The Wounded Self: The Religious Meaning of Mental Suffering

by Louis Dupre

Louis Dupré is T. Lawrason Riggs professor of the philosophy of religion at Yale University. A graduate of the University of Louvain in Belgium, he has received honorary doctorates from Loyola College, Sacred Heart University and Georgetown University as well as the Aquinas medal from the American Catholic Philosophical Association. He is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and a foreign member of the Royal Academy of Belgium. Besides studies on Hegel, Marx and Kierkegaard, he has published works on religion (notably The Other Dimension: A Dubious Heritage and Transcendent Selfhood) and on modern culture (Passage to Modernity).

This article appeared in the Christian Century, April 7, 1976, pp. 328-331. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


The ill of mind represent the alienation of all of humanity, symbolizing the human condition in its fundamental need for redemption. The condition of such illness could be instructive to “healthy” minds, reminding them of the precarious complexity of inner selfhood.

We usually speak of mental illness when the dynamic synthesis of diverse and often opposing forces which constitutes the self becomes seriously unbalanced. But such a classification is misleadingly selective, for the commonly recognized states of self-estrangement are certainly not the only possible ones, perhaps not even the most important ones.

Through the very awareness of their emotional instability the mentally ill are often more in touch with their real selves than are many well-adjusted persons. The forgetfulness of the self in routine work drudgingly performed, in conventional values unquestioningly accepted, in patterns of thought inherited but never interiorized poses an equally serious threat to any authentic self-realization. A person may spend a lifetime in such a stable but closed universe without ever approximating genuine selfhood. If despair means lack of possibility, as Kierkegaard thought, then the spiritually obtuse live all the more in despair as they are less aware of it.

The mentally diseased often find themselves at the opposite extreme. Oppressed by the necessity to choose between multiple possibilities, they find it hard to accept any particular determination of their selfhood at all. In his moving Images of Hope (Helicon, 1966) William F. Lynch has shown how a sense of endlessness is the main source of despair, in the mentally ill. "Perhaps this experience of the terror of endlessness occurs in heightened form in men of achievement and in the ill" (p. 74). The gifted and the sick (and the privilege of the former is often paid for by the curse of the latter) share a high sensitivity to the self’s infinite potential, but also a greater difficulty in achieving concrete self-hood.

This sensitivity may move some to high spiritual accomplishments, while others may be crushed by it, lapse into total insensitivity or adopt an inauthentic, presumably less demanding self. Both groups perceive how limited decisions slowly seal an unchangeable fate. Like the Greeks who equated destiny with character, persons afraid of their own possibilities tragically realize to what extent personal disposition may hold the seeds of their downfall.

Duality and Schizophrenia

The condition of the mentally ill should be particularly instructive to those who are "healthy," reminding them of the precarious complexity of inner selfhood. Or, in Lynch’s Platonic metaphor, the sick are ourselves, writ out in larger letters. Yet society appears to have little use for this object lesson and prefers to seclude the mental patient as a nonperson with whom society’s other members share no common destiny. Our way of treating the ill reveals our fear of entering into the murky depths of selfhood. To regard the mentally diseased merely as "cases" for psychopathology is a convenient way of escaping their message about the fragile condition of the mind as such. In selfhood the primary distinction is not the one that divides the sick from the well, but that which separates the developed from the undeveloped. The more complex the self, the more refined its awareness of itself, the more imminent the threat of mental disorder.

Existential psychiatry has revealed the universal significance of states of mind that we have all too lightly brushed aside as "sick." Schizophrenia is inherent in the nature of a self that is both interior to itself and exterior to others. In its essential duality the self is constantly torn between the mode in which it knows itself and the one in which others envision it. The schizoid person is uncommonly aware of this ontopathic condition. The inner self feels threatened by the outsider’s look. To safeguard that self, one hides it and tries to conform entirely to the way one imagines the outer self appears to others. One avoids being in order to escape self-destruction. In The Divided Self, R. D. Laing discloses the ontological significance of the schizoid attitude:

Thus, to forego one’s autonomy becomes the means of secretly safeguarding it; to play possum, to feign death, becomes a means of preserving one’s aliveness. To turn oneself into a stone becomes a way of not being turned into a stone by someone else. . . . The individual’s actions are not felt as expressions of his self. His actions . . . which I have proposed to call his false-self system, become dissociated and partly autonomous. The self is not felt to participate in the doings of the false self or selves, and all its or their actions are felt to be increasingly false and futile. The self, on the other hand, shut up with itself, regards itself as the "true" self and the persona as false [The Divided Self (Penguin, 1965), pp. 51, 74].

In severing appearance from reality the self creates an outward "persona" (in the original sense of "mask") which no longer reflects the inner self and which may eventually replace it. The cure of this illness, if there be any, cannot consist in a return to the "average" (which drove the self into hiding in the first place) but in the achievement of a new synthesis of selfhood. To the extent that they remain aware of their predicament, mental patients may be in a better position to gain authentic selfhood than "normal" persons, especially in a society that equates normality with hiding the inner self.

Self and Society

As a therapist Laing concentrates mostly on the social conditions that unquestionably define the concrete form of the conflict in our present culture. But his interpretation is clearly ontological; the whole process occurs as a battle between the powers of being and those of nonbeing. The alienated condition reveals a tension in the self as such, rather than in a particular state of society. We first need to understand the nature of selfhood if we are to determine which social and cultural factors obstruct its development. We then find that any society that denies the individual the possibility of spiritual growth and freedom estranges one from oneself, regardless of its material conditions and educational maturity.

Since sensitive persons are most likely to suffer from spiritual privation, a society’s state of mental health is also an index of its spiritual well-being. In a memorable essay Georg Simmel has made this point with all desirable clarity:

The ripening and the proving of man’s spiritual powers may be accomplished through individual tasks and interests; yet somehow, beneath or above, there stands the demand that through all of these tasks and interests a transcendent promise should be fulfilled, that all individual expressions should appear only as a multitude of ways by which the spiritual life comes to itself. This demand expresses a metaphysical condition of our partial and emotional existence, however remote it may seem from our real liLe in the world. It symbolizes a unity which is not simply a formal bond that circumscribes the unfolding of individual powers in an always equal manner, but rather a process of unified development which all individuals go through together ["On the Concept and the Tragedy of Culture," by Georg Simmel, in The Conflict in Modern Culture, translated by Peter Etzkorn (Teachers College Press, 1968), p. 28].

Most social-economic theories of alienation onesidedly ascribe the individual’s state of mind to external conditions, while the positive or negative quality of those conditions depends upon the mind’s own need to create a spiritual environment and must, in the final analysis, be judged by their success or failure to fulfill this need.

Religion’s Need for Alienation

All faiths share a close interest in the various forms of self-alienation. They keep the believer constantly aware of the alarming facility with which the self may disturb or destroy its own fragile synthesis. Their interest is not fortuitous, for the salvation which religion promises presupposes an unsatisfactory state of being that must be remedied. Indeed, religion stands so badly in need of that preliminary feeling of alienation that one may well wonder whether it does not itself create the very condition which it wants to remedy. In any event, while most men and women feel only intermittently, if ever, estranged from themselves, faith thrives on feelings of alienation and takes as its first task to boost them. where it finds such feelings insufficiently present. William E. Hocking perceptively observed:

Religion is often described as the healing of an alienation which has opened between man and his world: this is true; but we may not forget that it is religion which has brought about that alienation. Religion is the healing of a breach which religion itself has made, and if we could reach the original sources we must find them in man’s awareness of an Other than himself [The Meaning .of God in Human Existence (1912), by William E. Hocking (Yale University Press, 1962), p. 238].

Everywhere and at all times religion has taken healing to be one of its principal objectives. Though today no major faith would regard itself as a substitute for medicine, all of them continue to stress faith’s medicinal quality and most have spawned healing sects. Thus Christian Science may be alone in emphasizing the healing quality of Christianity beyond all other aspects, but this quality is closer to the core of their faith than most Christians care to admit.

The confrontation with mental sickness has brought out the best and the worst in religion. To eschatological faiths such as Judaism and Christianity, the triumph of good over evil is an ultimate ideal. Yet impatient for this ideal, faith may attempt to hasten its coming by witch-hunting, heretic-burning and religious persecution. Evil then is elevated to an obsessional object of negative worship, an antigod to be exorcised at any cost. To this mode of thinking nothing more clearly manifests the presence of the Evil One than mental sickness and emotional instability. Naturally inclined to regard mental illness as the work of strange spirits, humanity has been all too ready to interpret it as a symptom of satanic possession. The victims often willingly accepted the part forced upon them by their persecutors in order to secure for themselves a negative identity when society denied them a positive one.

The main quality inherent in such a treatment of the insane is fear -- the fear of a mysterious evil which is ultimately a fear for one’s identity. By exorcising or imprisoning those who are different, people try to protect themselves against the threat to their own identity. But all that is salvaged by such an attitude is the shell that closes off the possibility of authentic self hood.

Nor must we assume that our enlightened times have replaced the behavior of the "dark ages" with open-mindedness. In no previous epoch have the mentally sick been more carefully secluded from society. Whereas nonaggressive patients once remained in the family or moved into another normal community specially equipped for adopting a certain number of the mentally ill, today we lock them up except when practical obstacles (mainly financial) discourage us from doing so.

Healing the Human Condition

Despite outbursts of fanaticism, the Christian faith has throughout its history maintained a deep humanitarianism sorely missing in today’s secular views. I cannot but recall my early experiences as a high school student in the Flemish town of Geel. A pilgrimage place for those suffering nervous disorders and an open colony for the insane since the 13th century, the town has traditionally accommodated the patients in local families and allowed them to partake of almost all aspects of its daily life. Everywhere one encounters them working in the fields, doing errands, worshiping in church, attending children or, if they are children themselves, playing or going to school.

I cannot imagine a more humane attempt to alleviate an unparalleled variety of mental misery. The religious origins (preserved in the legend of a chaste Irish princess who was beheaded on this location by her demented father) are by no means fortuitous to the nature of the arrangement. For it is inspired by a vision of the sick as men and women who in their suffering were chosen to represent the universal alienation of all humankind. Mental degradation symbolizes the human condition in its fundamental need of redemption.

This attitude, I believe, has its roots in the profound religious concept of human alienation. The existence of religious health resorts since antiquity, the expulsion of "evil spirits" in the Gospel, sacramental prayer over the sick -- those practices signify far more than a surpassed stage in the history of medicine. They symbolize that salvation itself is healing and that all actual healing is part of the redemptive process.

This connection is particularly valid for mental sickness. When confronted with the mentally ill, Jesus does not elicit faith before curing them, as he is wont to do for other diseases, but first "liberates" them. For the mental patient is a captive, closed up in an unreal self and, like the deaf-mutes of the Gospel, unable to listen as well as to speak. He is in despair if despair means, as Kierkegaard thought, shut-upness. Unable to relate, vertically and horizontally, he cannot reach out and be in touch with his own transcendence. He needs to be cured before anything else, and the primary religious assistance consists in healing, whether the healer be a minister, a physician or a counseler.

The Solitude of Suffering

In regarding mental illness as symptomatic of the diseased general condition of humankind, faith relativizes the simplistically absolute distinction between the sick and the well, and calls attention to a deeper, less obvious level of selfhood. In the eyes of faith we are all diseased, and salvation must be to all what is so evidently needed by some -- a healing of the self. Yet religious healing never simply coincides with an ordinary cure, even for those whose physical or mental health is fully restored.

If the true disease lies beyond the obvious illness, the cure also must reach beyond the symptoms. Mental suffering itself then is assigned its unique place in the all-comprehensive plan of salvation. It creates the solitude in which alone persons may find genuine transcendence. Only in suffering -- and all suffering, whatever its origin, in the end is mental -- am I most totally alone. My suffering is exclusively mine: it bears my name as no other experience does, because it isolates me from others. Only this painful isolation gives access to the bottom depth of selfhood -- the locus of transcendence -- which remains unsuspectedly hidden to the untroubled mind.

This is the meaning of Kierkegaard’s brutal saying that most people do not feel sick enough to accept faith. His own mental disarray, culminating in the breach of his engagement, illustrates the existential significance of suffering as presupposed by the religious doctrine of redemption. In a short entry in his diary Kierkegaard describes how he experienced the complex dialectic of suffering in his relation to Regine Olsen:

My greatest pleasure would have been to marry the girl to whom I was engaged; God knows how much I wanted to: but here again is my wretchedness. And so I remained unmarried, and so I had the opportunity of thinking over what Christianity really meant by praising the unmarried state [Søren Kierkegaard’s Papirer, edited by P. A. Heiberg, V. Kuhr and E. Torsting (Copenhagen, 1909-48), X2, A 61. Alexander Dru, The Journals (New York, 1938), #970].

Only suffering can convey the feeling of insufficiency, without which the human person experiences no need of salvation. The condition of the mentally ill keeps alive the awareness both of the self’s hidden depth and of its insufficiency. It is an object lesson that aids us in finding meaning for our most private and most painful experiences. The present trend is to ignore that lesson and to remove its inconvenient reminders as far as possible from the daily traffic of life.

In the same spirit modern thinking tends to regard a person’s religion as the sum total of his or her mental inadequacies. This view may contain more truth than its contemptuous holders suspect. For without an awareness of basic inadequacy no genuine awareness of transcendence can exist. Yet it loses sight of the fact that religion is not a desperate attempt to cope with matters that cannot be handled otherwise, but a positive vision in which personal suffering is needed for spiritual growth.

Here it appears clearly how the alienation of which faith speaks so often (in its doctrines of sinfulness, of the fall, of redemption) is more than a mere interpretation of experiences that allow a different one. Alienation is first and foremost the awareness of a fact without which religion and its interpretations could not exist. Far from inventing or coloring a particular experience, religion gives expression to a primary experience. It still may well be the most comprehensive expression, because faith alone has sounded the full depth of the experience.

Though we are all acquainted with suffering and feelings of self-estrangement, our ordinary objective ways of articulating them make it easier to suppress than to express the experience. We talk in order to classify in a universal, objective scheme, as a controllable "problem," that which is neither universal nor controllable. Suffering remains strictly each person’s own experience which he or she is unable to share with others. Putting a common label on mental anguish is necessary for medical treatment, but is misleading if we expect the label to reveal the true "nature" of the experience. For suffering possesses none but a private nature, which means no "nature" at all. It speaks out of the most intimate privacy of my selfhood.

To be sure, religious terms are abused as commonly as medical ones. Such phrases as "sinfulness," "insufficiency" or "the need of salvation" may be just as impersonal as psychological ones, and a good deal vaguer. It cannot be our intention here to pit one against the other, but rather to draw attention to the fundamental experience expressed, however imperfectly, in religious doctrines. What those doctrines mean is more than a universal description of the actual state of the world: they describe the most private and most fundamental awareness of insufficiency. As such they reach to the heart of the self.