Woody's Story - The Conundrum of Survival

In search of stability in an unstable world

My name is Woodrow Lucas and I am a PHD student in management at Vanderbilt University. I was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder in the winter of 2001. My story is a story of survival. My aim in writing this short peace is to inspire, convict, and hopefully illuminate.

From the time that I was a boy, my father taught me how to survive. His mantra to me was, “my son, things will be hard for you as an African-American and so you need to know how to handle yourself.” He and my mother were dutiful in instilling the characteristics necessary to survive in this world. Persistent, diligence, determination, hard work, and excellence were often the topics of conversation in our home. However, they were not remiss, in inculcating an awareness of my duty to help others and always “defend the weak and the fatherless.” Both of my parents were “children of the civil rights movements”, both are still highly political, and so both molded me to always consider “the least of these” in all of my endeavors.

After a somewhat tumultuous childhood, growing up in predominantly white settings, I graduated from Northwestern University in 1997, got married, had a daughter, and pursued a career in ministry shortly thereafter. My objective from the start was to be a good father, a good husband, and a catalyst for positive social change. As a Christian, I have maintained a romantic love affair with the Lord that has continued to this day. However, this love affair, like all love affairs has been torrid and wrought with obstacles. I remember for instance, cowering in sheer horror at the notion that those who did not confess Jesus before death spent eternity in eternal damnation. I remember forsaking all notions of worldly stability and success to pursue the sole end of “saving souls”. This to me was not irrational, for if confession was the only way to achieve eternal life, then the survival of my brothers and sisters in humanity depended on them all confessing. Survival was preeminent in my mind. We must survive. They must survive. And in pursuing this end of survival, I felt like I was doing God’s will.

However, in the midst of advocating for the poor, saving souls, and other activities focused upon ensuring the survival of my wife, daughter, and my human kindred I encountered an illness which for the first time in my life shook the very foundations of my ethos. I found myself paranoid, suicidal, delusional, and utterly ill-equipped to take care of myself. I writhed in rage against God, for I felt as though she had forsaken me. For how could I be an agent of survival for others, when I myself could no longer survive through my own agency? Over the course of the last 7 years, after being diagnosed, I have long sense dispensed with the notion of eternal damnation and have embraced the notion that a loving God will find a way for all people to eventually know life eternal. I have also long sense dispensed with the notion that God only manifests himself through the Christian paradigm. But still, survival has been my focus.

The notion of eternal survival has been replaced with a fundamental conundrum. How does one feed one’s family and financially survive in the midst of voices affirming all that is evil within, a system that values efficiency and zero-sum Darwinism over compassion, and a will that wavers between self doubt and an involuntary longing for self destruction.

Trying to solve this conundrum, with the tools that my parents instilled, has resulted in many accomplishments. I have published two books, “A Book of Rhythm” and “Insane Joy”, obtained a Master’s in Business Administration and a Master’s in Theological Studies, won an award from Vanderbilt’s Divinity School, and managed to ensure that my daughter has grown up in a stable and nurturing environment. My focal point throughout this sojourn has been surviving while helping others to survive. As a result, I started my PHD work in the fall with what I interpreted as the God given mission to help business embrace its “softer” side and join the fight to assist others in survival. In addition, most of my ministerial efforts have involved intentionally helping others to “see their own assets”, the “beauty of themselves”, and “ultimately love themselves and consequently love God and love others.” So far, even in the midst of pronounced instability, this method has been fruitful.

Yet when I started my PHD program something both horrific and sublime occurred. My mental instability reached a new height. I found the tools of “diligence and perseverance” to be ultimately ineffective in sustaining any enduring will to live. I cried out to God, once again in rage and writhing, “Haven’t I done enough?! Why are you allowing this to happen to me?!! I must feed my family?!!” It was during this period that I happened upon a burgeoning archetype of management scholarship dubbed, positive organizational scholarship, which focuses on hard scientific inquiry into the intricacies of human flourishing and “the good life” in Business. This brand of scholarship, rather than studying profits and bottom lines, seeks to understand what motivates businesses to engage in Corporate Social Responsibility and Poverty Alleviation, and seeks to understand how people can be virtuous while still succeeding in the traditional sense. In other words, POS, seeks to understand the process of “doing well, while being good”. In the midst of my inquiry into this new realm of inquiry, I was able to correspond with Jane Dutton, one of the leading scholars in the field. It seemed as though through discovering POS I had stumbled upon a vocabulary which personified the very essence of my scholarly mission. And yet there seemed to be a subtle difference between “POS” and my ethos. My mission was to help people “survive” while “POS” studied what helped people to “thrive”.

What was the difference between “thriving” and “surviving”? And how could one possibly do more than survive in a world as thoroughly “uncaring” as one in which people with disabilities can only get benefits if they are far below the poverty line and in which individuals spend more on material goods than research into solving the worst of the world’s problems. I mean, I had two master’s degrees and was in a PHD, and in my mind, I still felt as though at any moment, the end would come, when I would have a manic episode that thrust me onto the streets, like so many to whom I had ministered in the past. How could I possibly “thrive”?

These questions came to a head, very recently, when I was scheduled to have a phone conversation with Dr. Dutton. All of my hopes were centered on the conversation. “If I can just talk to this seminal scholar, I will be able to regain my focus and survive in my PHD program,” I thought to myself. I had a big Statistics exam coming up, and statistics was my best subject, yet for two weeks leading up to the conversation, I had been unable to do a single problem.” I wavered between suicidal thoughts and abject anger toward God. “What was the problem?!!” I thought. Then the day came when I was supposed to have the conversation. On the day in question, because of a time zone mix up, I missed my conversation window with Dr. Dutton. I was dejected and terrified, as my statistics exam was the next day and I was totally unprepared. My first thought was simply to go home and take all of the pills in my bottle of Lamictil. But this was quickly replaced with the sobering revelation that I would be leaving my wife, daughter, and daughter to come, behind in a world of grief and despair. I was no longer angry, just numb, and resigned in my mind, “alright, this is the end. Whatever happens, I’m finished, I can’t do anything else.” When I arrived at home, I told my wife that I would probably have to come out of my PHD program, due to failing my statistics exam and receiving a failing grade in the class. My perspective saw no moderation, no grace, just the extremes of devastation or continued survival. My wife was distraught, not because of the PHD, but rather because she could see the look of defeat in my eyes. Later on that night she came to me and said, “Woody, you need to take a medical leave. I don’t care for how long, you’re health comes first and you are not well.” I quickly countered, “Are you crazy?!, if I take a medical leave, then they will suspend my stipend, and how can we possibly support ourselves?!!” I couldn’t see how marketable I was with two master’s degrees. I had no recollection of my family and the reality that they would assuredly assist us. All I could see was impending failure. I felt another strong temptation to take down the pills in my bathroom.

But before I could decide whether or not to give into the temptation, a peace came over me. I realized in that moment, the error of my life’s perspective. My whole life, I had been motivated out of fear. As an African-American, I knew that the world would not be kind, and so I had to fight tooth and nail. But in this moment, I realized that perhaps truly surviving was not a fight, but rather an acceptance of something that I had told so many in ministry sessions. That perhaps surviving came through accepting one’s beauty and the unconditional love of God. I had received God’s love so many times into my heart, but I don’t believe that I ever really had the courage to love myself with all of my conviction. I had put survival over my own self-care time and time again. Loving one’s self is much more complex and difficult than just striving for success or recognition. It is as much of a realization as it is anything else. It is realizing that come what may, I am beautifully and wonderfully made. It is realizing that survival may not be the best of ultimate ends. In that moment, I looked at my wife, and said, “You’re right I will take a medical leave”. And in that moment, I felt all of the fear of failure and the fear of not measuring up to my responsibilities that had clouded my judgment and perspective lift and I felt alive for the first time in quite a while.

I immediately called my parents and said, “Mom and Dad, I have to put my health first so I am taking a medical leave from school.” To my surprise, they immediately offered to help us out. When I told my professors that I was taking a medical leave, all they offered were words of encouragement and support. And through this process of “failure”, I realized that people actually cared about my well being much more than I had initially assumed. The mental health system in America is so imbalanced that it is robbing people of their God given right to love themselves, as they are so afraid of not-surviving that they cannot focus on the healing necessary to transcend and truly thrive. Research must be done to help individuals with illness to transcend the fear of rejection and utter obliteration. Changes must be made to help the disabled or rather creatively enabled to love themselves and consequently thrive. But I realize in this moment, that I cannot wait for the mental health system to evolve, to choose to put myself and my health first. I must make that choice and let the cards fall where they may. Then perhaps, I can embody the very human flourishing that I endeavor to study. Then perhaps, I can forsake survival altogether and thrive to abundant life. Then perhaps, I can be the light that I always wished to be, and know joy and satisfaction that I never thought possible. Amen.