Borderline Personalities, Contentment, and the Good Fight
Borderline Personalities, Contentment, and the Good Fight
Rev. Christian Iosso, August 22, 2021
Texts: Proverbs 15: 32—16:8; 17: 19-24. I Timothy 6: 3-8, 11-16.
The book of Proverbs describes a love of wisdom that gives serenity, a fear of the Lord that protects against evil, a humility that deflates arrogance, a way of being faithful that brings peace. The result of following this wise path is that we have steadiness even in the “day of trouble.” It is not only a matter of emotions but of our ethical integrity. We are not tempted by that “concealed bribe.” We live with a sense of enough. “Better is a little with righteousness than large income with injustice” (Prov. 6:8).
The letter of First Timothy has a similar theme. The goal is hold to the grace of God with gratitude, not to be grasping or driven by envy. There is a kind of godliness where we are being changed by the example and Spirit of Jesus whose “faith, love, endurance, gentleness” is a conduit to God’s great love. In Christ, God chose the path of humility himself, and stayed steady even unto death by torture, to open the path of life and eternal life for us.
The writer of First Timothy is not St. Paul—the author follows the tradition of ascribing the letter to a greater predecessor. For some in the early church, only letters from apostles could be part of the New Testament. But the evidence in the text is that we are in the second generation of the church and some people are joining without a clear picture of what is involved. The author of Timothy does not mince words: if we think godliness is about gain, we will not get the contentment of faith. We must pursue righteousness or else we will fall into conceit, craving for controversy, and conflict. The opposite is to follow the Christ’s commandment and make a “good confession,” that is, to be found faithful in a time of testing.
For the authors of Proverbs and Timothy, faith means steadiness, integrity, good character. Being rooted in God’s love gives us a kind of self-sufficiency—it helps deepen and shape the self. Our dependence on God translates into an independence with regard to people. We are not the short-sighted self-centered person that Proverbs calls, “a fool.” We have that “cheerful heart that is good medicine,” or what Timothy calls, “contentment.”
But what if we can’t get to those feelings of steadiness and rootedness in God’s love? Let us put ourselves in the place of those who don’t feel the steady and serene path. There are actions of others that can seem like betrayal. What if other Christians have hurt us, deeply? What if you have seen a pastor crumple? What if our boundaries have been violated, or we think we have seen some kind of misbehavior? What if even the well-meaning efforts of church people seem boring? Don’t we need to shake things up with new ideas?
Underneath those external concerns about what others do, though, what if we begin to realize we feel an internal emptiness that nothing seems to fill? Whatever mistakes others have made, the problem is that we can’t get that “cheerful heart” for any length of time. Blaming others, catching their hypocrisy or self-righteousness—that does not make for the righteousness First Timothy describes. Some days, some moments, the path seems clear, we seek and experience forgiveness, we can handle the truth, we can care about what is really going on in another person. But then at other moments, we feel let down by their complacency, we let in envy or resentment, we write them off for the wrong word or an annoying mannerism. Why can’t they be different—in fact, why can’t I be different?
Then we may have the dread realization that we are different. Others can live a steadier life, but ours swings up and down, side to side. Emotions of rage alternate with desires for affection. We deserve love, we deserve the good things of life, but we can’t have them. We hear old tapes. Keep your distance, even when we long to be part of a group, that happy family, that band of brothers, that sisterhood of mutual support. Don’t ever admit to the weaknesses we feel—that will really drive people away—but we really don’t want them to get too close anyway, because then rejection will really hurt.
Sometimes the language of the church can feel rejecting. In the prayer of confession today, we heard Jesus’ words comparing human beings to God: “if you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who seek him?” (Luke 11: 13). Most of us realize Jesus is saying we are not entirely evil—but what if we think in black and white terms and really feel we are evil—shouldn’t we punish ourselves, at least a bit?
Many of us don’t get on that accelerator, but some of us find ourselves with self-doubt and waves of negative emotions. Some of us can trace it to trauma in our childhoods, even abandonment, or lack of role models for healthy coping. Others of us can never figure it out.
About 15 years ago, the Presbyterian General Assembly commissioned a study of how congregations could do a better job of including and caring for people with severe mental illness—schizophrenia, psychosis, deep depression. They found that for many people with these difficult diagnoses, even when they take the right medication and seem OK, they feel like exiles. They suffer from a sense of invisible exclusion from the normal, happy-enough world. They named their report, Comfort My People, from the verse in Isaiah we sing at Christmas about the exiles being welcomed home. (See: https://www.presbyterianmission.org/wp-content/uploads/3-serious-mental-illness-2008.pdf )
The Bible seems to take a lot of everyday stress and tension, anger and frustration, for granted. It does not promise automatic happiness anywhere but heaven, and even there it is more a matter of joy, of knowing as we are known. The way of wisdom may suggest that for everything there is a spectrum, a matter of degrees, and that many of us will experience a mental break at some point.
The idea of “borderline personality,” for me represents people for whom the steadiness and contentment of our texts seems foreign. I have tried to use “we” language and to put myself in the position of the person for whom the Bible’s prescription does not work. We are talking about constant mood swings, frequent lying, broken relationships, and often, no admission that anything is wrong, no willingness to seek help. Many of us know the title of the popular book by Jerold Kreisman, I Hate You Don’t Leave Me. I do not want to sound like a late night comedian throwing around words like narcissist that have complicated meanings. I do want to suggest that we live in a world of feelings and are sometimes helped by knowing a few warning signs.[i]
So what can we do if we know someone who may hurting beyond the usual hurt? Who may continuously break our heart and never appear to want to change? I want to suggest that we have a new dimension of what the book of Timothy called the “good fight.” We ourselves need to be steadier and wiser than ever. It can be tempting to want to punish people who really do hurt others without appearing to have conscience, self-knowledge, or respect for God’s righteousness. There are some treatments, (such as Dialectical Behavioral Therapy), which take time but can give people coping skills. The core of the Christian faith is that deep acceptance by God that does not deny the dark side. For those who find it most difficult to accept themselves, there is God’s forgiveness and the power of Christ on the cross to suffer with us.
We still live in this world, and for that I have a story about Kay Redfield Jamison, a psychiatrist and herself a sufferer from bi-polarity. (see her memoir, The Unquiet Mind).
“…she had conducted a workshop for children and youth ages 7-17 who struggled with manic depression or bi polar disorder. At the end of her presentation, a very young boy came up to her and reached for her hand and asked, “Are you really okay?” (The pastor friend telling the story notes that sometimes we experience the really deep, deep compassion of the young, especially those who have been wounded by the demons).
She replied, “Yes, I am okay.” As she hugged him, she heard and felt his sobs of grief and hope. Then she took out her keys and unclasped a rabbit foot charm. Giving it to the young boy, she said, “This has been with me in my journey, and now it will be with you.”
Dr. Jamison, a deeply wounded healer and bearer of hope, concluded her talk by saying, “Of course, he will need a lot more than luck to cope and live well.”
The rabbit’s foot may be a good, tangible gift. But it is a real fight and not a matter of luck. For all of us, that “cheerful heart that is good medicine” is also a decision, a matter of character, a matter of making a good confession. Let us remember to hug that young boy, and even to hug that adult who does not want to be hugged, even if we have to hug them in spirit.
In the name of the Creator, Sustainer, and Redeemer; Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen.
[i] An article in the Guardian sums up the common knowledge:
“Those affected can experience dizzying ups and downs, along with paranoia, impulsiveness, obsession, fury, catastrophic black-and-white thinking, identity crisis and an inability to self-soothe. Promiscuity, recklessness, self-sabotage, substance abuse, broken relationships and homelessness are all part of the territory.
Some estimates put prevalence at up to 2% of the population, though most metrics relating to the extent of mental illnesses are approximate. An estimated one in 10 people with BPD take their own lives – and a far larger cohort will try to do so…” https://www.theguardian.com/society/2020/aug/25/an-illness-in-the-shadows-life-with-borderline-personality-disorder
Some MD’s see the number of persons with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) likely to hold steady or even increase as the number of children exposed to homelessness and parental addiction remains substantial.