Category Archives: Depression

21st Century ‘Status Anxiety’ is Gospel ‘Worldliness’

Status Anxiety and the Scam Economy’: that’s the title of an opinion article in the New York Times, mid-March 2019. Triggered by the revelation of high-profile cheating in the admissions process to elite US universities such as Harvard and Yale, the article lists a series of such obsessive efforts to acquire or retain status in a ‘highly stratified society’ in just the last two decades.

Central to all of these is an obsessive anxiety over how one is perceived, in line with a principle attributed to Ivanka Trump: “Perception is more important than reality. If someone perceives something to be true, it is more important than if it is in fact true.”

Long gone in Ireland are the days when ostentatious fasting or prayer – or climbing Croagh Patrick in bare feet – could have earned social prestige, but that does not mean that the malady that underlies all ‘showing off’ has gone away.  To the extent that we believe that some kind of favourable social feedback is necessary to establish our own importance and dignity we remain forever trapped in Status Anxiety.  Spectacular glamour at the racetrack or the award ceremony and ‘hugging of the altar rails’ belong to different Irish eras but to exactly the same need for social reinforcement of our ‘right to be here’.

This is far from being a problem of only the socially elevated and frivolous. Severe consequences can follow for those who conclude that the social verdict upon themselves must necessarily be negative. In early March 2019 BBC NI reported that on average 28 cases of self-harm present themselves daily at NI hospital casualty departments.  Practices such as self-cutting are closely connected to the power of media to convince us that if our own image is not reflected back to us, or if we are ‘trolled’, we must not deserve to exist. 

Given that so many Irish young people are known to complain that ‘the Mass is not relevant to our lives’ it is now a matter of serious frustration to me that I have never yet heard a homilist point out that the Christian Creed is  essentially a refutation of the authority of all fashionable judgement. It insists that a man who was socially disgraced and obliterated had not only been raised to life by God but made the final arbiter of all ‘success’. The Gospels underline the message: the first shall be last and the one who was rejected would become the cornerstone of God’s kingdom.

This delay in ‘take up’  of the relevance of the Creed is due, of course, to the fact that in living memory Catholic clergy occupied the highest social status in Ireland. While the letters page of ‘The Irish Catholic’ are still  full of indignant resentment of the capture of Irish print and digital media by ‘forces hostile to the church’, how much current clerical despondency is due to the same misperception: that while ‘the church’ is socially reviled it cannot have any future.

That this is a profound mistake is plain from the recent historical record.  Irish Catholic clergy were never closer to disaster than when they themselves were Ireland’s brokers of honour and shame.  Irish anti-clericalism flourishes on a vivid folk memory of the parish priest who had the power to eject an unfortunate woman from her family home and even from the parish, and we will be reminded of all that soon again in the continuing story of the ‘Tuam babies’. 

It is time to recover the full import of Jesus final warning:

‘Listen; the time will come — indeed it has come already — when you are going to be scattered, each going his own way and leaving me alone. And yet I am not alone, because the Father is with me. I have told you all this so that you may find peace in me. In the world you will have hardship, but be courageous: I have conquered the world.’ (John 16: 32,33)

All inequality and injustice, all motivation towards social ascent for oneself and all social contempt for others arise from the mistake of believing in the authority of the society that envelops us to judge ourselves and others. 

To overcome this problem there is no alternative to the seeking of relationship with a higher authority, one that is timeless and transcendent, one that has ‘no favourites’.

And that is why the development of a habit of continuous prayer is crucial to our own health and the recovery of the church.  We need also a revised understanding of the history of the church. Clerical social elevation – and especially clerical capture of political power – was the root source of Irish societal revulsion toward Christianity.  And the roots of the church’s earlier evangelical spread lay in its earliest indifference towards social contempt.

It is time to understand why Jesus would tell us we are blessed when we are abused.  To be socially reviled is to have no option but to search for another deeper source of self-acceptance.  When we look, seriously, where Jesus looked we find the treasure hidden in the field – and can never again take fashionable judgement – the supposed wisdom of current public opinion – seriously. 

Far from being the end for Irish Catholicism, the secularist seizure of media power in Ireland – the power to award both honour and shame – needs to be seen as a liberation of the Irish Church. It marks a necessary separation of the church from ‘the world’, a separation necessary to the understanding of Jesus’s mission. We cannot find the Father so long as we ‘look to one another for glory’ – and he was never closer to us than he is just now, when we are truly ‘poor in spirit’.

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My Kind of Pope

Sean O’Conaill  © Reality June 2005

For an immigrant worker in Ireland suffering racial bullying, discrimination and isolation – who has more immediate power to improve the quality of his life and to proclaim the presence of Christ: his Irish Catholic workmates, or the Pope?

For the bullied child in an Irish classroom, whose compassion is more likely to make a difference – that of her Catholic classmates, or that of the Roman curia, twelve hundred miles away?

For those 300,000 Irish people who are clinically depressed because they have been deprived by modern society of all sense of their own beauty and dignity, who has more power to restore it: the pope in Rome, or their Catholic neighbours – prayerfully conscious of their obligation to build a warm, affirming and friendly community?

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The nub of all these questions is this: in exalting the papacy and central government of the Church, do we Catholics tend to undervalue our own potential – and evade our own obligation – to hasten the coming of the kingdom of God by exercising Christian leadership and initiative in our own space?

“I have the impression that the figure of the pope is praised too much. There is the danger of falling into the cult of the personality, which I absolutely do not want….”

It might surprise many Catholics that the source of these reservations about the papacy was none other than Pope John Paul I – and that they reflect very well indeed the attitude of the greatest pope of my lifetime, John XXIII. Had it not been for his calling of the second Vatican council in 1962, it is extremely doubtful that I would be a Catholic today.

It was Vatican II that proclaimed that truth itself ‘conveys itself by virtue of its own truth’ – not by virtue of the degree of pressure or coercion behind it. In accepting this principle of religious freedom – which had been ridiculed by Pope Pius IX – the church had set out decisively on a new relationship with modern society. The Church’s long toleration of religious coercion – justified by Augustine and many other great Catholic saints – had come to an end.

Own up to past mistakes

This process of owning up to the Church’s past mistakes continued under Pope John Paul II, and this for me was the most important creative aspect of his papacy. As a teacher of global history to schoolchildren I had often to deal with their dismay on hearing of the Inquisition, the long Catholic toleration of slavery, the forced baptism of the new subjects of Imperial Spain and Portugal, the persecution of the Jews. I could remain a Catholic only because my church had embarked on a road that would take it eventually – I felt sure – to an acknowledgement of its original mistake: the union of church and state under Constantine and his successors in the fourth century.

My ideal pope will acknowledge that mistake too, and fully endorse the principle of separating church and state, detaching the church finally from any association with coercive power.

It was Pope John XXIII also who insisted, in Pacem in Terris that the peace of the world depended upon the principle of the equal dignity of all. The Pope that I would like to see will insist that this principle applies to the papacy also. The process of removing all the pomp of a medieval monarchy must continue, demystifying the papacy. The tendency of the papal court to be self-regarding, and to exalt the pope as the only source of wisdom in the church, is a spiritual blemish that will become steadily more obvious in the television age.

Point to the Hollowness of Celebrity

And because my ideal pope will believe passionately in the principle of the equal dignity of all, he will also see through the hollowness of celebrity – perhaps the most dangerous feature of modern culture. Throughout the world, surveys of teenagers report that fame has become the great goal of most. Their ‘icons’ are pop singers, super models, film stars, sporting heroes. It is the advertised lifestyle of such people that fuels consumerism and endangers the global environment.

The desire for status, fame and singularity is what the Gospels call worldliness. In seeking to identify with those who are obscure, Jesus condemned it utterly. In accepting a shameful death he overcame it completely. His resurrection signifies especially his father’s exaltation of the virtue of humility.

A complete papal understanding of worldliness will therefore be expressed in uncompromising terms: it is not the pope, but the poor who stand highest in God’s hierarchy – so the media should give far more attention to the latter.

My ideal pope will therefore be self-deprecating, dismissive of pomp and inclined to send up media awe of himself. He will encourage every Catholic adult and child to ‘love God and do what you will’ to bring the reign of God in his and her own environment – because he, the pope, has less power to do so.

Restoring the freedom of the local church

Towards the end of the last papacy there was a celebrated debate between German Cardinals Ratzinger and Kasper over the relative importance of the universal and local church. Cardinal Ratzinger, a centralist, stressed the priority of the uniformity of the whole church, as determined by Rome. Cardinal Kasper stressed that the freedom of the local church is essential to its vibrancy – and therefore to the health of the whole. For him, unless the church is allowed to be primarily local, it will have no vital existence.

My ideal Pope will keep these two things in harmonious balance, so that Irish Catholicism can be free to be itself, without losing its Catholicity. There always has been a specifically Irish way of being Catholic – and we need to rediscover this with confidence.

Affirm the Mind of the Laity

Even in the era of Pope Pius XII Catholic children were taught to see themselves as temples of the Holy Spirit. Since wisdom is one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit, it is a restriction of the freedom of the Holy Spirit to deprive lay Catholics, young people especially, of a thinking and speaking role in their Church, a role especially in interpreting their own responsibility, given them by Vatican II – to consecrate the world to God.

This denial lies at the root of the alienation of a generation of young educated Irish Catholics from their own church in my lifetime. Although Irish bishops now often bemoan the rise of anticlericalism in Ireland, they still apparently cannot see that its most important source lies in their failure to create what Vatican II clearly envisaged – church structures that would allow all of the faithful to participate in a learning dialogue with their clergy and with one another.

As a consequence, all Irish Catholic life and education has suffered. Children who are subjected to an endless monologue from above soon lose interest – because they have effectively been told that their own questions, and their own intellects, are unimportant. Their role is merely to absorb the wisdom of someone else – like recording machines.

This was especially true in an era when virtually everyone became used to a learning environment in which students and teachers collaborate in asking, and answering, important questions. Unquestionable authorities, fearful of any divergence from the rigid verbal formulae of the catechism, and working out of an outdated understanding of education, have had a soporific, deadening effect on Catholic religious education generally.

Nothing else can explain the evaporation of baptised and confirmed Irish Catholic young people from our churches in recent times, almost as soon as they leave school.

This lack of respect for the mind of the laity, resulting in the continued denial of structures for internal dialogue and mutual enrichment, was the single greatest weakness of the last papacy. John Paul II virtually acknowledged this himself when, in September 2004 he told the US bishops that to hasten the healing of relationships in their own country they should create ‘better structures of participation, consultation and shared responsibility’.

As Vatican II had envisaged these by 1965, there never has been any good reason for four decades of delay in building them. Their absence as a means of hastening an earlier resolution of the problem of clerical child abuse, and avoiding the appalling scandals of the past decade, has had almost catastrophic consequences for the universal church.

End Clericalism

So my ideal pope will have no sympathy with the following:

“This church is in essence an unequal society, that is to say a society comprising two categories of persons, the shepherd and the flock….these categories are so distinct that the right and authority necessary for promoting and guiding all the members toward the goal of society reside only in the pastoral body; as to the multitude, its sole duty is that of allowing itself to be led and of following its pastors as a docile flock.”

This was a pronouncement of Pope Pius X – for whom lay people could never aspire to a leadership role. Instead, my ideal pope will say something like this:

“Having given all of his children the natural gift of intelligence, and having assured them also that the Holy Spirit would be with the whole church, the Trinity clearly intends that all of the faithful should participate in forming the mind of the church – especially in an era of universal education. Living as they do at the interface between the world and the church, the experience of lay people is a vital source of insight on the question of how we Christians are to help transform modern secular culture and reverse its steady disintegration. Bishops should therefore not only listen to their laity, but provide regular opportunities for doing so.”

Build a Global Family

Finally, my ideal pope will grasp fully the enormous potential of the church in a globally networked world to help build among all peoples, in cooperation with the other Christian and monotheistic traditions, a sense of global society as an extended family network – with the compassion to care for everyone.

Caring, like all popes, for the stability of family life he will call on all of us to make the world a safer place for children, less concerned with individual ambition than with the sufferings of those who can’t compete.

He might also at some point say:

“Every Christian adult or child, in reaching out spontaneously and lovingly towards another person in need, becomes a vicar of Christ – doing what we in Rome cannot. Popes should recognise that God often wishes to move his children directly. We must not get in the way by trying to control everything. We too need to trust in God, and to ‘chill out’ – for God has everything in hand.”

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The Spiritual Dimension of Mental Illness

Sean O’Conaill © Doctrine and Life, Nov 2001

When we read the gospel accounts of what are clearly encounters between Jesus and what we now term ‘mental illness’, we experience again the full force of the Enlightenment’s rejection of the supernatural. Demonic possession is now the domain of Stephen King and the X Files – and ‘scientific’ psychiatry, relying heavily on physiological explanations for mental disturbance, has commandeered the care of the damaged soul. This is just one area of intellectual expertise and social care that the churches have lost to secularization – apparently beyond recall.

Yet if we are to take seriously a recent Irish book on the subject, the current pharmaceutical bias of much psychiatry is itself a confidence trick, in danger of compounding the growing problem of mental illness, especially of what is called clinical depression. Dr Terry Lynch in Beyond Prozac1Beyond Prozac: Healing Mental Suffering Without Drugs by Dr Terry Lynch alleges not only that currently fashionable drugs are likely to create a new dependency, but that their use is justified by bad science, that it merely suppresses symptoms, and that it commonly delays recovery by failing to elucidate the experiential factors which often lie at the root of the problem, and to provide the caring and sympathetic relationship that is needed to address them.

Pointing out that insulin deficiency can be demonstrated to be the cause of diabetes by a blood test which proves the deficiency, followed by the replacement of the missing substance, Dr Lynch points out that although psychiatrists commonly claim a biological imbalance or a genetic deficiency to lie at the root of depression, they make no blood or any other kind of biochemical test, for example for the level of serotonin. Yet so powerful has the mystique of the profession become that journalists will happily tout serotonin as the ‘happiness’ substance in the brain – and marvel at drugs such as Prozac as the magic solution to its absence.

In fact, although some prominent Irish psychiatrists will debunk what they choose to call the ‘endless talk’ approach to mental illness, they are also forced to admit that they do not know exactly what physiological processes underlie it, or how exactly their pharmaceutical solutions actually ‘work’.

The diagnosis of ‘clinical depression’ is especially interesting. It appears that one can trigger this diagnosis by being especially sad. A sense of hopelessness; of being unable to cope; of continual lassitude; of loss of ambition or interest in a hobby; of meaninglessness; of social fear or inadequacy; of low self esteem: a given number of these symptoms will transfer us from the realm of the mentally fit into that of the mentally ill – and this given number can vary geographically.

The truth about western culture seems to be this. If we become so emotionally distraught as to be unable to ‘function normally’, we are mentally ill, and need, in many cases, pharmaceutical support.

It follows from this that normality, and mental health, is now apparently defined by many psychiatrists in anaesthetic terms: we do not feel negative emotions to a degree that will impair our ‘function’. We are, in other words, unassailable by emotional pain. In the context of a world subject to all sorts of pressure, stress, decay and danger, and in which individuals more and more commonly experience severe trauma, this, when we think about it, is altogether ludicrous.

The presumption that psychic buoyancy and autonomy is the norm, that normal people do not ‘break down’ and become persistently distraught, is of course, of great benefit to at least one current economic ideology. In the Thatcher era a popular one-liner ran as follows: “A Bore is someone who, when you ask him how he is, he tells you!”

This goes close to the heart of one of our deepest social problems: beyond a certain low threshold we do not wish to be burdened with one another’s problems. When we ask “How are you?” there is usually an iron rule that the answer will not disturb our own momentum – that any declaration of unwellness will stop short of a claim upon our time, will end with an insistence that our friend, or even sibling, is ‘really ok’. There is, in other words, a rigid ethic of self-sufficiency – especially among males. The purpose of our education is to make us personally autonomous, and we are now educated to believe that we are less than whole if we lose this autonomy thereafter.

This is in itself a complete explanation for the fact that ‘breakdown’ brings us to psychiatry, for it is a radical loss of autonomy. The psychiatrist is the professional expert on those who have ‘cracked up’ – for no-one else is either competent enough, or confident enough, to cope.

Yet an hour’s reflection will show us that emotional autonomy is a myth. Even the ‘successful’ person is dependent upon others to deliver a verdict of success, and one cannot lift a newspaper without tumbling over the rampant attention-seeking that the wannabe-successful wallow in. We are relational, not autonomous beings, which means that our emotional health must be closely related to the quality of our relationships, past and present.

Furthermore, we are role-playing beings, often desperately trying to fulfil the expectations of an employer or a colleague or a relative. We are often, in other words ‘trying to be’ the person we suppose we ought to be – and often we have not in fact chosen this role. It has been chosen for us by a parent or other person influential at a formative stage in our development, or forced upon us by economic necessity. What if it is incompatible with our deepest needs, with who we actually are?

And loss, or lack, of self-esteem, is as potent a factor in mental illness as in addiction – and self-esteem also cannot be autonomously created. We depend heavily for our self esteem upon the esteem of others – and this is precisely why we feel compelled to give the ‘OK’ answer when things are far from ‘OK’. We are afraid we will lose that esteem if we are ‘broken’.

Terry Lynch’s book gives many examples of patients who, following an investigation of the background to ‘breakdown’, reveal a personal history that more than amply explains why they could not possibly be ‘OK’ – why they need to be distraught, to throw themselves upon the resources of another human being, to be reassured, to be – in a word – loved – for themselves.

But love is not a pharmaceutical substance. It is a spiritual thing, because it is a going beyond what can be expected. The person who loves is no longer self-absorbed but lost in sincerely honouring another. If love becomes a scarce resource in any culture, we are headed for large scale breakdown – and a psychiatry which substitutes drugs for love cannot make good the shortfall.

Let us apply this analysis to the stories of mental illness in the gospels – beginning by reminding ourselves that in those times people were more certain of the existence of God, and that they commonly deduced the level of God’s approval from their worldly circumstances. It followed that the more extreme the circumstances, the less self-regard people would commonly have – the more ‘poor in spirit’ they would become. The poorest in spirit would suffer a total loss of self-esteem, followed in extreme cases by breakdown. It followed also that breakdown was likely to be interpreted as a matter of passing out of the care of God, into the realm of the demonic.

Dr Lynch points out that a person who has always felt himself insignificant, and suffers pain from this, is naturally likely to suffer delusions of grandeur – yet if these in turn lead to social rejection and isolation, self-regard will naturally reach an even lower level. At the lowest level of the moral cosmos of the gospel world was Sheol, the place of the dead, where demons reigned. Delusions of demonic possession could therefore naturally follow the complete ostracisation of an individual.

But for all its horrors, the ‘demonic possession’ paradigm has one beneficial characteristic that the biological/genetic theory signally lacks: it does not identify the malady with the sufferer; the whole person is reclaimable by ‘casting out’ the demon. On the other hand, we are stuck with our biochemical or genetic problem – if that is what we’ve ‘got’.

At this point we need only remember that the essential characteristic of Jesus’ ministry – the one that got him into terminal trouble – was its radical inclusiveness. Prostitutes, lepers – the ‘unclean’ generally – were to be restored, not just to health, but to their relatives and friends. No-one was more ‘unclean’ than the demonically possessed : so Jesus’ extraordinary power to communicate the esteem of God for those who thought themselves totally outside it must have hit the self-hating with extraordinary force. When we remember that great social fear lay behind the avoidance of such people, even Jesus’ close approach would arrest their attention – and so the text confirms.

Great love is clearly present in the accounts that Dr Lynch provides of successful ‘friendship’ approaches to the treatment of people who have presented with various symptoms of mental and emotional distress. It requires great faith in the essential goodness of every individual, and in the power of sympathetic investigation of past experience, to get to the root of the problem. This in turn often requires great patience – and here we find the essential reasons for the failure of the psychiatric paradigm. Psychiatrists too are scarce ‘human resources’, highly expensive to train and maintain. Everything must recommend a rapid throughput of patients. The last thing they can possibly have is the time to befriend their clients individually, to become familiar with the detailed contexts of their lives.

When we confront the continuing stigma that attaches to mental illness we must even more seriously question a biochemical/genetic theory which provides no hope of separating the sufferer from the source of their illness, which, must, in fact, reinforce their sense of being ‘different’, and thus of isolation, stigma and despair. An hour’s serious reflection should be sufficient to condemn any search for a ‘happiness’ gene or biochemical substance: human emotional well-being is both fragile and essentially relational – and a society which increasingly deprives us of time for one another must also be one in which psychological breakdown will also increase. Emotional pain, like any other kind of pain, is a compelling warning to rest, and to address the cause

And when we remember that the pharmaceutical industry is part of the globalisation process, and that ‘happiness’ pills are vastly profitable, we need look no further for an explanation of the dominance of the physiological paradigm of mental well-being. The research which appears to support pharmaceutical solutions is largely funded by that industry and therefore seriously biased in favour of the conclusions it wishes to find. To escape this conclusion it need only fund experimentally in equal measure the methods which favour compassionate friendship, psychotherapy and counseling. If this funding should be found wanting the churches should try to supply the deficiency, in faith and love. It is surely time to begin reversing the downward trend towards ‘happiness’ pills for all.

“Beyond Prozac: Healing Mental Suffering Without Drugs” by Dr Terry Lynch

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