Q: You have mentioned in previous columns being a former member of the ordained clergy. Why former? Are you still involved in church work today? — T.O., Little Rock, Ark.
A: In the nine months since we added Tuesday’s Asking Human Matters to my regular Sunday column, yours is the sixth time I’ve been asked this question. I didn’t respond the first five times. Not sure why I’m responding now.
Am I still involved in church work? In the broader sense, the work I’m doing today is virtually identical to my previous life as a parish priest. I provide people a context of meaning, safety and encouragement in which to confront themselves, learn, suffer, celebrate, grow. I teach. I communicate a vision of human wholeness and authenticity.
Same vocation. Different location. Different audience. And so much more room to breathe.
But if you’re asking specifically if I’m any longer serving institutional religion in a professional capacity, the answer is no. I’ve returned to civilian life, as it were.
Ever read Ken Kesey’s 1962 novel “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”? Or seen the film adaptation starring Jack Nicholson? The setting is among the patients and workers at a mental institution.
In Kesey’s story, you meet our hero, R.P. McMurphy, a con man who pretends to be a mental health case to avoid a prison work farm. He challenges authority. He teaches the mental patients to be sane.
You also meet Nurse Ratched, the ward superintendent. You don’t like her. Kesey describes her as “enormous, capable of swelling up bigger and bigger to monstrous proportions.” As you keep reading, you wonder if she’s a very good psych nurse. Pages later, you wonder if she’s helping the patients. Still later, you wonder if she’s hurting the patients.
But it is worse still than all that. In the end you discover that Nurse Ratched needs the patients to be sick. She conscripts the patients to maintain the polished persona necessary to avoid confronting her own injured and insecure self.
Billy is a 31-year-old stuttering neurotic. McMurphy sneaks two prostitutes onto the ward late at night, one of whom spends the night with Billy. When Nurse Ratched arrives on the scene the next morning, she is outraged. Billy comes hopping out of his room, pulling on his pants, to the applause of the other patients.
“Aren’t you ashamed of yourself,” says Nurse Ratched, voice dripping with the very shame she so desperately needs Billy to wear. And, for the first time in his life, in the company of a powerful woman, Billy, utterly sane, sets his gaze and says, without stuttering, “No, ma’am.”
I’m not advocating sex workers as part of the regular treatment plan for psych patients, but who cannot see this tawdry romp has been a healing intervention for Billy? He is in this moment wholly himself.
Off balance for but a few seconds, you can see the feral intelligence of a new idea bloom behind the nurse’s eyes. “Well,” she says smugly. “We’ll see what your mother has to say about this.”
Billy begins to stutter again. He begs Nurse Ratched not to tell his mother. They take him back to his room, screaming. Billy breaks a glass and cuts his own throat. Kills himself.
Only McMurphy sees the evil as evil. He jumps on Nurse Ratched. Attempts to choke her to death. For his trouble, he gets a lobotomy.
But I think McMurphy’s real crisis happens earlier in the book. Nurse Ratched leads group therapy. McMurphy is dumbfounded, incredulous to learn that he is the only patient in this hospital who is remanded there. Every one else is free — totally free — to leave the hospital at any time. But they don’t leave. They remain passive. In effect, they agree to both obedience and unwellness because they are, in the end, just as invested in Nurse Ratched’s persona as she is.
No one cares. This is McMurphy’s real horror. His unspeakable pain.
Thus endeth my little allegory.
I didn’t leave because of Nurse Ratched. I left because it finally occurred to me that, collectively speaking, everyone was just fine with Nurse Ratched.
I left before they gave me a lobotomy.
Steven Kalas is a behavioral health consultant and counselor at Clear View Counseling and Wellness Center in Las Vegas. Write to him in care of the Review-Journal at P.O. Box 70, Las Vegas, NV 89125.STEVEN