Part 2. The Boy (and possession by reactivity)
20 And they brought the boy to [Jesus]. When the spirit saw him, immediately it convulsed the boy, and he fell on the ground and rolled about, foaming at the mouth. (Mk 9:20, NRSV)
Herein we ostensibly encounter for the first time the titular spirit of this conversation. Convulsing its host, the spirit seems to take control of the boy, overwhelming him. Earlier in the story, the father described much the same kind of activity, adding to it that the spirit kept the boy mute:
“he has a spirit that makes him unable to speak; 18 and whenever it seizes him, it dashes him down; and he foams and grinds his teeth and becomes rigid…” (9:17-18)
There are a variety of ways modern Christians respond to passages of Scripture about demons and demon-possession. While some argue for the literal truth of such passages, insisting that evil spirits are real and pose a threat, others argue for more scientifically-nuanced readings of such passages, suggesting we de-mythologize the Biblical authors’ attributions of a variety of conditions to “demon-possession” that we would categorize differently today. Like most biblical scholarship, people range a wide spectrum between the fundamentalist extremes of conservative literalism and liberal progressivism.
I would humbly suggest that, however you read and interpret demons and demon-possession in the Bible, I can attest to this truth: many people wrestle with demons today. There are those who attest to the presence and influence of evil external to themselves; and others who eschew the anthropomorphism of powers of darkness but attest to the lure of evil within. And a variety of maladies, illness, or addictions that we might be able to name are often metaphorically referred to as demons that someone struggles with.
In discussing such passages with me growing up, my father tried to explain away such stories of demon-possession maladies as epilepsy or other diseases we now know the cure to. At the same time, the specter of his own mother’s alcoholism was the proverbial “demon in a bottle” that haunted him his life; he never fully shed the sway that it had held over him growing up.
Years later, a church member I deeply respect shared her own experience of a demonic presence. One night she had woken to the sight of glowing eyes and an oppressiveness that surrounded her; one that retreated from her as she began to pray.
Whatever they may be or we may call them, I find that there are demons in our world, lives, and hearts that threaten us. There are those sources of fear, anxiety, and even violence that seem beyond our control. One need only watch the news to be anxious that destruction threatens us from without. Yet as I read the passage of late, a particular manifestation of this frenetic spirit makes itself known to me.
I find beyond the original source, the perspective with which we read it, or the intent of this tale of the demon-possessed boy, there is in the story of possession a grain of truth that speaks to me. We are told that the boy has been possessed by something since his childhood, and that it often contributes to him losing control. That lack of control threatens his very life.
We are all beset by something from childhood that can lead us to lose control, and even threatens the health of our self. By nature and nurture, as we grow we learn how to respond to the world around us; and we generally all learn an unhealthy response, one wherein we lost control, which without consulting another text I’ll refer to as “emotional reactivity.”
Even if I’m mis-using the term or the science, you can recognize emotional reactivity. If you’ve ever returned home, only to feel yourself being treated like, and perhaps even responding, as when you were a child, you’ve experienced emotional reactivity. If you’ve ever found yourself lashing out at your child in a way that goes against what you desire in your better nature(1) but seem to neglect in the acute moment of misbehavior, you’ve experienced emotional reactivity. If you’ve ever thought “I sound like my mother/father,” you know emotional reactivity. We learn how to react to situations, often in unbidden ways.
More often than I care to admit, I am not the parent I desire to be. I do not consistently respond with the patience, care, and levity that I know would benefit myself and my children. Instead, I respond with the same kind of reactivity I grew up with. I lash out in anger and frustration, by word or deed. It is not for nothing that we can often hear said of an emotionally reactive parent that he or she has “lost control.”
Where an addict might see the frenetic spirit of the boy in one light, as a struggling parent I suddenly see in myself the possibility of the same frenetic spirit, capable of convulsing me into losing control…
(1) Is it coincidental that just as we refer to the evils we struggle against as demons, since Abraham Lincoln we have heard our best selves referred to as our “better angels.”