Part One of a Three-Part Series, Why Words Matter
You’re going to be annoyed with me for pointing this out, I promise. But, we say“crazy” all the time. “Crazy” has become the word we use for unprecedented events, tragedies, and unforeseen circumstances; for high gas prices and inflation; for how we are feeling on a daily basis; for acts of unspeakable evil; and for other people who don’t agree with us.
And like Inigo Montoya in The Princess Bride, I want to say to us: “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”
In this first part of my Why Words Matter series, in humility, I want to stop all this “crazy” talk, and ask you to join me. Name-calling of any kind distorts the purposes of God in our lives. So here are five reasons we should strike “crazy” from our vocabulary if we can.
One: Using “crazy” casually to describe any kind of unusual, irrational, or unhealthy behavior is unkind to the millions of people that struggle with mental health issues and mood disorders. You will hear victims of physical abuse and emotional gaslighting say they “feel crazy,” and that’s tragic. Because crazy actually means “mentally deranged, especially as manifested in a wild or aggressive way,” it’s not a label to throw around lightly.
Two: Using the word "crazy" for dysfunctional or unhealthy behavior stigmatizes mental health struggles. I used the term “crazy butter sandwich” to describe dysfunctional female friendships in my video Bible study series, and I’m ashamed of it now. Because people are less likely to seek counseling and treatment when our human struggles to navigate relationships and emotions are called “crazy,” “insane,” or “nuts.” “The problem with the word crazy,” says Christine Moutier, M.D., chief medical officer for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention “is it implies something other than a person living with a very complicated, profound health condition. It implies a characterological issue or personality flaw rather than a brain illness.”
Three: It’s dismissive, judgmental and literally damning to call someone “crazy.” Christ believed so deeply in the power of words, that he said “Anyone who calls his brother raca, fool, is in danger of judgement.” The Aramaic word raca declared someone to be worthless, deficient in reason, and irredeemable. When we call people crazy who don’t agree with us politically or religiously (be honest, you’ve done it in the last year, and so have I), we conclude that no “sane” person could believe differently than we do. We do not wish for their redemption or enlightenment; we are pronouncing judgement, as Jesus warned us against.
Seeing people as crazy cuts off both our curiosity and compassion. The next time you want to call a politician or conspiracy theorist “crazy,” see if you can replace that name-calling thought with, “I wonder what circumstances or experiences brought them to that conclusion.” This pattern affirms their humanity, even if see an extreme flaw in their reasoning.
Four: It’s inaccurate. Jessica Gimeno, a prominent mental health activist diagnosed with bipolar II, runs her own blog, and notes that “Someone who is racist — they are racist, not 'crazy.'”
Jesus was against calling people names, but he also spoke truth and called evil by its name. I’ll swerve out of my relational lane slightly to say this: Calling someone like Vladimir Putin “crazy,” is easy but inaccurate. His actions – bombing hospitals, refugee corridors, civilians in shelters -- prove him to be wicked, not “nuts.”
Why does this matter? Because there are people with mental illness that aren’t violent, and there are unspeakably evil people who are not mentally ill. Humans are capable of cruelty when they have all of their agency. This has profound meaning for us as citizens of the world and followers of Christ. We approach systems of justice and even our own boundaries correctly when we can distinguish between evil and mentally ill.
On a personal level, we cannot heal what we don’t name, or solve problems we cannot define. It’s spiritual and emotional laziness to call “crazy” what is actually heartbreaking, overwhelming, unthinkable. We say, “This war is crazy” when what we are afraid to say is, “My heart is broken over the state of the world.”
We also need to name and normalize strong feelings, rather than dismiss them with a catch-all label that shames us. I caught myself today on the phone saying, “It might sound crazy but today I’m feeling.” And I can tell you, objectively, the feeling I was having was extremely rational given a circumstance I faced yesterday. I claim that feeling as sane and healthy.
Five: To call ourselves, others, or circumstances crazy is disempowering. I’ve long taught groups of young moms to stop saying, “You kids are making me crazy.” First of all, let the kids think they have that much power! But more importantly, don’t let yourself think they have that much power. You have the ability to focus on your feeling and your boundary. For a downloadable guide to more empowering speech, click here.
When “crazy-making” circumstances are bigger than interpersonal ones (hello, pandemic), the word crazy still needs to go. We have big feelings in big challenges, and that is rational! So, name the struggle with depression, grief, stress, loneliness, uncertainty so that you can address it, because even in uncontrollable circumstances, we can have power over our inner lives. And in the circumstances in which we don’t have power instead of repeatedly saying, “This is crazy!” we can cry out to God.