The “Tortured Genius”

I just had what I believe could be classified as a mental breakdown. I could probably give a million reasons as to why this happened (though really, I’m not sure) I am sure that my entire system tried very hard to be in war and shut down all at once because I was so very overwhelmed. There’s really not even a logical explanation for my overwhelmedness, but I’m learning that there doesn’t always need to be a reason, explanation, or formula. There are literally a million things going on inside of me at any given point in time – millions. I have so many thoughts, prayers, worries, thoughts, stories, words, more thoughts, ideas, and more thoughts running and/or rampaging through my head all of the time that its really any wonder I can spit out a half-decent sentence.

At the beginning of last school year, I was studying Western Civilization and it was while studying said topic that I came across the idea that some artist (or musician… I really can’t remember… tells you how well that course went) that was singlehandedly responsible for introducing artists and musicians as the stereotyped “tortured genius.” I ravished that. It was so very intriguing to me and I found myself half wishing to become that and was half afraid that I already had. I know for certain now that I am, at least on occasion, the tortured genius. This is not at all a claim to be genius. No, because the stereotype of tortured genius is not really so much genius as insane. It’s one who is full so completely, so constantly, of thoughts that the thoughts become a plague – regardless of the beauty, ingenuity, wonderment, brilliance of any of them because one cannot really be separated from the other. It’s a person who’s mind is like standing in the middle of 471 with cars speeding on either side of you at indistinguishable rates in numerous directions – it’s like standing there with music yelling directly into your ears while you’re trying to catch full sight of every single car while you’re working through an advanced, high-level, really-super-disgustingly-difficult physics equation… or a simple geometry problem. That’s what pushed me over the edge – a simple geometry problem. I was so very distracted and bothered by the music and the cars that I couldn’t stop or read or capture, even though (and this is the most frustrating part) they were my freakin’ cars, that I couldn’t remember anything that I used to know about geometry and I couldn’t remember how to apply anything that I couldn’t remember in the first place and my stomach revolted and my ears stopped listening to anything and I felt like screaming and crying and throwing something very hard and maybe hitting something too.

I somehow (mostly likely by some grace of God I didn’t even think I needed) stepped calmly away from my desk, leaving the scattered mess as it was, and walked into the kitchen, trying very hard not to rip the TV, which my brother was watching, out of the cabinet and fling it with good riddance into the yard. Mom was on the phone. Deep breaths. Sit on down.  I pulled myself onto the counter and waited. She looked at me questioningly – still on the phone. Still on the phone. Get off the phone – I’m having a breakdown… can’t you see from the fact that I’m calmly sitting on the counter, breathing like a normal person that I’m having a break down. “Mom?” Opening my mouth seemed to make my stomach think that throwing up was a good idea – my neck pricked at the thought and I bit my lip – the only thing I could think to do to keep my stomach in place.

What is she talking about?… Going somewhere. Going somewhere! I don’t have time to go somewhere – I have hours of work still! Out to eat… with friends… I’d rather do that… I don’t want hours of work… maybe if I move that to tomorrow- NO! what are you saying? You’ll get behind – behind is bad, very bad, remember? That’s why you’re doing geometry now… geometry… will not be sick, will not be sick, will not be sick “Mags?” oh! Right, mom – breathe – don’t be sick. I explained to her in as few words as possible my current problem (leaving out the impending stomach issue seeing as I figured if I didn’t talk about it, it might go away) and she told me to stop working and write. I love my mother.

So, that’s what I did. I returned to my desk, which was really unrecognizable underneath the great pile of unfinished things that spewed like vomit all over its top. I cleared, slowly, calmly, the pile, finding spaces for all of it in whatever drawer was nearest and had space. And once everything but my computer, my lamp, a glass of water, and a cup of cold coffee was entirely gone, I sat and I wrote this. And now that I have written it, my stomach has stopped its incessant churning and flopping and my shoulders are less tense and I can breathe without having to first remind myself how and the word “geometry” doesn’t make me want to die (completely) – you see, all of this was at least one car, and that’s one less I have to try to capture, and one less I have to try to figure out, and one less I have to slow down.

Ironically, I had earlier written the beginnings of a piece that was to lead into my fascination with the stereotyped of “tortured genius” – little did I know I would prove to the world, or perhaps myself, or perhaps neither, that I am just that… at least sometimes. And I wonder if there’s a remedy for this ever-so-intriguing and not-so-very-desirable condition of sorts. There is. Mom knew. She’s known for a long time actually. Write. Or sing. Or Dance. Or run. Or play the trombone. It’s different for everyone, really. And we all, I believe, are ‘tortured genius’ at some point or another. We are all, at one point or another, so very full of the beautiful things God put inside of us that it drives us to insanity. This point comes not because God gives us more than we can handle. It comes because God gives us plenty and we do not pay attention to it – we shove it into some dark corner for later when we have less work to do, less errands to run, less people to see, and it sits there refusing to be but under a damper, screaming in beautiful, rebellious protest until we have to pay attention and make use of it.

This – these words and philosophies and speculations and yes, insanity – is a flood of light that’s been sitting under a bushel for days because I was too busy to let it shine. We are created to shine. We sometimes cannot avoid busyness – and we can surely shine in the midst of that – but, I think each of us has something inside of themselves that deserves time all its own to be released, and once we give it permission to be, it changes things – it alters the very air around us. It calls forth some deep thing and says to it “live in freedom” and we understand, whether we know it or not. God said this to me the other day:

   “Don’t hide or shirk from that, don’t run from it. It’s part of you. I need  you as you are. I need children. I need imagination and beauty-seekers. I need C.S. Lewis’ and artists and adventurers and whimsical beings that say “marvelously” in what most would consider the wrong context. Don’t hide who you are.”

This is to everyone. Not that everyone is like that – not that anyone who isn’t like that is wrong or less glorious or whatever other bad connotation one could find. What I mean is that all of us have something that is very much only us. Each of us is a unique instrument in his rhapsody that makes a sound only we can make. God admires talent and beauty– he spread these things all over the place so that each of us could proclaim him and his truth in a vast, complex way that only we can. And by shoving those things into dark corners so that we can finish our school work on time is not doing him or ourselves any credit. What is a symphony shy an instrument? A story without every character? A clock that’s missing a gear? We have beautiful things pent up inside ourselves that we have only begun to realize and God is calling us to find them, to capture them, to make them obedient to Christ, and to fling ourselves wide open, displaying all of the glory therein, pushing back the darkness, waking things long dead with just one note, just one word, just one step, one twirl, one smile, one touch, one nail, one shot, one shout – behold! Our Maker is wonderful and we worship him with what we are.


7 thoughts on “The “Tortured Genius”

  1. Something you mentioned struck a chord in me. “Until we have to pay attention and make use of it.” Rob Bell mentions something very similar. How, we can get so caught up in running, that we loose focus on what’s important. And we shove that important stuff away, and it only get’s worse. It’s like fungus. You can cover it up, but it’s not going to go away. It’ll only get worse, until you have to deal with it! (Horrible analogy, I know. ) But we keep going and going and going and going, and we don’t want to stop because as soon as we do, all our issues catch up to us. And very quickly. And we have to deal with those issues.

    So we keep running. Instead of facing our problems.

    • Yes! Very much yes! And you’re entirely right (gross as it is) that the longer it sits there, shoved deep down, the longer it festers, the worse it becomes until we can’t take it and go looking for something to ease our pain when we have the ability all along!

  2. Hi! This is awesome. Thank you so much for posting this writing! I feel like this really hits a chord in me. We were all made to be satisfied by Something far bigger than this life. And even though I feel like we know we have to do THINGS, like clean the house, finish schoolwork, and all kinds of stuff, I feel like those things were always meant to be secondary. Especially secondary to the life-giving things that connect us to Jesus. It’s kind of cool I think that Jesus, the most beautiful being, the cumulative of beauty, likes the same things that I do when I think I’m just wasting time. Like this writing: some would say, why should you WRITE philosophical musing when the Bible tells us to “go out” in strength and make disciples of all nations, to fight the good fight for Him; the homeless, the poor, and the naked aren’t going to wait for us to stop staring at sunsets, and feeling music deep inside, and painting crazy colors all over our rooms just because we can! But it’s like what Eric Liddell said in Chariots of Fire: “I believe God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast. And when I run I feel His pleasure.” We are all hold gifts that show the beauty of His glory. And we use EVERYTHING we have, our responsibility in finishing schoolwork, as well as our gifts for music or writing, in a way that most glorifies Him.

  3. Lovely words. So lovely you’ve been promoted from co-goddess of sitting-in-the-corner-and-beauty to *insert drumroll*…. Lady of the Word (and Beauty). You still sit in the corner though…

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