
So Jesus said to Peter. “Let us linger no more on the top of the mountain. Let us go down to the valley and to the city; for there I shall be rejected, I shall be mocked, I shall be spat upon, I shall be beaten up, I shall be crucified;  I shall die---and on the third day, I shall rise again.”  It was a summon for self-transcendence and self-sacrifice; it was a call to go down from the fictionalized ideals of a life without stress; a challenge to immerse and embrace the world with all its thorns and thistles. It was a call to take up the cross.  
Perhaps what we (the Church) need today is a new transfiguration. We need to die from our self-fulfilling prophecy and self-preserving theology so that we may rise again and live genuinely as an authentic Christian community, a community of self-transcending faith, hope and love, the community of the crucified and risen Son.
The concluding remark from the Transfiguration Story was a voice from heaven, “This is my Son, my Beloved, listen to Him.” Indeed, there is no true religion without sacrifice; no gain without pain; no resurrection without crucifixion. The fact is stranger than fiction and the reality is hasher than imagination. May we listen afresh to the Voice. Amen.

Homily of the Rev. Dr. Winfred Vergara, Asian American missioner of the Episcopal Church Center,
815 Second Avenue
, New York, NY 10017 delivered at St. John’s Anglican Church,  Notting Hill, in the Anglican Diocese of London on August 7, 2011.
Notting Hill is famous as the title of the book whose author, Richrd Curtis, lives just across the church. The book was made into a movie starring Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts.
The vicar in this beautiful and culturally diverse St. John's Church is the Revd. Dr. William Taylor and they host the London Filipino Chaplaincy coordinated by Rev. Salvador Tellen from the Iglesia Filipina Independiente.