After the shift in Congressional power, I’m grateful for any bright spot in the 2010 mid-term elections. For me, that bright spot was the passage of the Kansas Disqualification Amendment, which no longer allows the Kansas legislature to take away a person’s right to vote because she or he lives with mental illness.
Not that the Kansas legislature had ever used its power to stop someone with mental illness from voting, but the law was on the books, and with it the stifling weight of stigma and discrimination. With the passage of the statewide ballot, also known as Constitutional Amendment 2, people living with mental illness in Kansas have one less burden to bear.
It’s not on the same scale as Ken Steele’s Mental Health Voter Empowerment Project started in 1994 that registered people with serious mental illness to vote (read more in Steele’s powerful memoir The Day the Voices Stopped) yet it rights a wrong that should have been corrected years ago.
I learned of the Disqualification Amendment around the same time I read Elliot Kukla’s article, “The Spirituality of Madness,” in a recent issue of Zeek. Kukla turned to biblical stories to learn what Judaism teaches about mental illness. His reference to Naomi’s depression in the Book of Ruth led me to read the story again.
What I had recalled of the story, usually read on the holiday of Shavuot, was Ruth’s famous line, “For wherever you go, I will go; wherever you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God.” The focus remained on Ruth; I am thankful to Kukla for turning my attention to Naomi.
As I read the story of Naomi whose husband and two sons had died and left her in great grief, I came across her statement when she returned to her original home in Bethlehem, “Do not call me Naomi, Call me Mara, for Shaddai has made my lot very bitter.”
My copy of the Tanakh, translates the name Naomi, as “pleasantness,” and Mara as “bitterness.” In essence, Naomi is asking that her community abandon what they know of Naomi’s former self and instead label her with the despair she feels.
But in the rest of the text, neither the narrative nor Naomi’s Bethlehem townsfolk ever refer to her as Mara.
For me this suggests our Jewish texts teach us that we must see a person as a whole human being and see beyond the self that is ill. We must hold out the hope of living a life of greater possibility, whatever that potential may be, and offer the hope of return and recovery.
Yet I’m afraid that the rancor of the new Congressional majority will threaten the recent, hard-won health reform legislation needed to make recovery possible for more people. To keep hope alive, we’ll need social action. It’s more true than ever that we’re not in Kansas anymore.
–Bonnie Beth Chernin