On Teachers and Students

In school, we understand that good teachers are invaluable for facilitating understanding. Students who truly want to learn will go to great lengths to learn from these teachers. For wisdom is priceless and more valuable than knowledge, and good teachers are a well of wisdom.

In life, we have good teachers that are invaluable for facilitating understanding. Students who truly want to learn will go to great lengths to learn from the best teachers. For wisdom is priceless and more valuable than knowledge, and good teachers are a well of wisdom.

The mystery of Life’s Teachers is that these teachers are both invisible and visible, seemingly haphazard yet simultaneously precise and calculated. One does not go up to a good teacher in life, tap the teacher on the shoulder, and request to be enrolled. Life’s Teachers come to you and in the fog of your forgetfulness, and you fail to recognize their presence.

I learn from one of life’s best teachers: mental illness. My patients and I are students who learn from this teacher day in and day out. I believe that to be a student of this teacher, you must be among the elite.

But even among the elite, there are those who will succeed in learning and those who will not. The lessons that this teacher teaches are beyond difficult, they make the challenges of Olympians look like child’s play–for there is no greater fear than losing one’s self, and no greater challenge than finding one’s Self–for the self of the body and the Self of the soul are not the same. It is the difference between being lost and being found.

Being a successful student of life requires something both insubstantial and substantial. It’s hard to say when a person enters life’s classroom whether he or she would be able to master the challenges or not. With mental illness as one’s teacher, the price is even more demanding. Will one have to pay with an arm or a leg? Will one need to surrender one’s job or one’s honor? What will be required to win wisdom from mental illness?

Over the years, I have come to see how patients and doctors succeed or fail in their lessons. I am moved by the magnificence of my patients as they master lesson after lesson, gathering wisdom as they learn and not knowing how truly breathtakingly brave they are. Mental illness asks that students master the following basics of life’s lessons:

1. Understanding that one’s Self is more than physical matter. The mind is understood as something like a radio, a receiver and translator, but not the whole Being. Sometimes this radio stops working or receives the wrong messages, but it does not mean that the essence of one’s Self has changed or disappeared. To value and even love one’s life as a state of being beyond physical matter is an opportunity given to each student of mental illness.

2. Humility. Mental illness and the stigma associated with such an experience allow for an opportunity to grow in humility. The acceptance of humility not as a mantle that one takes on and off, but rather as an essential quality of self is the greatest and hardest of lessons to master. Humility is an essential quality to development and growth. For before one reaches out for greater wisdom, there is an awareness of one’s own ignorance. Before the awareness of one’s own ignorance, there is humility.

3. Fortitude. Disappointment, suffering, and loss allow for the practice of courage and strength to gather oneself up from the ashes and to rebuild a life shattered by illness. Fortitude is a quality in every one of my successful patients who overcome their illness and maintain wellness. They overcome through sheer persistence and dogged work. They do not give up.

4. Compassion. It is natural to be self-absorbed and judgmental of others. Without being challenged, there is no motivation to change from this state of being. Under the intense challenges given to all who suffer from mental illness, there is the opportunity to find relief through forgetting self, connecting with others, and developing tolerance. To have mental illness, even in these modern times, is like having leprosy in times of old. The shame and stigma associated with having this condition still prevails throughout society, even among the professionals who treat this condition. When one is a pariah within society, one can finally and clearly see how necessary compassion is, how compassion may be lacking, and how one can be more compassionate towards others.

There is more to life than our birth and death. There is also the before-we-were-born and the after-we-die. Take a moment to consider mental illness as an invitation and a means toward rapid growth and enlightenment that has eternal value and infinite worth. Mental illness can be transformed by our will for growth into a blessing. It is not an accident or punishment, but an opportunity.

I want to honor all those who have bravely shouldered the challenges of mental illness. In my practice, my patients are also my teachers. Through my patients I am taught great lessons on each one of the qualities listed above. The patients who have taught me the most are sometimes the ones who have suffered the longest. I have seen them during their most difficult trials, and I have watched them get up and move forward with their lives, quietly and unassumingly. Their humility and perseverance remind me of poignant music that stirs the heart and makes me want to weep, but I don’t know why.

I tell them, “You should write about your life,” but I know that their lives are indescribable, because there are no words to capture their valor, their private victories. It would be like trying to capture the beauty and fragrance of a rose . . . blossoming on the top of a snow capped mountain in the Himalayas.