God and Neurological Illness

Doctor putting human puzzle together
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His scream sounded inhuman.  He was maybe twenty years old, sitting up in his hospital bed. His wife’s arms were wrapped around him as she tried to whisper words of comfort, tried to stop the constant animalistic cries. She was there, she told him—she would never leave him. They had been married less than a year.

By all accounts, the motorcycle accident hadn’t been his fault. Another driver just hadn’t seen him. But his brain injury didn’t care whose fault it was. It was there now, for the rest of his life, making a mockery of whatever hopes the young man had once held for his future.

Most people don’t see this side of life. It’s more comfortable ignoring it. We can understand that everyone hurts sometimes, and even that death eventually comes for everyone. But what about this?

Making Sense of Random Events

What about seemingly random events that don’t just hurt, don’t just kill, but rip away chunks of who we are and leave the tattered remainder to struggle with what happened? How are we to make any kind of sense of the universe’s need to paralyze a bright young woman, to give a brain-devouring disease to a budding scientist, or to cause a child to forever lose the little steps they had made in learning to speak?

In times of illness, many people turn to faith and prayer. Neurological illnesses can shake those foundations. Why would a God who creates such horrors ever deign to answer us? The truth is that many neurological illnesses remain incurable. It’s easier for many to reject the idea of God altogether. Even if there was a God who did this, why should we bother with a deity who evidently cares so little for us?

The Black Hole of Neurological Disease

Neurological disease puts a special spin on the age-old “question of evil” which has plagued believers for centuries. This isn’t just suffering in the sense of undergoing pain or death. Whereas death offers the possible comfort of someone’s soul passing on to a better place, neurological illness can brazenly toy with the very notion of a soul. Brain disease can change personalities, make someone act coldly, steal memories or our abilities to do those things at which we once excelled, such as relating to those we love. If someone’s brain is altered by a disease, at what point do their actions or personality reflect their disease rather than who they “really are?”

Even in the story of Job, when the good man faced a devastating series of divinely directed disasters, he remained Job throughout. How would the meaning of the story change if Job lost his ability to, well, even be “Job?” What if he lost the part of the brain that allowed him to cope, or to understand? What would his suffering have meant then?

I can’t hope to answer these questions in one article, or even at all. Religion and spirituality is a very personal matter, and everyone will find their own answer. I just want to acknowledge that if the neurological illness has raised these questions in you, you’re not alone.

For me, the loss of bits of ourselves, like the loss of any other dear belonging or friendship, makes one reflect on what could be more permanent and meaningful. For me to cope with neurological illness, I must think beyond anything my brain is currently able to do. What's most meaningful is no longer the “me” that is in my head, the “me” that can be taken piece by piece until my body is an empty shell. There’s another “me” that exists in the minds of others, in their memories, and in how I’ve changed how they may go about their lives. I’ve said before that “we are our brains,” and I believe that. But I also believe that part of who we are is in others’ brains as well. With that taken into account, I feel I can gain some perspective even on the cruelties of neurological illness.

I don’t know that this offers any comfort to those suffering from neurological illness either in themselves or others, but if that describes you, I do wish you the most meaningful comfort you can find, however, you may find it.

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