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Health and Spirituality Department

Please remember, this column is designed to help the consumer seeking behavioral-health information, and not intended to be any form of psychotherapy or a replacement for professional, individualized services. Opinions expressed in the column are those of the columnist and do not represent the position of other SelfhelpMagazine.com staff.


I work at a church-based center for the homeless. We work long hours and my resistance is down so I've been having trouble with colds. A co-worker, however, suggested to me recently that it is the devil giving me these colds because the devil wants to interfere with our work on behalf of the homeless. A lot of people here, in fact, talk a lot about demons being inside of some of the more difficult people who come here. Can you comment?


First of all, whether the devil is involved in your colds or not, your overwork doesn't help. One vulnerability for persons working in areas of social justice is to become burned out. One of the early signs of burnout is physical illness, so your colds suggest that things are just a little out of balance for you. Many people in similar situations argue "But if I take time for myself, no one will do the work."

Perhaps. But if you keep going at a frantic base, you'll get even more ill and no work will get done! Further, most of us are more effective at what we do when we take breaks from it, renew our bodies, minds, and spirits, then go back into action. So, at the very least, take your colds as a warning.

Now to discuss the issue of demons. The concept of demons is quite often invoked to explain phenomena that have very worldly explanations. Many of the so-called demon-possessed persons of the New Testament are now understood to have likely suffered from quite human ailments such as epilepsy or various forms of mental illness. We are inclined to invoke other-worldly notions to explain that which we don't understand. Sadly, I have encountered more than a few persons who were traumatized by the well-meaning efforts of others to cast out demons from them.

On the other hand, our knowledge of and understanding of the transpersonal and spiritual dimensions of reality are limited. Further, many spiritual beliefs acknowledge the reality of objective evil. Such objective evil may indeed intersect with ordinary life. I think, for example, of a man I observed in a state hospital years ago. He believed himself to be possessed by several demons.

One in particular hissed in such a way that it made the man's teeth chatter. My suggestion that an exorcism be performed was dismissed. Sadly, the man was medicated, discharged, and then he went promptly to a nearby motel and shot himself.

The bottom line is to be cautious when dabbling in the realm of the transpersonal but to also take talk about the widespread presence of demons with a huge grain of salt. Exhaust human explanations and solutions first. If the problem persists, then consult with a spiritual authority or director. And be very careful allowing others to help you by "casting out demons."


Richard B. Patterson is a clinical psychologist in private practice in El Paso, TX. He is the author of three books on psychology and spirituality.


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