Spiriuality, Mental Health and the World we live in


Depression and Anxiety: Your not going mad, go and get help!

It is important to remember that feeling anxious or depressed belongs to being human. It is very normal. You are not strange, peculiarly weak and certainly not bad. You are suffering from normal human distress, the sort of distress that has darkened peoples lives from the beginning of civilisation.

Life can be wonderful, it can also be hard and painful. We all suffer loss in this world, we all are oppressed by worries that can become so intense as to give rise to wearing, debilitating stresses. When someone close to us dies, for instance, we may well find ourselves suffering from that depressive state we call bereavement. If we begin a new job, or are perhaps physically threatened , or if, say, we are told that we need to go into hospital to have a major operation, we naturally become anxious, sometimes extremely so. When we are tired and run down these states can become intensified. If the tiredness increases, and perhaps other things crop up and crowd in on us as well, the anxiety and depression may become so debilitating we may need to go to the doctor and get some help – maybe tablets or a referral to a counsellor, or both. It is important to remember that high anxiety and depression, including some of their more bizarre manifestations –  compulsive washing and checking, say, or frightening thought that you might die, that the innocuous pimple on your arm is a melanoma, or that you might hurt someone, even someone you love and such ideas also frighten and appal you –  all this is often merely an exageration, an intensification  of normal emotional tendencies. It may potentially affect any human being. Don’t wait, then. Certainly do not fear telling a health professional about it, as though they will be shocked or treat you as a dangerous lunatic. No one will try and lock you up or take your children away, so go and get help!

It’s horrible when emotional distress builds to the point that it interferes with our physical health, our work and family relationships. We not only feel down, we reproach ourselves for feeling down, we feel responsible for our condition. We attribute our condition to our own weakness and stupidity. We become very self obsessed and carry a growing sense of guilt over being a burden to others, especially those we live with. It makes us feel so tired that we can hardly motivate ourselves to do anything. Plagued by frightening thoughts we look for reassurances from the people around us, who get fed up of our questioning because their reassurances only seem to help for a short while before we have to ask again. All in all we wonder how long people will put up with us. And if we are on our own the prospect of fears spiralling out of control in the midst of isolation is terrifying. There looms a nightmare vision of there being no one left to help, comfort and distract us, to tell us that the thoughts going around and around in our mind are lying to us about how important they are, about how real is the thing we fear, that everything will be ok. Let me say here and now, these feelings are liars. You will not die from this, you will not go mad, you will eventually find peace again. You will feel yourself again. you will find your confidence in the everyday again. I’ve been there; I know.

We, you, are not psychologically malformed, you are not mad, crazy or whatever we want to call it. And though you can walk down the street, see people getting on with things and construe from this that the rest of the world is ok and its only you who feels and thinks like this, the fact is that behind the eyes there are an awful lot of people out there who feel like you. Anyone may go there, its not all about some unique weakness of mind possessed only by yourself. In fact the reason why so many of us suffer from these things – and we do – is that the world we live in is so often not conducive to healthy, human psychological functioning. Indeed it is often said that things like anxiety and depression are a healthy reaction to an unhealthy environment.

The human animal is in many ways still a ‘caveperson’.  We are built to react to, and deal with, intense but short-term dangers. An animal or an opposing tribe attacks and you react by running or fighting. We are made to deal with an intense short lived crisis and  thence our system returns to normal. In modern circumstances, however, people are subjected to much less intense but much more long term pressures. Pressures at work or home that go on months and years can take their toll and tire an individual to the point where their body and mind revolts and they need time and rest (and often the help of others) to recover. Anyone can go this way if the pressures are of the right kind (the particular thing, we might say, that ‘preses your buttons’), and no one is immune though many people like to think they are.

Many people try to struggle on alone, they think admitting depression or anxiety is a sign of weakness. Many people, particularly men (though by no means only men), are encouraged not to give any hint of weakness.  In film and fiction the ‘winner’ is a 110% heroically invulnerable individual, competing manfully and emerging on top. People in business, police say, or military, even the odd cleric on occasions, are reluctant to admit to weakness instead attempt to carry on through a mask that tells the rest of the world that ‘everything is OK with me’. The pressure builds behind the façade and sometimes, in an attempt to maintain the illusion, some resort to drugs, others to alcohol, others just live out a long. lonely nightmare. But we are all weak and vulnerable in some respect or other, we all need the help of others from time to time and it is just the idiocies of popular opinion that seem to suggest that any of us can avoid these things. To start to really get back to yourself, go and seek help.


The way we are with each other doesn’t help

Beware the need to compete with others in the arena of the everyday. ‘I don’t’ compete with others’ I hear you say.  Sadly the reality is that we all do it. We are not even conscious of it half the time. Lets analyse the way we converse with one another. So many of our conversations with others are far too concerned with either the defence or the ‘bigging up’ of our ego. We try to impress one another with how clever we are, how interesting, together and strong. We defend our opinions way beyond the point that they hold up against other views because it always seems better that we should be seen to be right than that we should be true. We defend ourselves against criticisms, not only when  we really believe we are in the right, but still more virulently when we  suspect that we are in the wrong. The chief aim, as ever, in this competition of egos, is that we are seen to be in the right, and we probably know of circumstances in which this competition has become quite aggressive.

The world we live in encourages a sense that we the individual as the only REAL reality. Only we and those closest to us, perhaps, matter. Human beings, unless they are shaped by traditions and institutions to be trusting, loving and generous, do tend to opt for a default position of suspicion of another and defensive competition. The individualistic, competitive ethos of popular culture colludes with this. Again we might not be explicitly aware that such a sense exists, and most of us are brought up to consider others and so on. In this sense the forces within us compete.  But the public, adult world is suffused with popular media images in which the ideal is that of the self contained, self sufficient, self confident and, it has to be said, self satisfied, individual. He or she is the one that has won out over all and with property and lifestyle has attained the beautiful life.

The object of the game of life in these circumstances then becomes the attainment of this beautiful life of individual self realisation, a life for self and at best those closest to us. Everyone else then becomes too often mere bit-part players in the story of our life, means to our ends, to be forgotten as we move through the layers of success – if indeed we do succeed. Too often other people hardly even exist for us as we go about in a kind of normalised social Aspergers. It seems extreme too say but there is a sense in which we sometimes hardly even know that others are there: we look without looking, listen without listening, conversations becomes not so much dialogues as they are monologues with each sentence from the other being a mere pause in our attempt to say everything we want to say.

We are want to give the impression of rock like invulnerability and the need for nothing and no-one outside the self[ this is, of course, a massive defence as though saying to the world, ‘you can’t hurt me so don’t even try’. Well, we are clever – on times – we are strong, creative, made in the image of God. But the paradox is that we only come close to the super being we could be through coming to terms with vulnerability and dependence.  With this last word ‘dependance’ we have come to the nub. We are dependant on on other things, other people and the forces of meaning and truth that are carried in the life of the peole around us. We must look outwards, therefore, attend to these as much as to ourselves. Fpor too long now we have been encouraged merely to look after ourselves and our families. Whatever one may think iof the selfishness that this implies, looking after just ourselves and families and ignoring the rest of the world is not to look after ourselves at all. To care for us and ours we must care for the wider reality before which we are all vulnerable and upon which we all depend.  The true strength of an individual derives from an acknowledgement of the truth of theirs and all our condition. We are capable of great things, but to succeed in life one has to begin with an acknowledgement that we are both strong and also weak, capable and also dependant, able to withstand and occasionally given to fall, all of this is what we are. All this is true about us. And for the times when we are weak, vulnerable, frightened and in need we must prepare, know where to find help when it becomes necessary.   We must come to terms with the reality that we are all vulnerable and dependant creatures, but in so doing this may be the true source of the release of powers and abilities to succeed. So, if you are one feeling as though you are actually loosing control in the ways we have described, and many of us do, do not suffer in silence, vists a GP or NHS counsellor, find some help. It is not a matter of being weak, it is simply a matter of being human.

It is also worth remembering that apart from anything else some of the greatest figures in history have suffered emotional turmoil. It is speculated, for instance, that Martin Luther and John Bunyan probably suffered from OCD. It is thought that Oliver Cromwell suffered from bouts of what would then have been termed the melancholia, there are even indications from his writings in the New Testament that such a thing afflicted St Paul. Certainly we know from their own testimonies that the English philosopher, political economist and campaigner, John Stuart Mill, and the great statesman Winston Churchill, also suffered so.

Anxiety as a characteristic of our age

Some ages generate anxiety more than others. Historians often think of the 16th and 17th centuries as ages of anxiety. At this time people encountered huge upheavels in their traditional ways of life, particulalrly their religious ways of looking at the world. This destabilisation of the marker posts of peoples lives undermine human beings’ ability to deal with the realities of their existence, realities like vulnerability before the contingency of life, our lack of control and the reality of our mortality. Our own time is similarly characterised by great shifts in the worldviews that people are born into, the moral and spiritual marker posts that help them to find their way through life with all that life throughs up. In fact there has never been an age like ours so focused on leaving the individual to sort out for themselves their answers to questions of right and wrong, true and false, who and what they are and what they are for. Thus our own time is dogged by anxiety.
It has been argued convincingly by many writers that there has never been an age so devoted to the production of profit for its own sake as our own. This plainly has its detrimental effects on the lives of peoples who, in various ways, are used by a huge profit making machine for its own purposes and in utter indifference to their needs. The machine draws human beings in and often mangles them in its efforts to reproduce and expand profit, or capital, over and over. The ‘machine’ in question was built by human beings but it has taken on a life of its own. We talk about the economy, the market, the movements of shares as though they are forces likes gods with their own capricious will and desire. We do not control these, rather they control us: we are encouraged to believe that we must repond and react to theirmovements and needs. In this way we are made to sacrifice our freedom, our will, to the production of profit rather than the production of profit being employed to develop the life, the freedom and wholeness of human beings.
There are two principle ways in which the machine draws us in and extracts what it can from us even at the expense of our physical, pyschiatiric and spiritual wellbeing: as workers and as consumers. And so, for instance, the machine generates an unhealthy, figgity discontent in human beings reduced to consumers. Advertising media constantly present images of happy, content people who are that way because they have bought the item that the vendor is peddling. They show cars, domestic entertainment systems, make up and perfume, and make deliberate associations with these in their advertising with images of a beautiful life. The message is clear, discontent will always be yours until you have this thing and then you will be happy. Nevertheless, people can never be allowed to rest in contentment with their new stuff for long (even if it was not the case that we always grow bored with out new bits and pieces). Any peace and satisfaction has to be disturbed, yuou must be made to ‘itch’ again, because if you were too content, too satisfied with your lot, you would no longer want the stuff that the peddler is peddling. Economies that depend upon expansion of profit depend upon the generation of discontent in order to keep expanding.
Becoming consumers with the right to choose what beans or soup we are going to take off the shelves, has as its less prosaic, grander and idealistic legitimation, our rights as individuals to choose who and what we will be. Where this isn’t a complete delusion, where this is something of a reality of contemporary western, liberal life, it is still a very two headed beast.
There is a huge amount to be said for the freedom and lattitude of the modern world. As an ordinary individual I can be so much more than my ancestors could be. Our ancestors were born to take up specific roles according to class and gender. So, for instance, a boy might know from the outset that they are to take up their father’s trade or title. A girl will grow to be married, take up the role of a housewife and mother or at least mistress of the house, or perhaps go into some kind of religious community. There were limited options: certain races were excluded or included, certain forms of religious expression and certainly there were forms of sexuality that were ruled very much inadmissable.
For all that we 21st century liberal westerners might have a great deal of difficulty with the sort of attitudes that prevailed in previous social orders, these people at least lived within a very clear sturcture of meaning. Certain things were true and false, good or evil and so on. God was in his heaven, hell was down below, the enemy was clearly positioned as such (and as undoubtably evil), in the popular imagination – according to the particular period to which we are referring – the king or queen was accepted as on the throne and ruling through the nobility, the ruling class, the magistrate, priest and so on.
Our world is much less formed. We are more mobile and less restricted than we have ever been. It is not that there exists a perfect freedom or perfect mobility, in fact moving up the economic ladder is still a desperately difficult matter, and doubtless there are many women, various racial groups, and gay people who would argue that there are still battles that need to be fought. But the fact is that there is no longer any overarching framework of values or mores, no all pervasive class structure capable of allocating an individual their place in the scheme of things. We are individuals with, on the surface at least, the right each to determine their own framwork of meaning and to choose their identity. This can be both a liberation and a curse.
This openenness, what the sociologist Zygmund Bauman called, ‘liquid society’, is sometimes talked about as an unmitigated triumph, an unambiguous good. I must say that for myself I would not want to turn the clock back, but there has been a high price to pay for this new freedom. Sometimes we simply do not know who or what we are or what we are for. The power of any belief, any framework of meaning and means of orientation in the world, religious or otherwise, is only as powerful and convincing as when nearly everyone believes the same thing and this simply is no longer avialble. For most people, therefore, there is no potent, life ordering meaning beyond work and home, buying and selling, a finite span of life and then death. Beyond that? Well, people whistle in the dark and entertain fantasies and folk mythologies but it is arguable whether on the deepest level they really believe in these or that, like the comfortable myths of Christmas, these are tales to keep us warm as we travel through the cold wasteland.
What this means is that we have a deep seated intuition of ourselves as being alone in the world, an individual atom bouncing up against other individual atoms. We feel self-contained and there are the myths that we related above that help to reinforce this. But that self containment can also be a prison, a cell from which we long to escape and make real contact with others. Only in that contact, in the interdependency of one person linked with another through some intuitively shared faith or belief, can we feel that we face the difficulties that afflict us together rather than as alone, and so often when these arrive it is difficult to see them as anything other than momentous and overwhelming.
There is work if you can get it. In fact there is either too much or too little work. A damocles sword is held over the head of those in work. They are often made to work too long hours, made to accumulate too much stress, made to work with tools they neither own nor control, to make things they neither own or control, according to time and motion management they neither own nor control and they give up the products of their labor to a market they simply watch open mouthed like primitives staring in awe at the wrestling of gods. They are thrown together with people with whom they compete for jobs as well as co-operate with, and in the end their association with one another lasts only as long as a contract. Work should be something that we realise ourselves through, define ourselves in relation to each other. It is a means through which we come together and develop our powers and identities together, in relation to each other. Instead it becomes a means of our psychiatric and spiritual impoverishment for the sake of the machine. But it is either that or unempoyment and as time goes by the lot of the unemployed underclass becomes more and more a vision of hades to discipline and control working labor.
Reality is something too often intuited as grasped only through the perspective of the solitary ego, standing like a weakly rooted plant ready to be ripped out of place by any strong wind. To face all of this there are a myriad of entertainments if, that is, you’ve got the cash to buy some kind of entertainment system, TV, DS, PS4 or whatever. But in the most brutally assaulting of crises, all these will fall away as things to help us to forget (all perhaps drink or drugs but they have their own price in the end). And then there is death, and this almost ceertainly takes away the meaning of any of the above distractions.
I’m afraid that in all this distraction we are not encouraged to think to much. Thinking might motivate us to reasess our priorities, see what is really important and become unhooked for a moment from the disatisfaction that pushes out to buy more. Even in the Church sometimes people become encouraged to live their Christianity through weak, Sunday school platitudes. Unfortunately none of these things will help us to live in the world as it is, to live with contingency, change, threat, life and death. For that something deeper is required, that is we must be prepared to enter into a deep spirituality.
Spirituality is often popularly linked with beautiful feelings, an appreciation of beautiful scenery, art maybe or having a cultivated personality. It is sometimes linked with finding some kind of removed, detached quiet that makes you untouched by the pain of the world. Tjis is just an extension of the solitary atomism that is encouraged elsewhere – it is just its nicer version and is the very opposite of Christian spirituality at least.
But spirituality, in its boardest, non-denominational sense is that ability to grasp meaning and purpose in what sometimes seems like the gross anarchy and meaninglessness of the universe around us. It is that longing and working toward finding a meaning and truth that is bigger than us and which puts us and our troubles into some context. THis is why, of course, the spiritual search is so often liked to the search for God, but it deasn’t have to be.
By making contact with a truth that is larger than us, that takes in everyone else and the things of the world, we are brought out of ourselves a bit more. In this way we become able to see things, including ourselves, as situated within a greater whole. We see ourselves and our ills from a wider perspective, some have called this seeing ‘under the eye of eternity’, though of course we can never leave our time or place altogether. Again this is why spirituality is most often associated with matters religious. But spirituality doesn’t have to be religious even if plainly many people have derived spiritual understanding and strength of faith through the wisdom that the great religions contain.
We develop our spiritual senses through experience, wisdom and deep thought, and especially with other people. In so mant ways it doesn’t matter, I believe, whether you emerse yourself in Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Humanism or whatever source of wisdom the world contains, on your spiritual search. But it is important that you do this within some community that stewrds some tradition. Even many atheist philosophers have their ‘community of faith’, and ancient wisdom that they draw upon such as Greek philosophy. It is important that you are part of a community of people that meditate upon, and study and in some cases worship, together, a mutually supportive, discursive community that is searching with you. You can be aitheist, theist, Deist, Jew, Catholic, Budhist, Seikh, but the important thing is that the search for meaning is not an individualist enterprise. Certainly in the end you have to make your own choice about what makes sense to you, no-one can do that for you. But that decision should really be made with the help and support of those who search for truth together within whatever tradition.

At St Augustine’s, of course, we search within the traditions of Christian Spirituality. We are always ready to discuss this with anyone and welcome anyone, of whatever belief, to come and search with us. For us one of the most important means of combating that whcih afflicts us in this age of anxiety is precisely the spirituality that belongs to the gospel of Jesus Christ.