I love the 1991 movie What about Bob? staring Bill Murray and Richard Dreyfuss. On the surface, it’s about a guy named Bob Wiley, who has obsessive compulsive disorder (among other things). As the movie begins, we’re to think that Bob is “crazy.” This being the case, he seeks professional help from Dr. Leo Marvin, a noted psychiatrist (played by Richard Dreyfuss). Leo seems to be the picture of mental and emotional sanity. In fact, he just wrote a soon-to-be bestselling book called Baby Steps, a work so significant that he is going to be interviewed by Good Morning America at his vacation home. Along comes Bob, to interfere with his life.
Bob is afraid of death, which is what drives him to obsessive behaviors. He is afraid that his heart might suddenly stop beating or—as he puts it—his bladder will explode. He is paralyzed by fear, to the point that he is terrified of elevators, busses, water, or any public place. It seems that his fear of death is the thing that’s causing him to be “insane.”
But Bob is not the only insane one in the movie. Bob is afraid of death, but so is Leo. However, Leo’s tremendous fear of death expresses itself differently. While Bob seeks to deny his own death by controlling and cleaning everything, Leo seeks to deny his own death by becoming immortal. Have you ever noticed that about the movie? It’s really not a movie that’s just about Bob—what about Leo? Leo is just as fearful as Bob is. Leo is just as crazy as Bob is. Leo has an overblown ego and longs to be on par with Sigmund Freud. Leo wants to be world-renown, legendary, and a household name. How does Leo cope with the thought of his own mortality? By becoming immortal, having a name that goes on forever in the history books. Bob has his coping mechanisms, but so does Leo.
The movie is really asking us to identify with either Bob or Leo. We all, along with Bob and Leo, have something in common: the fear of death. Ernest Becker’s 1974 book Denial of Death, helps us to understand this. Becker argues that human personality is shaped by one’s own method of denying the fact that you’re going to die. Everyone is afraid of death; everyone seeks to suppress his or her own mortality. We can’t stand the fact that we’re just “fancy worm food.” No human should have to live with the knowledge that one day, slimy, defecating worms will win. That’s madness. The more you meditate on that fact alone, the more that it’ll drive you insane. Humans seem so strong and so dignified, yet, not matter who you are, in the end, the worms win.
That’s what Bob knew, which is what makes him not so crazy after all. In fact, by the end of the movie, Bob is the sane one and someone else takes his spot in insanity—Dr. Leo Marvin. By recognizing his own mortality, not hiding from it, but laying it out on the table, Bob is healed. By denying his mortality, Leo goes insane. The movie is making a powerful statement, isn’t it? Those who are humble and own up to their own creatureliness will be saved; but those who are arrogant and persist in narcissism will be lost. (Those who seek to be like God will be kicked out of Paradise!)
But there’s another reason why Leo goes crazy and Bob finds health. From the first moment of the movie, Bob seeks help for his problems. Leo does not. Leo seeks fame; Leo seeks escape; Leo seeks only those things that will add to his resume. He doesn’t want to help anyone, but himself. At the same time, Bob confesses his struggles, seeks help from those around him, and doesn’t stop finding ways to help those who are in need. Again, Bob finds help and Leo goes insane.
The fastest way to madness is to make this world all about you. That’s what we learn from Bob and Leo. The route to healing is to confess your shortcomings and seek help from outside yourself. By the end of the movie, not only has Leo’s narcissism caused him to become mad, but also, it caused him to blow up his own house. Bob’s behavior, on the other hand, led him to emotional health, a wedding, and a successful career.
Some people say that faith is just another coping mechanism; they say that God is a crutch. But this is simply not true. A coping mechanism is something that you do to deal with your fears by hiding them (denying them). So you drink, shop, seek fame, seek pleasure, seek control, and so forth, as a way of denying your death. You hide your fears with the help of the coping mechanism. Coping mechanisms are used to ward off the worms. But this is ridiculous, because nothing within our own resources can make death go away. Who are we fooling?
Faith, on the other hand, hides nothing! Faith actually requires the opposite. To have faith is to be honest and express the truth about yourself. Faith gets it all out into the open. So you confess that you are just fancy worm food; you own up to the fact that you don’t have what it takes; you recognize that you’ve fallen short; you don’t deny that you’re scared, hurt, lonely, and lacking. To have faith is to be authentic with yourself and others. Most of all, to have faith is to seek help from outside of yourself, something that coping mechanisms will not allow. Coping mechanisms depend on individual strategy and self-maintenance. Faith says, “I don’t have what it takes and I need help.” Like Bob, faith depends on the resources that come from outside the self. Or you could say that atheism is proud and faith is humble.
Just read the Psalms in the Bible sometime. The Psalms are brutally honest about life. “I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not cover my iniquity” (Psalm 32:5). “Darkness is my closest friend” (Psalm 88:18). “Be gracious to me, O God, for man tramples on me; all day long an attacker oppresses me; my enemies trample on me all day long” (Psalm 56:1-2). “What is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him?” (Psalm 8:4). Scriptures like these feel real to us, don’t they? They express how we often feel, they hide nothing. They know me.
The one who has faith makes the pivotal turn: he rolls his fears over onto God. He seeks help from outside of himself and from outside the dismal human condition.
In order to regain your sanity, you have to become like Bob. You have to lose your life in order to find it. One of the most healing things that you can do is truly to experience your anxieties and fears and then give them over to the Lord.
Just to focus on your problems and not on the Lord (and get help from outside of yourself) is “depression.” Just to focus on the Lord and not acknowledge your problems is “denial.” To roll one over onto the other is “faith.”
There’s a kind of madness that leads to life and a kind of madness that doesn’t.
© Samuel Kee, 2013