I discovered an interesting mystery working In-Patient Psychiatry for almost thirty years: I discovered that our staff rarely admitted happy patients for treatment.
Regardless of a person’s psychiatric diagnosis – depression, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or any other psychological set of disorders – we turned away happy people. Some potential patients presented with auditory or visual hallucinations, which create serious problems sometimes. But hallucinations or not, if they seemed happy, they were sent by staff into outpatient treatment.
In contrast, folks we almost always admitted for in-patient treatment presented not only with a psychiatric disorder, but, also, they felt angry, very sad, paranoid, or actively suicidal; and, their mood served as the deciding factor for admission to In-Patient Treatment.
This mystery perplexed me for years, until one day it occurred to me that families, friends, and communities reached out to care for happy people regardless of a person’s problem or set of problems. Happy people lived unthreatening lives, allowing average people, however we wish to define “average,” to go along with their lives without too many discombobulations or other interruptions.
For example, sometimes on a walk through downtown Salt Lake City, I noticed an occasional person hallucinating, chatting with themselves or with some invisible person while waiting for the traffic light to let them cross the street. They sometimes smiled and laughed out loud.
“Average” people walking along the same sidewalk noticed that person’s odd behavior and maybe thought twice about them. Yet, without exception, they simply walked past the happily hallucinating person without apparent reservation. Overall, no one appeared alarmed as if saying to themselves, “Oh well. There’s no harm chatting merrily with one’s self, is there?” Life went on as usual. No one appeared compelled to rush Mr. or Ms. Chatty Person to the hospital for immediate treatment. The sense of an impending crisis never surfaced. And, frankly, I often got to chatting with them, myself, starting with “Hey. How’s it going?” They often became welcoming; and, sometimes their response to me struck my funny bone, like, “I know I never met you before, but you look like you ought to be a pastor.”
Take the same situation, but this time our hallucinating Mr. or Ms. Chatty Person starts angrily yelling at cars passing by and begins making threats to passersby, and shakes a fist at one or two people walking along the sidewalk. Not before too long, someone might say to themselves, “I sense an impending crisis. Time to intervene. This could get dangerous.”
See the difference? One happy and merry person, although acting oddly, eventually lands across the street when the light allows; however, the angrier, although equally odd person, might earn a free trip to a treatment facility, like one where I once worked.
Each person’s mood served as the only difference in outcome.
The author of Philippians summed up this difference fairly well, writing, “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near.” (Philippians Chapter 4: 4-5, New International Version)
If we successfully train ourselves to rejoice and to feel happy, the author of Philippians teaches how our mood creates a gentler world. Rejoicing and experiencing a happy mood achieves more than making a decent day for ourselves. Rejoicing, joy, happiness – whatever word you choose – transforms our world.
The challenge, of course, arises from billions of people who practice dozens of religions and who speak hundreds of different languages and who develop completely different opinions about life’s meaning, and who can quickly and easily engender conflict. If we found and practiced ways to rejoice and live happily despite our differences, then our world becomes gentler, encouraging most to reach out to one another.
Put succinctly, mood matters. Christian or non-Christian, mood matters. What we say matters less than how we say it. Being a different creed, race, religion, or culture matters less than how we talk about our differences.
So as our biblical sage writes, “Rejoice… I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all.”
How about transforming our world this way right now?
Tom Towns is pastor of First United Methodist Church in Cortez.