Karen Armstrong
Historian of Religion
03:16

Poetry, Sickness, and Religion

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As a young scholar, “History of God” author Karen Armstrong was drawn to Tennyson, a fellow sufferer of epilepsy. But her illness did not bring her closer to God.

Karen Armstrong

Born in England in 1944, Karen Armstrong is a TED Prize-winning scholar of comparative religion best known for her bestselling 1993 volume "A History of God." A Catholic nun from 1962 through 1969, she left the order to become a student of English literature at Oxford amidst a struggle with then-undiagnosed epilepsy, a period of her life discussed in her 2004 autobiography "The Spiral Staircase." In 2008 she called for a council of world religious leaders to draw up a "Charter for Compassion" based on the moral principles embodied in the Golden Rule. In November 2009, she unveiled the Charter in Washington, DC and online.

Transcript

Question: As a scholar, what attracted you to Tennyson’s struggle with faith?

Karen Armstrong: It doesn't say much his struggle with faith and doubt that attracted me; it was something else.  At the time, I was studying for my doctorate, studying the poetry of Tennyson.  I was suffering from temporal lobe epilepsy.  It's a form of epilepsy that derives from a brain injury that I probably received at birth.  There's a big scar on my brain that gives you all kinds of weird and strange psychic experiences, and I thought I was going mad.  It wasn't diagnosed until I was 34 years old.  People just dosed me with anti-depressives, which didn't touch this brain disorder.  I recognized in something similar in Tennyson.  And years later, I discovered that he too had suffered from temporal lobe epilepsy and that he too, and as did his whole family, a sort of familial thing.  It was a great disgrace in Victorian society.  Epileptics were shut away into asylums, so he kept it dark.  But I could experience – I could see certain few mistakes in his poetry which was similar to some of the rather disturbing experiences I was having myself.

Question: Does severe illness bring the sufferer closer to God?

Karen Armstrong: Illness itself can make you angry, enraged, furious, and it made me angry, enraged, and furious. I don't think it brought me to God at all.  It depends how you deal with it.  And I think that, at its best, three little words that always have to be applied to religion, religion can help you to deal with that.  Not by giving you some **** story about how Jesus loves you anyway and you'll soon be reunited with everybody upstairs.  But helping you to do some serious work on yourself, psychological work on yourself, helping you to deal with your fears, helping you not to exclude other people, but to let them in on your sorrow.  Help you not to sink into a morass of self-hatred and egotism, and that's a continual challenge and it doesn't just come with singing a couple of hymns.  This requires hard discipline, serious work.

And if you sit lightly to ego – I'm not at this stage yet, I have to say, but I'm still struggling towards it – but if you teach yourself, day by day, all day and every day, as Confucius said, to sit lightly to ego, putting ego on the back burner and putting yourself in the place of another, it doesn't seem quite so terrible when you get ill yourself.

Recorded on November 16, 2009
Interviewed by Austin Allen


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