I'll get to the incident in a moment, but first some context.
I'll leave the details to historians; anecdotal generalities are sufficient to make my point.
In the early-mid 70s when I began my ministry I remember visiting patients at Western State Hospital in Staunton VA. It was an institution that had begun in 1828. Over its history the worst abuses of psychiatric care--lobotomies, shackles, straight-jackets, poorly controlled electro-shock, forced sterilizations, etc.--had taken place there. By the time I visited there the worst of these abuses had been eliminated, or largely so, but, still, it was a terribly depressing place to visit. It didn't take long to figure out that many of these people had been very effectively rehabilitated. Unfortunately, the habitation in which they were best able to function was Western State Hospital. The place was ready for Jack Nicholson.
A national combination of budgetary constraints and compassion swept our nation about that time. Places like Western State were closed or drastically reduced in size in as close as a bureaucracy can come to overnight. All over the country patients who were marvelously well equipped to live in a mental hospital were placed in nursing homes, half-way houses, or just on the street--environments where they didn't know how to function.
"They'll be fine as long as they take their meds."
"Who will make sure they take their meds?"
"That's up to them."
It was late enough that I was already asleep--asleep soundly enough that when Kathy woke me up, my main thought was to get back to sleep.
A neighbor had called and told Kathy the "Annex (a house our church owns and uses for various ministry purposes) is on fire."
I figured it was just some lights reflecting off the picture window, or something like that. I just wanted to get back to sleep.
Kathy stepped out to where she could see for herself and confirmed. "The Annex is on fire!"
I had no choice, now. I got up jumped into some pants and started walking/running the seventy yards, or so, to the neighboring building. A few steps in that direction, I turned and yelled for Kathy to call the fire department. There is a porch/carport on the front of the building. I could clearly see the flames under that roof. After moving a bit closer, I yelled back, to call the police as well.
There was a pile of firewood under that porch roof. We used it for the fireplace in the Annex. There was also an old church pew there in the shelter. The firewood, flames licking at the wooden ceiling above, was burning brightly. An older man was sitting on the bench, looking for all the world like this was exactly what one was supposed to do on a cool night. I don't remember whether I spoke first or immediately started throwing burning pieces of firewood out into the yard, but rather quickly I asked the man, "What in the world are you doing?"
He calmly replied, "I'm just trying to keep warm."
I remember reading somewhere, something like, "Even the actions of the most disturbed person make sense, if you look at the world the way they see it." I have no clinical language for this man's problem, but he saw the world in such a way that it made perfect sense for him to build a fire under a wooden porch roof, attached to a house that he did not own, and then sit down on a wooden bench and warm himself. I think, had I been a few minutes later in arriving, I would have found the old gent slumped over in the pew from smoke-inhalation or lying in the yard with third-degree burns.
Being awakened in the middle of the night convinced me that folk who think building fires on other people's porches shouldn't be allowed to be out on their own. Later when the police officer arrived he told me that they had found the gentleman on an earlier occasion trying to sleep in a tree. It wasn't and isn't illegal--though I understand there is a bill in congress--to sleep in trees, so he was turned loose. Building a fire on somebody else's porch is outside the law, so he spent the rest of the night in a warm place.
Right now, I can hear a friend of mine yelling, "So what's the point?"
Let me make it mostly with some questions:
- I understand that before my time it used to be common for families to keep mentally/emotionally troubled family members out of sight. Sometimes that was cruel, but in light of the fact they didn't burn down porches or, infinitely worse, go on shooting sprees at elementary schools, can we say that is all-together bad?
- It was horribly abused--I saw the tail-end of that abuse nearly forty years ago at Western State--but do we too easily dismiss the old thought that there are those from whom the rest of us need to be protected, and indeed, who need to be protected from themselves, and that some of these folk have never, yet, broken the law?
- I personally have run into the syndrome that frustrates the mom in the blog-post I referenced, that kept local police from doing anything about a man who tried to sleep in a tree, and that may have been part of the story in Sandy Hook. Is there something wrong with a system that tells a parent, or one who truly cares, "Unless, this person breaks the law, there is nothing we can do?"
- Have we elevated the concept of personal freedom--even for people who can't personally handle it--to such a place in our culture that it trumps all other considerations?