Legitimizing and de-legitimizing mental illness

I’ve often thought that, along with environmental degradation, the current mental health crisis in the West most decisively indicates the rampant destructiveness of capitalism. In brief, capitalism leads us to participate in forms of life that create a perfect storm for the proliferation of debilitating mental illnesses. (Some of these “forms of life” might be: isolation from others and the earth, non-charitable competition, creation and elevation of exclusively individualistic goods, consumerism and immersion into constant advertisement and misinformation, a culture of exploitation that induces fear of the other and of vulnerability, prioritization of quantifiable production, objectification of our (and others’) bodies into impediments to be overcome or else sites of exclusively physical pleasure, narcissism and an inability to trust others, constant low-level anxiety over finances – and this list does not even begin to delve into the social problems, such as poverty and poor diet, that capitalism brings about and which obviously intersect with mental health.) I’m not necessarily claiming that without capitalism there would not be mental illness (I’d want to do more research first), but it seems apparent that capitalist forms of life greatly aggravate both the intensity and the frequency of mental illnesses.

I’ll try to illustrate. It is not difficult to see how somebody with an acute sensitivity to the world around her would, in a different society, find such a trait cultivated and utilized by her community, perhaps in a religious role. In contrast, unless she is quite lucky, in our society she should expect such a gift to be thanklessly used and exploited or else ignored. And this is to say nothing of the speed with which our world operates at and the volume of insensitive sensory information that screams out at us on streets, in stores, and on our (addicting) computers. Someone with an ability to attend to the emotions and needs of others (an amazing gift!) is, in western capitalism, all too likely to develop PTSD or SPTSD. Someone with a particularly strong need for mutual and meaningful dependencies (another wonderful gift) with multiple others will, in our society, need to “make it on his own” and will probably struggle with clinical depression. In sum, capitalism refuses and tramples on these and other latencies, which have so much positive potential but instead realize themselves as mental illnesses.

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God, first, is love: a probably uninteresting, but potentially important footnote to “towards a judgemental church”

This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for one another…. Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love…. God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them. In this way, love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgement, because in this world we are like him. There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment, because in this world we are like him. There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love. We love because God, first, loved us.

  • 1 John 3:16; 4:7-8, 16b-19

Through some discussion (not on this blog), I’ve come to the realization that my post from awhile back on the necessity of a judgemental church requires a footnote, a footnote that remembers the foundational claims that 1 John makes regarding who God is and what it means to know God. A good place to put this footnote might be after my parenthetical remark that “asking people whether they worship a “God of love” or a “God of judgement” is a tremendously stupid question.” I think that 1 John asks me to say more.

1 John reminds us that, to the extent that God judges it is because God is Love. We cannot reverse this claim. And thus the distinction between a God of love and a God of judgement starts to look pretty important after all. May the same be said of the judgemental church.

Making a difference or else?

As I thought more about my last post I started to wonder whether my attack on “making a difference” might encourage resignation or paralysis in the face of “a world on fire.” Certainly, I observe a fair amount of resigned and/or paralysed nihilism in the attitudes and actions of those around me. Perhaps such persons have caught on more quickly to the problems with “making a difference” and have taken this realization to its natural (resigned) conclusions.

I think that there is probably some truth to this. People concerned with the world around them become disillusioned, because making that difference either seems so impossible and difficult (grabbing control and imposing difference) or else so trivial (buying fair trade). Or else they see the destructiveness in the kind of difference-making that focusses on possession and control, in its various manifestations. Not knowing where else to turn, they sink into resignation, apathy, and paralysis.

But, the root of this apathy comes prior to the recognition that making a difference may be exhausting, unethical, damaging, stupid, or trivial. For we start down this path as soon as making a difference becomes primary. It’s this initial move that entraps us into a logic that must make change or else. What if, instead of saying “yes, the world is fucked, now go make a difference,” we said “yes, the world is fucked, so go do some good work”? If we didn’t start with the importance of making a difference in the face of evil, then, it looks to me like this kind of resigned apathy would have no source or sustenance. On the other hand, the opportunity to do good work might just mobilize people to work for good in our world, including that good which requires dramatic change at a systemic level.

On why I am starting to hate the idea of making a difference

“You’re making a real difference.”

So I was informed by the keynote speaker at a fair trade chocolate meal I was at. The action of buying a ticket to a three course gourmet chocolate-based meal was, apparently, making that bit of difference that this world needs.

Before I go on I’d like to state that I thoroughly enjoyed the event and am only supportive of fair trade initiatives. But, I hated being told, multiple times, that buying a ticket to a nice meal was making a difference and that I could make even more of a difference – you know, really make that difference – by buying more fair trade products.

On an immediate level my objection stemmed from being reduced to a consumer. I suspect that our speaker did not intend this, but her constant reassurance that we were making a difference (and could do more!) made me feel like my primary mode of agency – especially insofar as we’re talking about doing good – was in commodity consumption, and petty commodity consumption at that. In a related vein, I did not like someone naming my effortless evening out (an expense I undertook for fun) as something akin to the difficult and complex work of peace and justice. Buying fair trade coffee and chocolate is probably a good thing, at least in many situations; but we ought not to misname it. Continue reading

Merleau-Ponty on Conversation

In the experience of dialogue, there is constituted between the other person and myself a common ground; my thought and his are inter-woven into a single fabric, my words and those of my interlocutor are called forth by the state of the discussion, and they are inserted into a shared operation of which neither of us is the creator. We have here a dual being, where the other is for me no longer a mere bit of behaviour in my transcendental field, nor I in his; we are collaborators for each other in consummate reciprocity. Our perspectives merge into each other, and we co-exist through a common world. In the present dialogue I am freed from myself, for the other person’s thoughts are certainly his; they are not of my making, though I do grasp them the moment they come into being, or even anticipate them. And indeed, the objection which my interlocutor raises to what I say draws from me thoughts which I had no idea I possessed, so that at the same time that I lend him thoughts, he reciprocates by making me think too.

– M. Merleau Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, trans, Kegan Paul. New York: Routledge, 2002, p. 413.

Re: A Soldier Shunned

The Winnipeg Free Press published an article today on the phenomenon of Mennonite soldiers and WWII.

Over 40% of eligible Canadian Mennonites enlisted in the Armed Forces during WWII. The varying reactions this provoked at home, the activity of COs during and after the war, and the long-term results of this mass enlistment on the Canadian Mennonite community are all interesting, complex, and important stories.

Unfortunately, the Free Press seems to have taken this story as an opportunity for military propaganda. Soldiers are simply praised for accepting new values and bravely breaking with tradition, even when they did so because they “were looking for adventure.” The potential courage (and real consequences) of breaking with the sentiment of a country at war is not addressed or acknowledged in any manner. And, the author, Randy Turner, condemns those Mennonite churches who “shunned” unapologetic returning soldiers. It’s not explicit, but it seems like he, like those I wrote against a week and a half ago, thinks that the church should not be in the business of judging, but should rather unconditionally support each person in his or her individual choices. Add to this a number of historical discrepancies, and you end up with a very bad article. Continue reading