The Stone of Madness

When I was away over Christmas I read Magda Subanzki’s autobiography ‘Reckoning’. You might know Magda better as Sharyn Strezleckie (from Kath and Kim – she is Kim’s second best friend) or Esme Hoggett from Babe, or to take it back a bit you may remember Michelle – the super-bogan from the Comedy Company with her mate Ferret? And there is of course Magda the Irish dancer…

Subanszki is one of Australia’s most successful comedians and her book is a gem. A really honest and raw piece of writing as she tries to come to grips with who she is in this world.

The opening of the book tells the story of her Polish father – who she describes as an assassin – because that’s what he was during the war. He killed people – many people – as a young man in the Polish undergound resistance army . And she writes about how she felt a terrible weight of shame because of her father. Later she felt shame from her migrant background – her struggle with weight gain and her sexuality.

But the book opens with a powerful image. She writes of a painting she has seen in the Museo Del Prado in Madrid, by a guy called Heironymous Bosch around 1494. It’s called ‘The Extraction of the Stone of Madness’ and it depicts the ‘medical procedure’ called ‘trepanation’ which was in those days supposed to be the cure for insanity.











What that means more specifically is that the surgeons drilled/hacked into your skull and then removed – something – what they called the stone of madness – and surprisingly many people survived… I doubt anyone went back for further treatment, but people made it out alive.

It was this curious belief that part of our brokenness was found in our physiology and if we just sort that out all will be well.

What Subanszki writes next is what I found intriguing. She says:

I swear sometimes I can feel that presence in my head. A palpable presence, an unwelcome thing that I want to squeeze out of my skull like a plum pip, using nothing but the sheer pressure of thought and concentration. If I just think hard enough… 


That stone was my father’s legacy to me, his keepsake. Beneath his genial surface, somewhere in the depths, I would sometimes catch a glimpse — of a smooth, bone-coloured stone. A stone made of calcified guilt and shame. I could feel it. I can feel it still.


This highly competent, very successful and much loved Aussie icon speaks in a very honest way of her struggle with guilt and shame – a struggle that goes on to this day – and those themes play out through her book.

And it’s a struggle beneath the surface of an otherwise apparently all together life.

What I love about Subanzki’s book is that she has been gutsy enough to say what plenty of other people feel but don’t dare say. ‘I’m not ok – there is something wrong with me – I can’t even articulate it properly – but it ends up with me feeling guilt and shame. And I wish I could shake it – but I can’t…’

I think if we were having this conversation with her, many of us would just want to reassure her – ‘you’re ok – there’s nothing wrong with you – just believe you are ok and you will be fine’.

But… I think she mighta tried that…

I’d want to say two things to Magda – two things I believe we can take from the Bible that speak to who she is – in fact they speak to all of us because what she experiences is not unique

The first is that yes you are ok – you are much more than ok! You are made in the image of God. You are created in the likeness of God and that is good! You aren’t a random evolutionary misfit that popped up on the planet by chance. The Psalms says he knew you before you were born and he has plans for you – he wants the best for you. More than that he loves you.

The creator of the universe sees you and loves you

You matter to him – you are of immense worth.

But I’d also want to say ‘you’re right – in your feeling that something is wrong – that you’re not ok – you’re spot on – none of us are ok.’

Sooner or later we all feel what you described – that sense of guilt and shame about our life – that somehow it doesn’t stack up – that somehow we are less than we could be.’ That we have done things we never thought we’d do and been people we never thought we’d be…

And we bear the guilt and shame of our stuff ups. And no matter how we try – Nothing we do can fix it.

Perhaps you might have either seen the movie The Kite Runner or read the book. It follows the story of a young boy called Amir who abandons and betrays his friend Hassan. Hassan lives in his home where his father is a servant. One day Amir watches him get brutally beaten up and assaulted and he says nothing – he does nothing. In fact when he gets home he has Hassan’s father dismissed from his job because he can’t live with the shame of his own failure.

The book opens with these words ‘there is a way to be good again’. And the rest of the story looks at how Amir seeks to atone for his failure and his betrayal to help his friend – how he tries hard to erase his guilt and shame and find his way in life again – to be ‘good again’.

That theme of redemption is common in literature – and my hunch is that it’s so common in our stories because it is so common in humanity. The quest for a life that is noble and honourable and good and the desire to overcome the evil that lurks in us – to somehow ‘right the ship’.

None of us wants to live a bad life. None of us wants to screw up our own lives or the lives of others. But because we are naturally self centred – because it is part of our DNA to seek our own interests first – that is the trajectory our life will take unless there is another power at work. Unless a new imagination of life can grasped, we will inevitably find our lives veering in that direction. Like a car with dodgy steering it takes all of your effort just to keep the thing on the road.

Most people live trying to balance the scales of life so that the ‘good’ they do outweighs ‘bad’ but they never really know if they’ve done enough – or if they’ve done enough if that ‘enough’ was done with the right motives – and will it count?

How do you become ‘good’ again? Can you become good again?… How can you erase guilt and shame? What does it mean to live well – to live a full life – to live in ‘shalom’ – peace – wholeness and goodness as God intends?

With your iphone you can plug it in and restore it – take it back to its factory settings. How can you do that with life?

It begins with accepting the reality that you are broken – you are not the person you hoped you would be. Sooner or later as you go thru this life you come to the dark realisation that you are messed up and your brokenness affects everything about you and everything you do.

Some of us hide that well – we appear to be ‘together’ – while for others of us it just leaks out all over the place and there is a big ‘mess’. And I’m not talking about being criminally messed up – I’m just talking about realising that because of who you are life does not seem to work as it should.

Because of who you are you never feel content. Because of who you are your marriage is always on the edge. Because of the person you are its hard to keep a job – or its hard to have friends. Because of who you are your finances are in a mess. Because of who you are your kids are living dysfunctional, destructive lives.

And you despise your part in your own dysfunction, but you don’t know what to do… You don’t have an answer…except to try harder next time.

And even if your life is not in chaos – you still know in your guts that something is not right. The quest to attain to the kind of life we hope for feels always out of reach.

It’s where the Jesus story offers such great hope. There is a ‘way to be good again’, but it doesn’t stem from our own efforts and our own ability to right the ship. It comes from his willingness to take the penalty for our sin and to rise again and offer that power to us to follow him and live differently.

There is way to be good again, but it’s rooted in God’s love for us and his grace rather than in earning our way back into his favour. I’ve said it before ‘Grace trumps Karma every time!’ The Bible says in Romans that God has shown us how much he loves us in that while we were sinners – broken and messed up – Christ died for us.

There is a way to be good again, but it finds its energy in the salvation God offers through Jesus rather than in our own moral actions. In his letter to the church in Ephesus Paul wrote that it is by God’s grace we have been saved through faith in Jesus so that no one can boast. It is Jesus who is the source of life – the source of salvation and nothing we can do ourselves.

Its totally counterintuitive and this isn’t a theme we see in much literature. Most of our redemption stories are people pulling themselves up by their bootstraps and ‘making good’.

If you look at your life with a degree of despair sometimes, then that’s not a bad thing. It’s an acceptance of reality – that you are broken. Plenty of people can’t see their own brokenness. – plenty of people feel their own ‘stone of madness’ deep in the psyche. But it’s where you go from there that matters. You can’t fix yourself, but God can.

God wants to – its why he sent Jesus to be the one who dies for us – the one who takes the hit for all of our stupid choices and terrible stuff ups. He takes what was due to us and allows us to walk free into life – right with God and empowered to live in a whole new way.

There is a way to be good again and that way is Jesus.

4 thoughts on “The Stone of Madness

  1. Great reflections there Hamo…may you continue to walk free and lead others in your train. Bless ya mate!

  2. One of the simplest, clearest and most profound pieces I’ve read in a long long time. Thanks for the time to reflect and write it

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