Warning Reading: A Mental Health Hazard

Warning Reading: A Mental Health Hazard November 18, 2010

My whole body feels like it’s moving underwater. Every move, every emotion is weighted.

I’m not sick.

I’m heartsick.

This is more than just a winter season and a lack of sunshine. It’s a reckoning. Not a despair because if there is anything I am absolutely certain of it’s that God is good, God is faithful and we are neither.

I want a job where I don’t care. I want to get up in the morning, eat my breakfast without thinking about those who go hungry. I want to be able to take a hot shower without thinking about the foul water in Haiti. I want to be able to turn up the heat without thinking about who slept on the streets last night. I want to fill up my car and not think about my son who doesn’t own a car and who spends far too much time in his life trying to figure out how to get from point A to point B, and the thousands of others like him. I want to have coffee with a friend without wondering if her husband is safe in Afghanistan. I want to open a book and read it without worrying about whether books will exist in 10 years. I want to write a book without worrying about whether the message of it is commercial enough to appease some publisher. I want to have a friendship without wondering whether that person is a real friend or just somebody who thinks I’m the person who can help propel their career while mine languishes. I want to be able to choose whom I associate without being categorized as either uppity or a loser.  I want to be able to snuggle up to my husband at night and not think of the dozens and dozens of young war widows sleeping alone. I want to dream through a night without hearing the cries of children abused and neglected.

I know there are people out there who go throughout whole days & sometimes years without thinking. I want to be the person who talks about Kate Middleton and the wedding of the century. I want my biggest worry to be the froth on my Starbucks. I want my biggest decision to be what I should wear today. I want to go to a beachhouse, stare at the waves and wait for sunset. I want to spend one week without reading anything.

Reading ruins a person.

It makes them think.

And if it’s the Bible they are reading, all the worse.

Because then thinking isn’t enough.

Then you have to do something.

Then you have to care.

Because that’s what real religion is. That’s what James said. Real religion is caring.

You can read it yourself but I caution you, reading is dangerous. Reading James in particular can be hazardous to your mental health:

 Anyone who sets himself up as “religious” by talking a good game is self-deceived. This kind of religion is hot air and only hot air. Real religion, the kind that passes muster before God the Father, is this: Reach out to the homeless and loveless in their plight, and guard against corruption from the godless world.

Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

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  • Debbie

    I feel this kind of angst most days too.

    • Karen Spears Zacharias

      You should try turbokick. That helps.

      • Debbie

        It might all have to do with what Star Captain see’s.

        • Karen Spears Zacharias

          Not everyone sees things the same way.

  • Karen, M (my husband of 58 yrs) and I read…read…read. You’re right…it’s dangerous. We both care about all the things you wrote about; we do what we can to make a difference. Do we do enough? We try, but it’s never enough.

    We were in Ethiopia for a year; those visions of the misery around us will never disappear. We worked in the ‘real’ China for 2-1/2 yrs. before returning to the US in 2005. We do what we can, when we can…wherever we can.

    Our next door neighbor began an organization called “Children of War – Children of Hope”…working w/the Sudanese government to adopt war orphans. We help her all we can. This woman is an angel…and it’s slow going due to the corrupt Sudanese government. We help her as much as possible.

    I’m thankful for everything we have; God blesses us exponentially and we try to pass it on. Is it enough? No, it isn’t but we do better at it…day by day.

    Yes, reading is definitely a mental health hazard! It more than pricks the conscience…sometimes it even moves one to do something about it. Imagine that???

    • Karen Spears Zacharias

      I can honestly say I have never wanted to shoot a book. Not like that fella in Alabama who shot his TV set last night. So maybe watching TV is a mental health hazard too.

      • It is if it’s the Sarah Palin reality show!

  • I know exactly what you mean, Karen.

  • Steve Taylor

    Last night I was at Eastern Mennonite University for lectures presented by Ched Myers and Elaine Enns (http://bcm-net.org/). Following the discourse, as we gathered about in the back of the chapel, I met a fellow who had stood and asked a few questions during the discussion. His name was Earl. Aside from the fact that Earl was about 6 feet, he reminded me of the miniature gnomes my mother had on her mantle. Small figurines with shiny bald porcelain heads, wide smiles, white beards, and gleaming eyes that, had they been real, you knew were a sure sign that they were just about to commit some utterly delightful mischief. Earl’s eyes had that kind of sparkle.

    Earl described himself as a carpenter. A simple job for simple and honest man, he laughed. Yet as we talked I found myself more and more amazed by his “simple life.” As vocation, he had worked for the Mennonite church in earlier days. During the Vietnam War and for a few years afterward, even after regime change, he served as a peacemaker in the Central highlands. His primary task, he noted, was helping villagers clear mines and weaponry and unexploded ordinance that continue to maim and kill and destroy long after the shooting has ended. Picture that – tall white guy moving through a war serving folks on both sides of the conflict as peacemaker, caregiver, and servant. Probably wondering when the next bomb would fall on him or mine would rip his body to shreds. White American, not truly cared for by the Vietnamese he was there to serve, surely despised by the soldiers who were placing those mines and dropping those bombs.

    It was an incredible conversation. I was humbled. Simple carpenter, right.

    At the end of the conversation, I offered to him that over the summer I had made a new acquaintance. Seems she had written this book about real stuff, had taken on a bit of the nonsensical and deadly prosperity pabulum. I noted that I had picked up another one of her offerings, something about discovering an “authentic Jesus.” Told him that I thought he would like both of them, but the one I thought he would like most of all was this other book, the one of a woman facing her fears and living into her pain. The one about losing her daddy in that nightmare. The one of war and peace and discovery and hope and life. I told him that these days I wasn’t thinking of her simply in terms of writer or blogger or story-teller but as a real person worthy of calling friend. Besides that, I said, “She is just damned funny and delightfully snarky.”

    The simple carpenter, who has lived such a real life, exploded in laughter. As only those who have born the pain of it all inside their souls can do.

    Thank you my sister, for being real.

    • Steve:

      Earl, who described himself simply as a carpenter, not only worked under “challenging” conditions in war-torn Vietnam, he has a master’s degree (in international relations, I think) from Stanford University. I can hear him exploding in laughter as I type this. Wonderful man.

      • P.S. I didn’t mean to imply that Earl is not an actual carpenter. He is. He has done work on my house, actually. It is just that Earl has layers and layers of depth to his life. He wrote a (out of print) book about his experiences with living as a pacifist volunteer service worker through the transition from U.S. domination to Vietnamese-communist rule in Vietnam. It is titled Reaching the Other Side by Earl S. Martin.

        • Karen Spears Zacharias

          Thanks for sharing this with us, Bonnie. Appreciate it. Having been to Vietnam, having been to the Central Highlands, I appreciate what kind of work Earl must have been doing there. One of the most whoo-whoo moments of my life happened while two other gals and I were walking the red dirt road of Ple Mei. No one around in this remote village. We were handing out gifts to the children when all of a sudden one of the gals stops and says, “Do you hear that?”
          It was the Beatles song “Yesterday.”
          No idea where the music was coming from. But it was a tune all of our fathers would have known. It was haunting and beautiful. Walking down the red, red road, hearing those lyrics echo around us. Who knew the angels in heaven sang Beatles songs?

        • Steve Taylor

          Bonnie, thanks for filling out the discourse a bit. Yes, it only took about 10 seconds of conversation to know that Earl is truly a person of incredible depth and compassion. Meeting him was a gift. I think you must be richer for knowing him.

          • Karen Spears Zacharias

            Is Earl going to join us here?

          • Steve Taylor

            Hope Earl will join us. His offerings would be rich. He took the address.

    • Karen Spears Zacharias

      Thank you, Steve, for the trench work you do. And for trading in the combat boots for the cheerleader skirt from time to time.

      • Debbie

        I thought what Steve had to say was very special.

        • Karen Spears Zacharias

          Yes. It was. Steve’s terrific that way.

  • John in PDX

    You should go sailing. Anybody who worries about Lucky the Chicken needs to go sailing. Sometimes a poem is just a poem.

    Luke 4:23 King James Version


    • Karen Spears Zacharias

      I like sailing. It’s a little cold for it now. I’m not poet, but I seriously doubt that a poem is ever just a poem.

  • Scott Eaton

    Karen, I think being heartsick is part of following Jesus. He looked over Jersusalem and saw that the people were “harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” and it stirred compassion within Him. In a word He was heartsick. I guess if we’re serious about following Him we will be too.

    • Karen Spears Zacharias

      I must have missed this page in the Four Spiritual Laws booklet. I only remember the Wonderful Plan part.

  • No, Karen. You don’t want to be that person. Well, maybe just for a short while. What you want is for people to stop being so completely self-absorbed and selfish. You want people to believe in who God is instead of what he can do for them. You want people who claim to understand the price paid at Calvary to actually start acting like they do. (Or maybe that’s just me…)

    • Karen Spears Zacharias

      What I want is to come to take you & Billy & others to the beach with me.

      • Can I come, too?

        • Karen Spears Zacharias

          Of course.

  • Layne

    Oh, but we’re so gifted and creative at rationalization –

    • Karen Spears Zacharias

      We get early training. It pays off.

  • Diane

    That’s the bad part about reading…so much of the time the truth hurts!

  • This is so powerful and deep. I feel this way a lot, too. I don’t know how to respond other than saying, “I’m right there with you my friend.”
    Carrying the weight of the troubles of our society, or the world, is enough to break one person. I wish I could say there was an easy way not to care, but there isn’t. I can’t even convince myself … but I do know this: I love the way you care.

    • Karen Spears Zacharias

      Why do my good friends have to live so far away?

  • Kim

    reading does ruin. my chief job as a teacher is to ruin my kids…for less, lives of less.

    • Karen Spears Zacharias

      Ahh.. how I know this. Husband teaches.

  • Some years ago, Professor Nysse took time out during a break in one of our Old Testament classes to observe that not only was Lamentations a part of the Judeo-Christian canon. It was acceptable as worship and praise. John is right. Sometimes a poem is just a poem. Sometimes. Sometimes, it’s life. Take this bit of God’s poetry.

    About nine years ago, Professor Nysse was treated for rectal cancer. He will live the rest of his life wearing an ostomy bag. It gets interesting when he flies…

    TSA agent: Step over there, sir, and open your shirt.
    Prof N: It’s my ostomy bag. You don’t want to see it.
    Prof N: Yes, ma’am; but you don’t really want to see it.
    TSA agent: OH, MY GOD!!!!! (looking away and motioning virogrously) STEP ON THROUGH, STEP ON THROUGH!!!!

    His lamentation, God’s poetry. Poetry in a bag…

    • John in PDX

      I have that happen all the time and I don’t have an ostomy bag.

    • Karen Spears Zacharias


  • I’m a full time seminarian. Reading sometimes puts me into a fog of depression. I think these are all great ideas, but how do they help the homeless man I talk with at the gas station each week? God if there is a connection help me find it?

    • John in PDX

      You are already doing it. I know the 13 people that I meet with every week (and maybe a few more times) – it helps to have somebody listen. I am pretty sure with most of them – I am the only person they may talk to on that day.
      Wait – on second thought – maybe it’s because I am bringing food.
      Anyway – I read a lot but I am like a Walla Walla Meritage. I mix it up a bit. Keeps me happier.

      • Karen Spears Zacharias

        I think John in PDX is right about this. It does feel like we can never do enough but the important thing to remember is, as another author I enjoy says — tend to your own backyard.
        It’s just that in this cyberworld of ours, the world seems to be our own backyard. It’s overwhelming.
        I just got off the phone with a pastor whose church is 14,000 members. I can’t even begin to understand the burden a pastor of a 14,000 member church feels. It gives me water on the brain and makes my head heavy.

  • Awareness and compassion. I don’t think they are dangerous for mental health, I think they are mental health!

    • Karen Spears Zacharias

      Sometimes I prefer tequila.

  • Mary Cooke

    I started Kristof’s Half the Sky. It starts out with information about the trafficking of young girls, too much for me at times. Then I see people upset because their cruise ship broke down or DWTS has a Bristol crisis. Watching TV is almost more dangerous for me.

    Karen, I have managed to read three books by you since finding you on here several months ago. You are inspiring as are many of the people who comment here and are obviously friends. THis season is hard for people who care as we watch consumerism and greed abound. But we also take heart in the message of peace. Find time with your family and those friends….the beach sounds good!

    • Karen Spears Zacharias

      Good sound advice, Mary. Thanks for sharing it. The beach does sound good. Headed there next week for Thanksgiving actually. You? Where are you headed?

      And thank you, too, for mentioning me in the same post as Kristof. I’m humbled.

      • Mary Cooke

        My husband and I will be here in Richland having some friends over. And for Christmas, I am off to Waycross, GA to see my sisters. Have a good holiday.

        • Karen Spears Zacharias

          You, too, Mary. Have a blessed holiday.