Category Archives: Psychology

Of Good and Evil: A Personal View

Sean O’Conaill  Reality  2010

This series sets out to explain how I came to understand the problem of human fallibility in terms of our chronic uncertainty about our own value.

  1. Dealing with the Darkness – How and why, as a teacher of history and current affairs, I came to a conclusion about the central human problem in 1994 – our tendency to climb.
  2. The Human Problem – Why we tend to come unstuck – our chronic inability to value ourselves as we are.
  3. Vanity and Humility – Wanting to be ‘the greatest’ – a major source of conflict. And the one who taught us to try to be the least.
  4. Contagious Desire – How and why we ‘catch’ desires from others, and why we need to be aware of this problem.
  5. Abba – How Jesus reveals God’s compassion for our deepest failing.

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Of Good and Evil: III – Vanity and Humility

Sean O’Conaill  © Reality  May 2010

We are chronically unsure of our own value!

We may be so unsure of it that we may need constant reassurance from others. We may need to be ‘first’ wherever we go.

One day early in the century before the Christian era two young Roman army officers were passing a small village in conquered Spain.

“What a dump!” said one, in educated Latin, pointing to the village.

“Better to be the first man in such a place than the second man in Rome!” said the other.

This second speaker was Gaius Julius Caesar. He eventually became the first man in Rome by becoming one of the most effective mass murderers in history – in the cause of expanding the Roman empire into France, England and Germany. However, to become first in Rome in that era was to invite the deadly envy of other ambitious men. Caesar’s life ended when he became also probably the most famous assassination victim in history, in 44 BC. He was then declared a God by those who set out to avenge him. The name ‘Caesar’ was subsequently given as a title to all Roman emperors.

“Better to be the first man in such a place than the second man in Rome.”

“Better to rule in Hell than serve in Heaven.” (John Milton’s Satan in ‘Paradise Lost’)

“Lord, which of us is the greatest?” (the apostles to Jesus, on the way to Jerusalem)

The most dangerous ambitions in history have been driven by a profound mistake, a mistake that now threatens not only the lives of many individuals but the survival of all humanity: the belief that our value depends upon what others think of us. This belief lay at the root of the greatest war in history, because it was the deepest conviction of another conqueror, Adolf Hitler. It lies at the root of much, perhaps most, psychological disturbance. It also drives all those who centre their lives on winning the admiration of others.

It leads to the problem of vanity – pursuit of the admiration of others.

We are so unsure of our own opinion of ourselves that we tend to overvalue the good opinions of others. This is why those who are told they are especially gifted tend to become vain, while those who are never praised, or who suffer too much criticism or bullying, tend to become depressed, or even self-destructive.

And bullying itself arises out of competition for the good opinion of the group, or the classroom, or the workplace. And so does all social hierarchy and injustice. The question ‘which of us is the greatest’ not only started a row among the apostles – it continues to plague the church and all society.

Jesus said: “you must be as little children”. The child has not yet been caught in the net of others’ opinions. Well aware of his own smallness the little child is content simply to explore the wonder of the world. He is unselfconscious – that is, usually unaware that others are conscious of him. His emotions and words are spontaneous, uncalculated. He is content to be loved. He knows nothing, yet, of ambition or admiration.

The human problem really begins at adolescence when we become acutely aware of our own bodies, and therefore of what others think of us. Electronic media have made this problem critical, by making it possible for any individual to become globally admired – or reviled. Conquering the world in Caesar’s time could only be attempted militarily. Nowadays it is the global media that decide who is ‘first’.

Many parents now spend serious money to send their children to ‘X Factor’ talent schools. How many have reflected on what they may be teaching their children? How many such children receive the message: “Your value depends only upon what others think of you!”

If a fifteen year-old girl deeply believes this, and is then rubbished by some shallow talent show judging panel, what conclusion will she come to? It could be: “I am rubbish.”? Such a self-dismissal, following a public humiliation, could be a death sentence.

Nothing is more dangerous than to believe that our value depends upon what others think of us. And nothing is more dangerous nowadays than the technology that increasingly transmits this message into the home – especially if there is no critical counter-message coming from attentive parents.

Such as: “You are made in God’s image!”

As God is the spirit of love, it follows that to be made in God’s image is to be created with the potential for love – that is for respecting everything God has made, including ourselves and all other humans. There is no greater gift or attribute. The beautiful woman who does not have it is uglier than she knows – and this is true of all celebrities.

And this is why the gift of honest love is greater than all flattery or adulation. These latter things are deeply dangerous, because they can lead to arrogance and narcissism.

Jesus and the coming of the Kingdom of God

Beginning as it did in the reign of the first Roman emperor, Augustus, the life of Jesus of Nazareth had a deep historical significance. Contradicting the conqueror’s conviction that the value of his life depended upon what the Roman world thought of his military prowess, Jesus taught an entirely contrary truth. “Your value depends only on what God thinks of you.”

Recognising especially the oppressed and afflicted of his own time Jesus announced the coming of the kingdom of God. We enter this kingdom when we understand what Zacchaeus understood as soon as Jesus called him down from his tree: that we too are deeply loved by the one who made us, and can never lose that love. This experience in itself heals the deepest sorrow we can suffer: the sorrow of believing ourselves to be of no value.

The spirit of love is also the spirit of humility, which is not at all the same thing as self-abasement. Humility derives from the deep conviction that we are already loved, and so do not need the admiration of others.

Some scripture scholars are baffled by the fact that repeatedly in the Gospel of Mark Jesus tells his followers not to speak of the wonders they have seen him perform. These scholars miss the fact that people can be fascinated by someone for entirely the wrong reason – and that such fascination is deeply dangerous for all concerned. Especially because it can fixate upon something other than the power of love, and entirely miss the most important truth about the kingdom of God: that God’s love is equal for all of us. The search for living ‘icons’ – people of special fascination – is a mistake – just like the flattery offered by Peter to Jesus when he insisted that he must not be crucified.

“This must not happen to you, Lord!”

That was equivalent to saying: “You must be another Caesar – the one who crucifies, not the one who is crucified”.

The world in Jesus’ time was poised between those two tendencies – vanity (or ‘worldliness’) and humility – an equal respect for all. Noticing this in Jesus his enemies said:

“We notice you do not regard the rank of any man. Tell us then, is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar.”

But Jesus asked:

“Of what benefit is it to you to gain the whole world, if in the process you lose your own soul.”

Our soul is our deepest self, which needs to love and to be loved, not to be admired. Gaining the world is what Caesar gained, the world’s fascination with his military invincibility.

The world is always poised between these two tendencies, because we are all faced always with the choice between vanity and humility, worldliness and love. The peace of the world has always depended upon our choice.

And so, now, does the survival of the human ecosystem.

Views: 27

The Story of the West: VI – Mastering Contagious Desire

Sean O’Conaill  © Reality Mar 2007

Why did a second-generation Irish nationalist leader set out to mimic in the late 1900s the lifestyle of nineteenth-century Irish ascendancy landlords, with disastrous and tragic consequences for his own reputation and his family? Why is the baseball cap worn around the world – even in cold weather? Why are people so fascinated by celebrity? Why do the youngest children so quickly learn to recognise corporate logos, and to desire what they decorate?

All of these questions were summed up in just one simple question that was asked in the Chinese spiritual classic, the Tao Te Ching, centuries before Christ:

“Why do we desire what others desire?”

To put it another way, why is desire so often contagious? A full answer to this question would give the human family a chance of overcoming, or at least containing, the crises of over-consumption and violence that now threaten the survival of our planet and our species. It is over-consumption that makes resources scarce, and it will be desire for the same scarce resources (e.g. oil) that is likely to fuel the worst violence of the near future.

No one has explored this question of contagious desire with greater energy or brilliance than the French Catholic academic, René Girard.

Beginning as a literary critic in the 1970s Girard noted that some of the West’s greatest modern writers, from Cervantes and Shakespeare to Dostoevsky, Stendhal and Gide were fascinated by our tendency to ‘catch’ desire from one another. He then noticed that the Bible had begun this western fascination (e.g. in the story of Solomon and the child claimed by two women). From there Girard branched out into anthropology and philosophy, developing a theory of religion that is now influencing academics throughout the world.*

Insisting that in the biblical warning not to covet ‘anything our neighbour owns’ there is a naming of this dangerous human tendency, Girard calls it by a more descriptive name – mimetic desire: a tendency to mimic, often unconsciously, the desire of someone else. Noting that a group of children presented with a choice of toys will almost inevitably begin squabbling over the possession of just one of them, Girard also locates our problem of violence in this tendency.

He also argues, however, that our tendency towards mimicry or imitation is also a gift that allows every new generation to ‘pick up’ everything learned by the preceding generation. The tendency of males to imitate older males, and of females to imitate older females, is an essential attribute that allows us to learn how to become self-supporting adults, mastering a huge range of complex tasks and bodies of knowledge.

But the huge danger of our habit of mimicry becomes obvious as soon as we enter the realm of appropriation – taking hold of something as our own. If the appropriated object is scarce or unique, in grasping it we will tend to confront one another – and violence can then follow. And when just one blow is struck to assert ownership of such an object, our gift for mimicry takes on an entirely different character – one that can destroy an entire community. This is the origin, Girard believes, of, for example, the blood feud that can still be found in many cultures.

This insight alone – that in speaking against covetousness the Bible is warning the human family against a pervasive tendency that now threatens our survival – is hugely important for Christianity – as well as for Judaism and Islam, which share the same text. The tendency for so many religious teachers in all three traditions to focus heavily upon sexual morality has helped the enemies of all religious faith to argue that religion is largely irrelevant to the problems of the moment – and even that the biblical injunctions to ‘increase and multiply’ and to dominate the earth are a source of the global environmental crisis.

On the other hand, if ‘covetousness’ identifies the human habit that betrays us into not only over-consumption but violence, the phrase ‘Judeo-Christian morality’ encompasses the only lifestyle that can take us past the problems of the moment – a lifestyle that is virtually forced upon us by our present crisis anyway.

But Girard’s understanding of covetousness does far more than this. It gives us a means of explaining, in terms that secularism can understand, the whole relevance of the orthodox Christian belief system that is summarised in the Nicene and ‘Apostles’ Creeds.

The Creeds, finally formulated by the fourth century, are centred on the story of Jesus, placing it in a cosmic salvational context. Because the ‘vertical’ picture of the universe depicted in the Creeds has been exploded by modern science, there has been a tendency in much recent theology to find those Creeds absurd and embarrassing.

But if Girard is right, the Creeds can be understood in an entirely different way: as relating a story intended to save us from ourselves – from this habit of manic and foolish imitation of lifestyles that now threaten to destroy us.

Almost all the ‘great men’ of history aspired to be ‘great’ – i.e. to acquire ‘renown’ by climbing to positions of dominance or influence, as Alexander did. Their life story begins with this ascent. Almost always, however, this rise is followed by a fall – through what the Greeks called hubris or arrogance.

Ireland has been riveted by just such a story over the past decade – the tragic story of Charles J Haughey. But in historical terms that story is mundane rather than sensational. From Alexander and Julius Caesar through Napoleon I to George W Bush and Tony Blair, the desire for ‘greatness’ has betrayed us humans into violence and excess. This has led in our own time to what The Economist now calls ‘an authority crisis’ – a growth of cynicism and disillusionment in relation to leaders and institutions in the West generally.

The story told in the creeds follows an entirely different arc – an inverted arc. It is, incredibly, a story of worldly failure rather than success – of someone who sought the company of the poor and the excluded rather than of the wealthy and powerful – and was crucified as a consequence. It defies logic that this story should ever have been told at all – especially as a story of eventual triumph.

The stories of good Christians throughout history explain why. Instead of setting out to win the favour of social elites they have done what Jesus did – they have sought out and served the poor. St Francis of Assisi is a typical example: so are Jean Vanier1This article  was written in 2007, thirteen years before the revelation in 2020 that Jean Vanier, founder of the L’Arche movement, was also an abuser of the trust of some of the able-bodied women who looked to him for spiritual guidance. and Mother Teresa of Calcutta and Ireland’s Michael McGoldrick in our own time.

The story of the Creed is a story of both humility and triumph – and its message is that God loves and rewards humility.

That is exactly what the West needs to hear – because it has brought the world to a great crisis through its own vanity.

Vanity can be defined as a presumption of entitlement to superiority, priority or admiration. It is the attitude that then leads us into covetousness – a desire to possess whatever is possessed by those who dominate the ‘the world’. In our era it is TV that tells us who these people are, and what they possess – and so our world becomes a pyramid of desire also.

Those who can see those TV pictures, but are shut out of western prosperity – for example, educated young men in the impoverished parts of the Arab world – acquire other problematic attitudes: jealousy and envy – a feeling of resentment against those who possess what they cannot. Nothing else is needed to explain the anger that fuels the ‘War on Terror’.

Vanity, covetousness, jealousy, envy, anger – we still need these terms to explain human behaviour and to place the responsibility for dealing with these problems squarely where it belongs – upon ourselves. After almost three centuries of failure to build a perfect world without reference to sin, the most perceptive secular writers are rediscovering the attributes that are the opposite of sin: humility, frugality, mutual respect, simplicity, co-operation, peace. These are the characteristics of the Kingdom of God – preached most eloquently by the one who best exemplified them: Jesus of Nazareth.

The world is in crisis because the West above all has still to realise the full gift it received in the Christian tradition – a gift the whole world is now ready for. It is for western Christians of all traditions to realise the full scope of this gift, and to become adept at explaining the problems they see around them in terms of a truly holistic Christian morality.

This does not mean that we need to abandon our perception of the dangers of Christianity’s most consistent target: sexual indiscipline and infidelity. It means simply that we need to add to this perception an equally discerning analysis of vanity and covetousness. To be persuasive we will need to begin ourselves to see the dangers of imitating models of ostentatious consumption – and then to imitate in these matters also the one we say we love.

And when we read in Genesis that the temptation to Eve was to envy God himself, we will learn to associate Original Sin with vanity and covetousness rather than with the gift of sexuality.

As the global crisis deepens, so will the suffering of humanity – but so also will our perception of salvation. We will see that it is in one kind of imitation only that real global salvation will lie: not the imitation of the wealthy but the imitation of the one who was uniquely humble – the imitation of Christ.

* For a good introduction to Girard, as well as a good bibliography, read:Discovering Girard, Michael Kirwan; Darton, Longman and Todd 2004; ISBN 0-232-52526-9.

Views: 34

Is Human Consciousness Evolving?

Sean O’Conaill  © Doctrine and Life Apr 2005

A ‘paradigm shift’ is a radical discontinuity in the way in which we humans structure our mental picture of reality. Perhaps the most dramatic example was the impact of the new cosmologies of Copernicus, Galileo and Newton upon the late 17th, but more especially the 18th, century. The educated classes of Europe were by then faced with the indisputable reality that the earth was not the centre of the universe, and that universal laws of gravitation and motion governed the relationships of all heavenly bodies. Writing about 1730, Alexander Pope declared that before Newton:

Nature and nature’s laws lay hid in night;
God said “Let Newton be!” and all was light.

But, as this quotation also illustrates, this particular paradigm shift did far more than provide a new cosmology. It created both a new intelligentsia, based upon secular scientific and technical expertise, and a new interpretation of history. Christian theologians and philosophers lost their pre-eminent intellectual status, and ‘salvation’ ceased to be the dominant historical theme. All at once the intellectual life of Europe became focused upon the belief that history was not static or cyclical but linear – moving especially from darkness into light, led not by the churches but by secular science. The possibility of total enlightenment took hold of the educated imagination, and the modern age had arrived.

Since then there has been a succession of lesser intellectual ‘paradigm shifts’. The theory of evolution provided by Darwin in 1859 is one such, and Einstein’s theories of Relativity in the early 20th century another. These revolutionised Biology and Physics respectively. In the course of the same century, Freudian psychology completely changed our perception of human sexuality. The impacts of quantum physics and ‘big bang’ cosmology are ongoing. The process of globalisation, begun by European voyages of exploration in the 1400s, has recently accelerated with the arrival of cheap air travel, globally mobile capital, and the Internet. This process has intermingled all cultures and faiths, laying siege to the certitudes of the past.

However, the optimistic belief of the early Enlightenment that human reason could easily construct a perfect world suffered a series of shattering reverses. These began with ‘The Terror’, the orgy of blood-letting that followed the French Revolution of 1789, giving us the new and still indispensable word ‘terrorism’. Two world wars and the Holocaust had a similar impact in the 20th century. So did the ignominious failure of the Soviet Marxist system in the recent past.

The possibility of total enlightenment has also receded for many intellectuals. ‘Post-modernism’, born to some extent out of disappointment that secular utopianism led more often to hell than to heaven, now insists that we are fundamentally unable to escape from our own subjectivity: all paradigms are purely mental and therefore fictive, so (it is argued) we can never create solid intellectual foundations for our own convictions. All we have is a multiplicity of ‘stories’, no one of them capable of claiming superiority to any other.

The question of what happens to God in all of this is of critical importance for all religions. The notion that our perception of God might also require a ‘paradigm shift’ has alarmed some and enthused others. Among the latter, Anglican Bishop John Robinson of ‘Honest to God’ fame in the 1960s stands out. Arguing that we can no longer believe in a ‘God out there’ he has influenced many in a search for ‘God within’. Among these in our own time are the Episcopalian Bishop John Spong, who has in turn influenced, among many others, Church of Ireland Canon Hilary Wakeman, whose book ‘Saving Christianity’ I reviewed here recently.

Adrian B Smith’s The God Shift* is a continuation of the same theme, but this time by a Catholic priest. Beginning with the observation that many are now abandoning religion and embracing ‘spirituality’ he argues that a number of factors now tend towards a profound shift in the human perception of God. This paragraph is typical:

“It is my contention … that … for too long we have overemphasised the transcendence of God at the expense of appreciating God as immanent. The former causes us to think of God as aloof from creation and ourselves as miserable sinners seeking to placate a father-God or to win the love of a tolerant God. To restore the balance by emphasising more the immanence of God will enable us to appreciate that spark of divine life within all people and cause us to treat the natural world not as a dead, soulless machine existing purely for our use but as a reflection of its creator. The lack of this sense of the Divine within ourselves causes us to lack self-esteem and seek our self-worth instead in our role in society, our possessions, our personal achievements and our sense of superiority over others. Happily, we can recognise in some current trends – the feminist, ecological and human rights movements – a reawakening to the immanence of God.”

He places approaches to Christology within a similar progressive framework, arguing that there has been a shift from ‘Top Down’ to ‘Bottom Up’ approaches, presenting these as contrasting syllogisms:

Christology from above:

God is like this and this.
Jesus is God.
Therefore Jesus is like this and this.

Christology from below:

Jesus is like this and this.
Jesus is the icon of God.
Therefore God is like this and this.

For someone like myself, not well grounded in theology, but strongly inclined towards a Christology from below, this sort of thing is interesting and useful. So is the account of the new physics, in which the conceptual frontiers between matter and energy tend to dissipate. That matter appears to be – to put it crudely – compressed energy – or rather energy behaving in a remarkable way to provide the visible world with its apparently stable atoms and molecules – is a profound shock to a simplistic perception of reality. So is the revelation that it is the relationships between sub-atomic particles that provide this stability, not the particles themselves. Matter is not a hard and simple reality but a profound mystery in itself.

Similarly, the book’s account of the emergence of ecology, establishing the interconnectedness of all life, is useful. So is the summary of the collision between the world’s great religions and the discernment that all speak of love as the highest virtue.

I was particularly struck also by the author’s perception that human hierarchies are a barrier to spiritual development, and that Jesus of Nazareth clearly lived within a non-hierarchical spiritual paradigm. This I believe to be profoundly true, and the root source of the attraction to Jesus that we find in the humblest people. It is true also that people grow and learn far more easily in a non-hierarchical context, and that this realisation appears to be a significant feature of our era.

However, does all of this mean that we humans are undergoing some kind of rapid and beneficent species evolution, an evolution in consciousness? One gathers as much from the following:

“The development of our consciousness is precisely what is new. The leap we took out of the mythical Eden from subconsciousness to self-consciousness is now being followed by a further leap to super-consciousness. We are evolving from a physical to a metaphysical vision of reality. From viewing our world as purely physical, as scientists and western religions have done, we are beginning to appreciate the presence of consciousness in all matter. The “Gaia Hypothesis” of James Lovelock that planet Earth is a single, living, self-regulating organism – is witness to this. We are moving beyond the limitations of our rational minds, beyond what we learn through our five senses, beyond the boundaries of space and time, to the exploration of inner, deeper realms. We are stretching the boundaries of our consciousness. It is at this point in our history that we are moving beyond our physical potential to explore our spiritual potential.”

In the week I first read this paragraph I learned also that suicide bombers had taken a further toll in Iraq; that two teenagers in every classroom in these islands may be self-harming due to loss of self-esteem; that a fifteen-year-old had taken her own life in Belfast, following the suicide of her boyfriend – which had in turn been caused by the killing of his sister in a ‘hit-and-run’ accident; that Arab militias in Darfur were still burning African Sudanese alive – and that the consumption of fossil fuels had reached levels that OPEC could not meet due to problems caused in the Soviet Union by a struggle for power between the industrial oligarchs and President Putin.

Most Russian young people (we learned in the same week) admire those same moneyed oligarchs almost as much as rock stars, despite their virtually certain involvement in the murder of at least fifteen journalists in Russia since 2000 – journalists who have had the temerity to investigate their links with political corruption and organised crime.

Meanwhile the world’s most powerful republic was focused upon a different struggle for power between two highly moneyed patricians – a struggle that seemed oblivious to the environmental catastrophe that is already making densely populated but low-lying portions of the earth’s surface uninhabitable (e.g. the Maldives). This was confirmed by news from Greenland in the previous week that the arctic ice sheet is diminishing at an unprecedented rate.

And the news that many millions in China now aspire to an SUV (the ubiquitous, ridiculous, dangerous and environmentally indefensible ‘off road’ vehicle now preferred for ferrying children everywhere) was hardly cause for celebration either.

So who exactly, I wondered, are the ‘we’ who have leapt to ‘super-consciousness’? Clearly it is not a majority of the human population. And if it is only a small minority of intellectuals, is the ‘we’ justified in anything other than self-congratulatory terms? Is it anything more than a repetition of the New Age rhetorical claim to era-superiority that we have been hearing, without any real justification, for decades?

Certainly it is possible for individual humans to develop greater insight and maturity – and a deep sense of God within – over a lifetime – but this has been happening to individuals for thousands of years. What characterised all of them was a realisation of the futility of most human desires, and a valuing of simplicity. Three distinctive marks of our age are, on the contrary, an elevation of desire itself to the status of supreme cultural and economic good, an infatuation with consumption and novelty, and an increasing violence.

I say this not because I am out of sympathy with my own era, and stuck in some mistakenly idealised past, but because I cannot ignore the fact that the data I receive from news streams daily is presenting me with an almost total contradiction to Adrian Smith’s optimistic claims. Humans in the aggregate are as far as ever from the super-consciousness that he claims to be the distinctive feature of the age. The pressure of an extremely doubtful future may be forcing increasing numbers to seek a deeper spirituality – but this has happened often in the past and simply cannot justify a claim that ‘we’ (i.e. the race) are undergoing some kind of evolutionary shift into ‘super-consciousness’.

Although ‘The God Shift’ is therefore a useful overview of some encouraging scientific and cultural developments, as well as a highly readable example of its genre, it is lamentably superficial in its understanding of the weaknesses that still afflict us. For example, the author admits that he doesn’t understand why humans build hierarchies – wondering, without much conviction, if these might originate in the need to overcome gravity!

This is especially telling in the context of his conviction that the human arrival at self-consciousness, as recorded in Genesis, was an unalloyed good. It was indeed an evolutionary event of enormous importance – and inseparable from our human nature – but it had profoundly problematic consequences. Self-consciousness involves a critical awareness that others are conscious of us – and it is only then that we develop a dangerous desire to be highly-regarded. That is precisely why the self-conscious teen female is often currently aspiring to a breast implant.

That kind of self-regarding desire explains everything from conspicuous consumption to personality cults to mimetic rivalry, celebrity, power-seeking and violence – and human hierarchy arises easily out of all of these. Hyacinth Bucket (pronounced, of course, ‘Bouquet’) illustrates the point weekly on pop TV: it is precisely because she is self-conscious that she wishes to collect prestige china and rub shoulders with England’s aristocracy. Tony Blair’s meritocratic makeover of the British Labour party bears a similar explanation. (There is no more self-conscious politician on the planet.)

For the same reason, self-consciousness explains the spiritual problem identified by Thomas Merton as the construction of the ‘false self’ – the problem identified by Jesus as hypocrisy. The original hypocrite was just a Greek actor, who, significantly, wore a mask. Modern culture provides an unprecedented variety of masks designed to flatter the wearer, and some of these are fashioned by a New Age ideology that has yet to recognise that human culture is still grounded not in super-consciousness but in mindless and deeply destructive imitation of one another.

It is self-consciousness also that explains the individual’s fear of opposing the crowd, and thus the mindlessness and danger of the crowd itself – and mob-violence, and, incidentally, the crucifixion.

It is remarkable that the ‘super-consciousness’ claimed in this book does not include an understanding of the connections between human self-consciousness, human vanity, human hierarchy, human hypocrisy and human violence. Especially when some of the available literature so well explains all of this.

Scanning the reading lists that followed each chapter of this book I noticed a very striking absence of any reference to the work done on mimetic desire and violence by the Girard school. As this is profoundly illuminative of the Gospel texts, as well as modern consumerist culture, and as Girard has been publishing since the 1970s, I am at a loss to understand it – especially because Girard’s work provides every reason for optimism in the project of making a non-fundamentalist Christianity relevant to post-modernity.

The gathering human crisis will soon oblige people to grow rapidly in spiritual wisdom if the species is not to destroy itself in competition for declining fossil fuel resources. The message that they have already reached ‘super-consciousness’ is, like the first reports of Mark Twain’s death, premature. It is also strikingly similar to the flattery that this year’s presidential contenders feel obliged to heap upon ‘the great American people’.

And it is therefore, like all flattery, a profound mistake. Every one of us does indeed need to ‘evolve’ – but we must all begin with a radical honesty about our current temptations and failings. These are essentially identical to the spiritual shortcomings of our species from the beginning. Nothing could be more spiritually dangerous for an intellectual today than the conviction that he, or she, has become ‘super-conscious’. The correct name for this notion is spiritual inflation.

Other paradigm shifts notwithstanding, so long as vanity remains a human constant, we humans will remain trapped in that paradigm, and in the negative consequences of self-consciousness. Our cosmologies may change, but we will show-off nevertheless (perhaps with a lecture on cosmology). Vanity in 2004 is as pervasive as the SUV, the plasma-screen TV and the cosmetics industry, and global terrorism is born of frustrated envy of those who can afford all of these.

Super-consciousness, when it arrives, will be conscious of that to begin with.

*The God Shift: Our Changing Perception of the Ultimate Mystery, Adrian B Smith, Liffey Press, Dublin 2004

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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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