My parents used to tell me my brain would rot if I did not stop watching so much TV and movies. During this COVID-19 quarantine, I am conducting an unscientific study to put this theory to the test. While many prefer binge watching TV shows on Netflix, I prefer movie marathons. And during one recent marathon, I came across the Ron Howard movie A Beautiful Mind, starring Russell Crowe. Although the movie is almost 20 years old, one particular scene has renewed application for those experiencing mental health challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic.
A Beautiful Mind profiles the life and career of mathematician John Nash (played by Russell Crowe). Dr. Nash had a Ph.D. from Princeton University, a Nobel Prize in Economics, and—spoiler alert—paranoid schizophrenia. As detailed in the movie, during the times in which Dr. Nash created novel theories about mathematics and game theory, he struggled with seeing visions of people who did not exist, including a college roommate and government agent. Near the end of the movie, which fast forwards several decades, Dr. Nash, now on that faculty at Princeton, speaks with a visitor from the Nobel Committee about his schizophrenia.
He remarks, “I still see things that are not here. I just choose not to acknowledge them. Like a diet of the mind, I choose not to indulge certain appetites.”
I do not have paranoid schizophrenia and do not pretend that my experiences with mental health are analogous to Dr. Nash (or at least the fictionalized version of him). Yet there is a lot to take away from this scene, as it presents a powerful illustration of the battle many of us are going through right now.
I suffer from a generalized anxiety disorder and a common narrative in my head is that an anxious life conflicts with a meaningful professional, family, and spiritual life. As it goes in my head, anxiety signals the lack of something. If I am anxious at work, it must mean I am doing a poor job. The presence of anxiety at home suggests the relationships with my friends and family are out of place. The presence of anxiety between me and God signals a lack of faith or trust in my creator and savior. As a result, I cannot serve my clients, family, and God well.
These thoughts have been especially prevalent during the COVID-19 lockdown when government directives largely confine me to my apartment. At the start of the quarantine, my chest was tight for three days, which I first attributed to COVID-19 (which I did not have), but realized later was the result of anxiety. During this time, whenever I jumped on a Zoom call with co-workers, family, or friends, I feared others on the call “came here to find out if I was crazy”—a line Dr. Nash jokingly makes in the same scene with the visitor from the Nobel Committee. As I’ve written before, I am ultimately thankful for my anxiety and how it shapes my relationships with co-workers, family, friends, and God. Yet I keep waiting for things to go back to “normal” when I can go into work, see a movie, and, most importantly, wake up without a fresh wave of anxiety about the state of the world.
What the scene from A Beautiful Mind illustrates to me (and I hope to others) is that an anxious life and a life of contentment and meaning are not mutually exclusive. The fictionalized version of Dr. Nash never saw his paranoid schizophrenia go away, and I, too, do not expect my anxiety to be erased from my life, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. Dr. Nash, both in the movie and real life, learned to live with his affliction, and I hope I can do the same. I hope and pray that over the coming weeks and months I can realize that anxiety can be present without limiting me from experiencing and cultivating joy. Put another way, my anxiety can be in the car with me, but with help from God, friends, family, and co-workers, it will just not be in the driver’s seat dictating the direction of my professional, family, and spiritual life.
I am never going to win a Nobel Prize and most of my understanding about game theory comes from the movie Crazy Rich Asians. Even so, I should not conclude that I am “off” or “not my usual self” every time I experience anxiety. Instead, anxiety is simply a “thorn in the flesh” (see 2 Corinthians 12:7) for which God responds “[m]y grace is sufficient for you.” That grace is what I endeavor to “acknowledge” and “indulge” rather than anxiety. And it is already bearing fruit. On a recent Saturday, I woke up anxious for no particular reason, and that anxiety did not go away that day. Even so, by God’s grace, joy and peace eclipsed that anxiety for most of the day, as I served friends, family, and co-workers by delivering donuts to their doorsteps.
And on those days when I do not internalize this truth and my anxiety is in the driver’s seat, at least I can settle for proving my parents wrong that my brain was not fried from watching TV and eating off-brand Oreos during my quarantine.
Addison Bradford is a health care attorney at Hall, Render, Killian, Heath & Lyman, P.C. whose practice focuses on real estate law. He represents health care providers in a broad range of real estate matters, including hospital-physician leasing arrangements, timeshares, and real and personal property tax exemptions and appeals. Addison previously authored the article Anxiety is Not the Endgame: Lessons in Mental Health from Bruce Banner and the Hulk, which also touches on his experiences with mental health. For more information about the author, please click here.
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