Calibrating the messiah complex: a success and a failure
It had been Fat’s delusion for years that he could help people. His psychiatrist once told him that to get well he would have to do two things; get off dope (which he hadn’t done) and stop trying to help people (he still tried to help people). — VALIS1
|Bill Murray as Phil Connors attempting to revive a dying homeless man in Groundhog Day
Columbia Pictures, 1993.
The term “messiah complex,” though used occasionally by both laypeople and mental health professionals, has no formal meaning in clinical psychology. It is thus likely that many who look up this term will at some point come across its Wikipedia definition: “a state of mind in which an individual holds a belief that they are, or are destined to become, a savior.” Most readers would probably not self-identify with such a state.
However, clinical and forensic psychologist Stephen Diamond writes in Psychology Today2:
“We all have a ‘messiah complex’ dwelling deep within. But not everyone becomes completely possessed and grandiosely inflated by it. The desire to redeem and ‘save the world,’ when kept in check, can be a very positive force in life, motivating us to do good and to leave the world a better place—if only infinitesimally—than when we came into it.”
As per this conception, the term can be stripped of any grandiose religious connotations and reduced to the simple definition: messiah complex—the desire to help others.
And since Diamond hints that a complex not kept in check may become a source of suffering, the following definition will also be offered: messiah complex gone too far—when the degree to which one desires to help others exceeds the degree to which one can help others.
Harold Ramis’ film Groundhog Day and Philip K. Dick’s novel VALIS are two surreal stories whose respective protagonists each struggle with a “messiah complex gone too far.” In the end, however, only one of these characters learns to accept his limitations. (In other words, only one of these characters successfully recalibrates his messiah complex.) The other character suffers.
Groundhog Day begins with its main character, Phil Connors, as an unlikeable selfish egotist. In what can perhaps be called “divine punishment,” he soon finds himself reliving the same day ad infinitum. (To be clear, his own memory persists from day-to-day, but the world external to him reverts every twenty-four hours to the conditions on 6:00 AM, February 2.) Though never explicitly stated, the audience can reasonably infer that Phil’s purgatory will end only if he evolves into a more selfless human being.
On recognizing that his behavior has no lasting consequences, Phil first becomes an exaggerated version of his pre-punishment self: a gluttonous, thieving, manipulating social misfit. But despair soon sets in when he fails to get everything he wants—in this case, “the girl”—and several successful suicides result. (Again, the conditions revert to 6:00 AM, February 2 every 24 hours.)
Phil then sheds his narcissism and begins cultivating a messiah complex. His helping deeds range from fixing an elderly woman’s flat tire to reassuring a bride with cold feet to catching a child falling from a tree. During the simple act of bringing hot coffee to his co-workers on a cold winter morning, Phil wears a subtle smile. It is perhaps his first genuine smile of the film.
But Phil’s messiah complex eventually goes too far. Following one of his futile attempts to save a dying homeless man, a doctor says to Phil, “Sometimes people just die,” to which he responds, “Not today.” Phil remains plagued by his limited powers until, in a humbling moment, he looks towards the sky as if to acknowledge: “You’re God; I’m human.”
This image immediately precedes the film’s depiction of Phil’s last day in his “divine punishment”; recalibrating his messiah complex proves to be Phil’s final lesson.
It should be noted that VALIS can be appreciated for both its semi-autobiographical nature and its radical treatise on metaphysics. The story, however, is also about a man with a messiah complex gone wrong, and the following analysis will focus solely on this one particular aspect.
VALIS differs from Groundhog Day in that its protagonist, Horselover Fat, starts with a messiah complex that has already gone wrong. In the beginning, Fat fails to save a suicidal friend from killing herself. He then slips into a nervous breakdown of self-doubt, guilt, and two of his own suicide attempts. A similar story plays out when Fat “fails to save” another close friend (this one with cancer) soon afterwards.
But rather than recalibrate his messiah complex at this critical juncture, Fat’s desires to help others inflate only further. Following a revelatory experience that Fat believes has shown him the true nature of the universe, his messiah complex evolves to a literal messiah complex—that is, he commissions himself with the task of locating humanity’s next savior. VALIS eventually ends by depicting a schizophrenic narrator who is at once manically scouring the globe for the messiah and at the same time glued to his television in search of subliminal clues.
“‘You won’t give up,’ I said to Fat. ‘No,’ Fat agreed. ‘I never will. I’m going back—I ran out of money. When I’ve gotten the funds together, I’m going back. I know where to look, now. The Greek islands. Lemnos, Lesbos, Crete. Especially Crete…’”1
“My search kept me at home; I sat before the TV set in my living room. I sat; I waited; I watched; I kept myself awake. As we had been told, originally, long ago to do; I kept my commission.”1
The story’s conclusion suggests that Fat will suffer indefinitely as a result of his unfulfillable messianic desires.
It would be one of life’s great ironic tragedies if the sort of manic-psychotic suffering Fat endures truly does stem from the desire to relieve others’ suffering, and VALIS argues strongly that treatment for such individuals is paramount. When treatment fails, however, perhaps recognizing that this noblest of seeds—the messiah complex—is “dwelling deep within [us all]” can at least foster some empathy for the victims of this most unfortunate psychopathological condition.
- Dick, PK. VALIS. New York, NY: Bantam Books; 1981.
- Diamond, S. Messiahs of evil (part three): what exactly is a messiah complex? Psychology Today Web site. http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/evil-deeds/200805/messiahs-evil-part-three. Published May 20, 2008.
is a fourth-year medical student and ex officio Edward W. Hook Scholar in Humanities and Ethics at the University of Virginia School of Medicine in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Spring 2015 | Sections | Psychiatry & Psychology