8:30 a.m. I walk up to my office and it is barricaded. Cartons of paper, folded rugs – anything someone could quickly get their hands on – were blocking the door. There were only one or two other folks in the building, and I had been working until 9:00 p.m. the night before, so there hadn’t been much time for this to happen. I knocked on my office door to see if someone was there. No response. I moved the debris, slowly opened the door, half expecting to find a homeless person on the floor. The room was empty. Someone, however, had been there. Signs of mischief were everywhere—a picture tilted, a lampshade ajar, a paper or two from my desk were on the floor, some ocean shells from a motley accumulation of shells in my office were carefully placed around the room. An intruder, no doubt, and I quickly understood that it was an inside job.
I immediately thought of a colleague who no longer works at CCEF. He would occasionally leave a similar calling card – a couple of pictures out of kilter or upside down (one had been upside down for weeks before I finally noticed), a printer facing the wrong direction, one chair precariously balanced on another. Maybe it was him, and the thought made me smile. I had always rightly interpreted his mischief as an expression of love, and I would sometimes leave a picture or two askew in his honor. But I knew he was too far away to do this.
A list of culprits immediately came to mind. I ruled out most of the women, because I thought most of them were above practical jokes. They were more mature than the men. So who had been in the building during that small window of time? Mike B— no, he uses my office but is careful to put everything back in its place. Winston— he has the talent for it but not the time. Todd— yes, quiet, quick to laugh. Behind that unassuming façade was the heart of a practical joker. Todd! Who would have thought? What a sleuth I am. I began to think of ways to sabotage his office. Little did he know that he was toying with a pro.
At 9:00 a.m. I went to a CCEF staff meeting and began scanning the room. Todd was still the likely suspect, but who can be sure? Rosie came in and said hi. HA! I saw that devious look in her eye. I put her on the list. Wayne walked by and gave me a quizzical expression. Yep, I could read the guilt all over his face. Another hot suspect. By the time we had our meeting break, everyone, women included, had been put on the list and I was devising ways to test the primary candidates, though I couldn’t rule out an institution-wide conspiracy.
Something was not quite right in my world. When that happens we tend to develop explanatory stories. “I don’t know” is completely unsatisfying when we know somebody did something. It is especially unsatisfying when that person is privately gloating. He or she must be apprehended to make the world right again.
As I continued my “investigation”, everyone in the building became a suspect. If I had more time to think about it, I’m sure my wife, son-in-law, fellow elders, some brazen students, and the cleaning person would have made the list.
Then…I saw a chipmunk peering at me over a row of books in my bookshelf.
Culprit apprehended. Time to wipe the suspect list clean.
Welcome to the world of paranoia.
I am not trying to minimize the life-dominating nature of paranoia. I am trying to normalize the abnormal. Scripture indicates that we are more alike that different. As such, the unusual problems are more-like-us or less-like-us rather than different-than-us.
Take my mini-paranoia, surround it with people I don’t know well, and a mere paper clip could trigger suspicions. It doesn’t take much for all world events to somehow connect to us, and it doesn’t take much to develop an endless suspect list. And what if the chipmunk had escaped my office without me ever seeing it? Would I have believed Wayne when he told me that it was him who barricaded my door after he and Ariell discovered a chipmunk creating havoc in my office? Well, yes I guess I would have believed him, even though my attempts at sleuthing were more fun. But this shows us an important difference between my silly misinterpretation and full-blown paranoia. In my story there was a chipmunk that brought clarity. In stories of paranoia there is no chipmunk. And even if the chipmunk is spotted it means that someone planted the innocent chipmunk and the prank suddenly becomes more malicious. Evidence rarely dislodges a paranoid interpretation.
My guess is that there is a lot more life-dominating paranoia around us than we think. For every public display of paranoia there are hundreds who sit quietly in their fears. Our worlds are never quite right and it is easy to tell a credible story about who is to blame. Conspiracy theories abound, and you can be sure that many conspiracy theorists drift off into other types of paranoia. Fears don’t like to be contained; they spread. And they can be very confident in their interpretations. Most likely you would not want to be married to someone who believes in conspiracies because eventually you too would be blamed for all kinds of things that had nothing to do with you.
It sounds hopeless. Paranoia is fear run amok that is unaffected by the evidence. Bring other people in to confirm your version of events and the paranoid person just becomes more persuaded that he or she is right. But paranoia isn’t hopeless.
I have a friend who would be considered paranoid by any measuring device. At least once a year we see each other or she calls with a paranoid story.
“I wanted to tell you about this in case something happens to me.”
“It’s always good to hear from you. How can I pray for you about this?” You could say that I was normalizing the abnormal. I was treating her as I would any fearful person.
“You could pray that I would trust Jesus and love these people well.”
Amazing, isn’t she? What is a Christian to do when the possibility of a conspiracy abounds? Rest in the undisputable evidence: Christ has come and has proclaimed no condemnation to those who throw in their lot with him. God is not out to get us. Rest is the natural state of a Christian. Then, whether other people are really after us or not, whether they are friends or enemies, we turn the other cheek and surprise them with grace. Certainly there is much more we could say, but this is enough to keep a paranoid person busy for a few decades.
Hmm. I wonder. How could that chipmunk have tilted the lamp-shade? It is way too high and nothing is near it. And how could a shell on the mantel have made it all the way to the center of the room? Quite mysterious. Maybe I should put Todd back on the list…