It’s natural—perhaps even biologically sound—to shun the afflicted. In this way, we’re no different than other animals who practice this form of social hygiene. We fear infection from illness, and the disruption that comes with psychological instabilities. Our limited reserves of personal energy — our limited time — is precious.
Moreover, we balk at hopelessness. Most of us are unable to simply bear witness to another person’s despair; we are action-oriented, we want solutions. Our culture in particular is obsessed happiness. A flourishing industry of books and motivational speakers insists that such a thing is sustainable. If you are lonely or angry or crazy — or just living what Thoreau called “a life of quiet desperation,” solutions abound: perform an act of service! Get a pedicure! Clean something! If one method fails, try something else.
God help you if you don’t keep trying.
Consider how easily we excommunicate from our cult of hope the willfully self-destructive.The addicts. Those who won’t take their medications. Those we deem “toxic.” The Biblical story of Legion is a beautiful, terrible example of this human tendency, and how far back it goes.
I can’t remember a time when I didn’t know this story. But re-reading it recently, I was struck by its poetry. A man living among the tombs, either banished or waiting to die. The story refers to the chains he’s smashed; Legion could not be controlled; “… neither could any man tame him,” the scriptures say. “And always, night and day, he was in the mountains, and in the tombs, crying, and cutting himself with stones.”
The story of Legion awed me as a child. He was like a comic book villain, terrorizing a village, bursting his chains with superhuman strength. As an adult, I see Legion differently: a fugue of mental illness. No one what knows what to do with him. He doesn’t know what to do with himself. Crying and opening his flesh lets out the confusion and darkness within him. Blood is easy to understand. It explains something beyond words to anyone brave enough to look. It explains him to God. It explains him to himself.
Is there anyone in the Bible more wretched? If Legion were alive today, he’d be in an institution, sitting in a wheelchair, drooling on his pajama shirt. Or he’d be on the street, ragged, smelling of urine, haranguing passersby over imagined insults. Unloved at best, Legion’s horizon is without any hope beyond death.
Then Jesus comes and speaks to him. Asks his name. Respects his requests.
The “demons” entreaty that they not be sent “out of the country” could be merely practical. If we are to believe that the man himself is speaking, he likely understands that if sent into the neighboring lands, he will presumably be treated with even less tolerance. A more esoteric reading of this request — as one made by actual demons — begs the question: why ask not to be sent away, only to be released moments later from the bodies of the pigs? Are they itinerant devils, assigned to wreak havoc among the Gadarenes? Or do they fear Christ banishing them from the Kingdom of God—His creation—effectively ending their participation in it?
Why, above all, does Christ respect the wishes of a devil? By granting the wishes of these “evil spirits” he is colluding with them to increase the suffering they bring, making it even more widespread. Two thousand pigs could very well represent the livelihood of all or most farmers in the village. The economic ramifications would have been quite serious. The villagers respond with fear and outrage, never mind that one of their own has been restored to them. For the first time, Legion’s destruction has touched their lives, and their anguish is manifold.
This, I think, was Jesus’ point: there is no such thing as individual suffering.
Because we are temporal beings, we tend to understand ourselves individually rather than corporately. When in pain, we believe our pain is unique. Like wounded animals, we withdraw, ashamed or unable to endure others’ feeble ministrations. When we are not in pain, we shake our heads at the suffering of others. We try to defend ourselves from it by making it disappear, by calling it bad luck or a punishment for poor choices — choices that we are too wise to make.
But joy and suffering are the weather of the soul. The winds that scour give us shape; searing droughts make us grateful for rain. Floods destroy the temples we’ve built within ourselves, tearing what is precious from our hands, leaving a plain of silt.
It seems blasphemous to suggest that there was value in the work of those demons. It feels like a dangerous temptation of fate. Certainly, it’s nothing you’d say to someone in the throes of heartache: This has purpose, this is for your own good. Still, I can’t help thinking of another man who ran to Jesus, the “Rich Young Ruler.” How self-satisfied he was, how his unwillingness to relinquish stalled his spiritual progress. As awful as Legion’s story is, it has a brighter outcome.
Only to the empty-handed can anything be given. Such was the position in which the man from the tombs found himself: without a name, without a home, without a word in his mouth. On his knees before Christ, awaiting what would come.