A MINISTER BEGAN TO PREACH by saying, "To start with, I'm just as neurotic as everybody else," and there was an audible sigh of relief from the entire congregation. Anxiety, depression, hypochondria, psychosomatic aches and pains, fear of things like heights and crowds—there's almost nobody who can't lay claim to at least a few of them. They involve an utterly fruitless expenditure of energy. They result in an appalling waste of time. Yet maybe there's something to be said for them anyhow.

Neurotics don't lose their sense of reality like people who think they're a poached egg or that somebody's going to blow poison gas under the door while they're asleep. You might even say that they have a heightened sense of reality. They sense everything that's really there and then some. They don't understand why the peculiar things that are going on inside their heads are going on, but at least they're more or less in touch with what's going on inside their heads and realize not only that they're peculiar themselves, but that so are lots of other people. That's probably why neurotics are apt to be more sympathetic than most and, unless their particular neurosis happens to be nonstop talking or antisocial behavior, why they make such good listeners.

You wouldn't want one of them operating on your brain or flying you across the Andes in a jet or in charge of things when there's a red alert, but when it comes to writing poems and novels or painting pictures or even preaching sermons, it's hard to beat them. Their overactive imaginations, which are a curse elsewhere, are a blessing there. Personally speaking, their oversensitivity may be their undoing, but professionally it's one of their strongest cards. They may see and hear and feel more than is good for them, but there's no question that, with the exception of their immediate families, it's good for everybody else.

"A thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan, to harass me, to keep me from being too elated," Saint Paul wrote to his friends (2 Corinthians 12:7). Nobody knows just what the problem was that he was referring to, but you don't have to read many of his Letters to suspect that he would have been among those who sighed with relief at the minister's opening confession. His violent swings of mood from deep depression to exaltation. His passionate likes and dislikes. His boasting. His dark sense of guilt. Almost certainly it was some sort of neurosis that was bugging him. Three times he prayed to God to get rid of it for him, he said, but God never did. Maybe it's not so hard to guess why.

A psychological cure would no doubt have greatly enriched Paul's own life at the time but would have greatly impoverished generations of his readers' lives ever since. "Through his wounds we are healed" are words to be reserved only for the most grievous Wound, the holiest Healing (Isaiah 53:5). But maybe in some small measure they can be applied to people like Paul too. Their very hang-ups and crotchets and phobias and general quirkiness give their kind—and, through them, give us—insights into the human heart that few can match. It's a high price for them to pay for our comfort and edification, but where they come closest to a kind of oddball holiness of their own is the feeling they give you sometimes that even if they could get out of paying it, they wouldn't.

-Originally published in Whistling in the Dark and later in Beyond Words

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