This is the first outing of an argument that continues a new thread of research into music, language and mental health. To access a version that is more easily read, please click here.
This is the first outing of an argument that continues a new thread of research into music, language and mental health. To access a version that is more easily read, please click here.
The stimulus for this blog post is the following, which appeared on my Facebook feed very recently:
I’ve just recently upgraded my commitment to pursuing the best level of thought of which I am capable – both within and outside of language. Language barely bears the weight of what we expect from it, but that’s why some of us, even as we interrogate it fiercely, respect it in ways which we recognise are less-than-universal. Self-help publications blathering about the functional irrationality of adult human beings are increasingly ignored. But on the flip side – it remains true that much of what passes for ‘coherent’ and ‘plausible’ and ‘profound’ fails the smell test very quickly when one really examines the language use being deployed and comes apart at the seams irreparably when really scrutinised at close quarters. No-one loves the philosophers of language because they often question the linguists who have made things easy – and when philosophers get it wrong (e.g. the notorious ‘verification principle’), other philosophers are right there to point out the conceptual shortcomings.
What’s the point, you ask? At this point, a very simple one: thinking about languge is always (or SHOULD always) in fact be rethinking about language, because using language responsibly is the work of a lifetime and a duty to all all those who understand themselves to have positive mental health (read: cognitive functionality) have been called. So someone like me who has watched mental health service users very close to me struggle desperately to use words and really hate the fact that they have to depend on mind-altering (in some cases, make that ‘brain-altering) substances to operate in society in some way that can be called ‘normal’ – I cannot ever go soft on badly contrived language when it has the potential to actual have the reverse of what was intended.
Those of you still reading (thank you!) and actually following should now be able to start guessing where this post is going: that’s right, I am about to take this very well-intentioned would-be-aphorism that also functions as a ‘would-be-profound-self-help’ soundbyte apart. Although I have not seen the person who posted this for several years, I know that person very well and we have some very important shared experiences. They are always trying to empower and uplift – that’s who they are – and so my disavowal of this particular soundbyte (is this also a ‘meme’ or is that the wrong word?!) is not to be understood as any sort of disregard for this person. Again, we need philosophy to help us remember that an individual person is an individual person who has the same right to respect as every other – and so to disagree profoundly with one idea a person has is not to dismiss that person (or their entire catalogue of thought) as worthless. [This emotive projection (read: stupid mistake) is made time and time again, hence this disclaimer…if you’re not that sort of weak-minded individual, I give thanks for you!]
The above is not an ‘argument.’ It does not qualify. [Google ‘structure of argument’ and ‘logic’ (which is not only ‘philosophical’) if you don’t genuinely understand why I’ve said this}. It is a soundbtye – a statement, and a categorical one (by which I mean that there are no caveats or qualifications offered). This means that the two ladies behind BossBabe who have put this out are taking it that the above is universally true – end of.
This is what I call a first-order analysis of the soundbyte:
Now, despite what some of you will have noted is a pretty tightly-worded sequence of thought, some would-be-clever-clogs is guaranteed to pipe up: “Wait a second: Natalie and Danielle (CEO/COO of BossBabe respectively) haven’t said that you ‘must love’ the experiences that have shaped you (in order to love yourself) – they’ve said that you can’t hate them!
Excellent. 10/10 for basic English language reading skills. Those are the words that have been used. And the point behind this observation is…? [I spend my life saying to people: “did you not hear me say that?” It’s okay, I accept this, but I am only human and allowed the occasional rant!]
So now that we’ve established that I have not claimed that Natalie and Danielle have said that you must ‘love’ every experience, let’s look at what it would mean to ‘not hate any experience.’
Towards the end of a plane of thought in the Shorter Logic, Hegel stated that “…a man is nothing but the series of his actions.” Now, we can’t get into Hegel’s philosophical anthropology and its relationship to his philosophy of history, but we can hopefully get that for him, who one is at a given moment is only to be understood in terms of the past. [This gets more interesting when we discover that Hegel also believed that there is no such thing as the present: only the past and the future, but let’s not get any more sidetracked than we already are!] And that is a very understandably popular way to make sense of ‘becoming.’
However, one philosopher questioned our understanding of the role of the past in who we become – more on that very shortly. Returning to this BossBabe soundbyte, we can safely assume that the authors believe that if one succeeds in not hating any part of one’s past experiences, self-love becomes possible – that’s why it is important to not hate any part of the past because (as Hegel said) all we are is the past….
HOLD ON JUST ONE SECOND! Did you see what happened there?!?!?!?
Hegel did not say that we are nothing but the sum of our past – he said that we are nothing but the sum of our ACTIONS! So that means that our own exercise of volition is who we become – but if others force themselves upon us, all we have is what we choose. So when various slavemasters on plantations selected black slaves with lighter skin tone and offered them emoluments for being on a higher level of the hierarchy of the slave economy in that context – some said ‘no’ and paid the price. Others said ‘yes’ and in the 21st-century we continue to pay the price….
Situation Ethics for teenage schoolchildren: you live in a part of Colombia where cocaine is the only available trade and means of making any sort of living. According to one Reader’s Digest article I read many years ago, cocaine ‘base’ is literal/actual currency in some communities. If you had children and had to provide for them and cocaine was the only way, what would you do?
Who we are is the result of our own choices – NOT the sum of our experiences! So however you answer the above question, that becomes who you are. And if you said ‘no’ to the regime and you or your loved ones were punished accordingly, it will always be true that the only power you ever had (and have) was/is to make the best decisions of which you are capable. This is not some easy cop-out – most of us won’t make the highest moral decision because we are so inherently selfish, but we can at least be honest about that. And if your child was killed and tortured because you would not say ‘yes’ – no humane and emotionally intelligent response could suggest that one must ‘not hate’ an experience of that sort because it makes you who you are. To say so constitutes a huge abuse of language which is itself an abuse of good mental health.
But there is some more to say about ‘hate.’
If you hate something that is associated with emotions…[it] may suggest not having fully healed or integrated the learning. You can “acknowledge” the pain is part of the process, and move on…and as you say…’still dislike / hate / despise what happened”. [However,] I would argue that’s not truly moving on developing. If I hate it it still has power over me. It is part of my ego.
If I have accepted it. Healed it. It no longer has an emotional hold. I have accepted it whole heartedly. “What an honour” that painful experience has given me…. x,y,z and in fact…I give thanks to it. Even though it may be painful.
So applying this reasoning to my hypothetical scenario in this case: what is being argued is that the living sister should give thanks to the ‘experience’ [some might rephrase that to say “give thanks for the experience] of not only going through her sister’s suicide but discovering the body.
This is now where I am going to say that this view of ‘hate’ is remarkably simplistic. It is breathtakingly preposterous to insist that everyone will process very strong non-positive emotions in the exact same ways. One of the reasons why Buddhism is ultimately rejected by some folks who are initially incredibly attracted to it is because the concept/process of detachment is in the end not possible with an integrated view of a self as a being with the capacity to exercise any actual volition for good or bad. It is not stated explictly, but the process of ’emptying’ and ‘detaching’ actually makes it impossible to hold a rigorous grasp of any kind of embodied self – human or otherwise. [Too complicated? Brutal summary: ‘detachment’ ultimately means that you cannot ‘own’ ANY part of your own story – is that really what BossBabe want to promote?!] This is why Wittgenstein talked about ‘language games’ – because for some minds, ‘hate’ cannot be anything other than destructive, but this is a projection! For another, hate in a specific context is the way in which they remember why they do what they do. And the idea that an experience must be owned in a specific emotional framework for ‘the learning to be integrated’ is at the heart of what Sartre found reprehensible about Freudian psychoanalysis.
Sartre argued that psychoanalysis prioritises the past in order to generate any sense of what the future might hold. He used the lexeme ‘ultimate possible’ as being that which psychoanalysis holds is not possible in any domain other than the past (by inference of the view of consciousness held). And this plays into what is broadly understood today (which owes more to Freud than many realise – that’s how powerful Freud’s ideas were and are!) – the past MUST be redeemed before any ‘ultimate possible’ can exist. So one can never be anything other than some form of defined entity from the past. Now, in a more complex rhetorical move, Sartre also argues that psychoanalysis denies the future (even while claiming that the future is what matters) – but that requires its own blog post.
Sartre’s existentialist conception of self-realisation reverses this conceptual polarity – in order for an Ultimate Possible to actually become a ‘realised actuality’ one must start by looking to the future. Now, this can really only make the best level of sense if one has something of a grip on the role that ‘negation’ plays in Sartre’s concept of freedom. In 1943, when Being and Nothingness is being completed, Sartre is on an evolving roller-coaster journey with phenomenology as explicated by Husserl and Heidegger – because back in 1938’s Nausea Sartre is arguing for redemption through the morality of art (he would later renounce that completely). In 1943’s Being and Nothingness his thinking is essentially that self-realisation is only possible if one first understands that conciousness is freedom and then from that vantage point considers the future and makes a choice to move towards it – which then impacts on how and what we choose in any given moment. Again, this explication deserves more than a mere blog post (even my notorious long-form efforts such as this one!) but Sartre’s categories of “Being-in-Itself” and “Being-for-Itself” need at least their own blog post (if not blog series…!). And the whole of twentieth-century Western academic-and-later-generally-socially-accepted thought about teleology, meaning, freedom and existence proceed from those foundations, whether understood or not, and whether acknowledged or not.
As a religious thinker, I have long argued against ‘soundbyte religion.’ This BossBabe soundbyte is nothing like that, but it absolutely requires uncritical acceptance of certain presuppositions of an exactly type/dimension which many secular people accuse religious adherents of. This soundbyte is dangerous because it is specious, badly contrived and altogether redolescent of the kind of pseudo-profundity authored by people who have not ever come close to experiencing trauma of the kind that is never actually overcome by what Thomas Szasz describes as the ‘technology’ of ‘therapy.’ [That language about ‘overcoming’ genuinely chronic mental health disorder is only ever used by well-meaning non-mental-health-service-users.] The notional hypothetical state of ‘non-hatred’ as proof that one’s ‘ego’ has been overcome is at singular odds with the construction of coherent ‘self-love’ and means that words are being used without adequate understanding. So if one is not going to do the homework, one should avoid the propagation of soundbytes. Hegel and Sartre would have had something to say about the morality of what I’ve just said regarding the ethical responsibility of language use and mental health, so I beg you: put down Instagram and Twitter and look for an actual book with sentences and paragraphs and chapters – maybe not one on Kindle this time?!
One of the cleverest titles I’ve ever seen in print was for a Guardian Society article in 2002 entitled “Stigma ties.” I was in an extremely invidious position as brother to a sister who suffered from multiple (and severe) physical and mental health problems, but she could not tell anyone and neither could I.
Or rather, that was the pressure that we found ourselves under in our family circle. As fully-paid-up members of the Seventh-Day Adventist Church in the UK, the (sad) reality is that although in principle, theology and constitution this denomination has absolutely nothing to do the the ‘Black Majority Church,’ we might as well be part of the BMC movement – for no other reason than the fact that the overwhelming majority of our church members are from one of: a) the West Indies; b) the African continent; c) the so-called ‘black diaspora’ (the comprehensive failure of our mission to Anglo-European people is not a matter for this particular blog).
Being in a church community that consisted almost entirely of black people, we had been raised with what I would now describe as an almost-pathological (yes, the irony is quite deliberate) fear of mental illness, and the stigmatisation was (and still is) so great that for the sake of our parents – who did the best job that they knew to do as parents, no dispute there – my sister and I both operated under the assumption that her mental illness in particular was something that could not bring glory to God, and so we couldn’t let anyone know about it. An intense prayer sequence was started by my mother with complete healing being the only answer she would accept from God.
This article forced me to confront that fact that all of the major problems of the wider black community here in Britain were in fact present in the church. Problem: as Christians, were we not supposed to have been changed for the better by our acceptance of the gospel? How could people say that they were followers of Jesus and behave in such unloving ways? My poor sister wondered just as I did, but our church is (still) largely not open to certain questions, and she wasn’t ready to think outside the box.
So I had to think on my own.
I then took the decision to tell a tiny number of my best friends that my sister was a mental health service user (ironically, I didn’t tell them – or anyone else – about her physical ailments). Here’s the bad news for my church community: only one of those friends was black, and he was a Christian from a completely different denomination. All the rest were white and secular (bar one Jewish guy). To their eternal credit, they all knew that I’d taken a massive leap out of my comfort zone to tell them and handled the vibe with considerable aplomb. To discover that there were people who would not run away from friendships just because you had those kinds of “stigma ties” – that was profoundly liberating.
It is heartbreaking that despite the story of Job, so many Christians have not understood that God is so much more than we have made Him out to be. He is not only glorified in “success” – He can be glorified as we handle pain and suffering with dignity and grace.
Although I reached a point when I decided that one day I’d study theology, I never once expected to become a fully-fledged theologian. But I have a very important point to make now: there is a great deal of correlation between failed religious expectations and either a) mental health breakdown; b) rejection of Christian faith. This is a huge problem for both psychiatry and clinical psychology. But no coherent Christian response to these challenges can begin without both an interrogation of Christian theology itself AND of the epistemological foundations that govern the understanding and dissemination of this theology.
In this context, “stigma ties” just got a whole lot bigger. The way Christians have all-too-frequently carried on, the gospel is presented as a lifestyle choice which will fix all of your problems. And if your problems continue, you clearly do not have enough faith. So if – as a Christian – your life falls apart, the first people to judge you will be – that’s right – the church members! And if non-church members don’t judge you – what does your theology say about that, eh?!
These are all reasons why people take a lot at church communities and decide not to become Christians. I have never had more sympathy for these decisions where they are taken rationally and thoughtfully, but the faith really does have more to offer than much of what the Church at large presents to the world.
To become a very serious student of theology was not to prepare for a teaching ministry. It was to help me in my own quest for sanity and honesty. It is not nice to have to type these words, but until – at the age of 29 – I embarked upon doctoral studies in theology (and under the strangest of circumstances), I had bee forced to put my deepest questions into a box and hide the key. As certain folks (including in my family) used to say: “Young man, converted people don’t ask such questions.”
[For the Christians reading this: this statement is a grotesque abuse of John 16:23a in much the same way as the anti-philosophy brigade abuses Colossians 2:8. ‘Conservative’ Christians frequently accuse ‘liberals’ and ‘progressives’ of dishonest readings of Scripture, but their blindness, myopia and anti-intellecuallism is a cancer in its own right.]
My theological ministry has not yet worked in the way that I envisaged, but I now know that what I wanted specifically was literally impossible. But the study of this discipline has saved my life and changed me from the inside out. In these last eight years that have passed I learned so much more about what Christian faith really means and who God really is, and when my sister eventually passed away, the Holy Spirit was a true Comforter to me – and remains still.
It is precisely because of God’s work through the Holy Spirit in my life that I have forsaken a life that was originally dedicated to music, then to theology and music – for a life which will now encompass mental health as well (so that’s all three of those things). My parents took the decision that we would not talk about my sister’s death to any but the smallest number of people closest to us, all of whom had known my sister (the argument went like this: “these people had no interest in her life; why are they interested in her death?”). I joined them in this decision, and the truth is that this decision has been vindicated. Not only that, but I no longer ask people about the manner in which others have died. It’s not important unless they decide it is important to know. At times, I would have preferred to be transparent about everything, but I have become very clear on the fact that while truthfulness is as important as importance itself, this sort of societally-constructed virtue of transparency is in fact a pseudo-virtue. More people across every continuum of race/society/religious faith have become unnecessarily vulnerable to those who are simply not a high enough grade of worthwhile human being to be vulnerable to than would ever be ideal. And yes, I really did say that! What one thinker has termed as ‘judicious self-disclosure’ has never been more important.
I have had to jettison my mother’s emotively-driven theology on more grounds than I ever imagined possible. I have had to abandon my father’s ‘safety-first’ theology in ways that have not been enjoyable for either of us. As I have said elsewhere, I am a Seventh-Day Adventist:
- …because of my parents;
- …IN SPITE of my parents.
And now, I would like to do what I can to help people from all backgrounds – not just those who share my faith convictions – to be able to live better with whatever mental health challenges they face. I now know that I have my own, so I am right there with those who suffer. I do not intend to force my faith onto anyone, but it is part of the fabric of my existence and without it, I would not be here and in my ‘right mind.’ Thirteen years have passed since the above-mentioned article was published. Seven have passed since my sister died. My parents have not yet healed and in this regard our church has been of precious little help to either of them – as well as me.
It is as well that God is bigger than the Church and can be found in the pages of Scripture for Himself. But some wonderful people from all faiths and none are doing wonderful work trying to help people who don’t have the gift of positive cognitive functionality and who are hurting terribly because of these ‘stigma ties.’
I cannot wait to get trained so that I can become part of the solution.
Thank you for taking the time to come on this journey with me today. It means more than you know.
This wasn’t the plan.
I wasn’t told about this.
This CANNOT be happening!
Tried harder; fought a little more.
Prayed a lot more; got into fasting.
Tried to think positively – but couldn’t.
Tried to see the good, but there wasn’t any.
Tried to see the light at the end of the tunnel.
It was the light of an oncoming train.
But hope is cruel – gone when most desired; was it ever real?
My way, or the highway.
Sink or bust.
This one thing, and this one thing only.
NOTHING else – because then I will be nothing.
But what if I don’t get what I wish for?
This CANNOT be how things were meant to be.
The faintest glimmer of light.
Somehow, truth penetrates beyond language.
But what do I hope for, if that for which I hope never comes?
No more pain and suffering.
No more confusion and heartache.
No more mind-altering substances.
No more unanswered ‘why’ questions.
No more dances with snarling, wild beasts of the night.
No more voices of unknown and dangerous provenance.
Goodbye, cruel world.
What do I hope for?
What now do I hope for?
“My hope is built on nothing less…”
Faith beyond reason.
Hope beyond language.
Joy unconfined beyond all cognitive dimensions.
In the unanswered questions,
In the mystery of mysteries,
Profound beyond profundity,
I turn to You.
Some of you will have picked up on the TV reference within the title of this post – a US drama series entitled “Revenge” starring Emily VanCamp and Madeleine Stowe as Emily Thorne (who is really Amanda Clarke).
If you’ve not watched the series (or at least the finale of Series 3), then the very point of this post means that I have to tell you how the whole thing ends. So you can stop now if you want – or continue reading if you’re okay with that.
There are two people who (within the story) are most culpable, and they both find their comeuppance. One dies. But the other – Victoria – is allowed to live.
Instead, she is taken down by an elaborate plan which basically results in her being ‘sectioned’ [i.e. forced into a mental health institution against her will by the law enforcement agencies] and the final scenes of the finale consist of Victoria lying in a bed with ‘restraints’ shouting her head off while Amanda swans through the hospital doors. We are supposed to understand that this is the ultimate humiliation – instead of taking her life, Emily takes Victoria’s mind and all the things that Victoria holds most dear – status, power, material wealth, the ability to lever and manipulate other people up and down the social order at will. Indeed, every one of those things is impossible if people think that you have lost your marbles.
So now this gets serious. Mental illness is no small thing. No trifling matter. And this kind of storytelling does more to reinforce the astounding lack of compassion that continues to surround the mentally not-so-well across global society. Most of us would accept that we shun that which frightens us. And all of us would be afraid to lose full cognitive functionality. But we would also be afraid of cancer, and we don’t shun cancer patients – well, most of us don’t.
But there is a world of difference between being afraid of mental illness – regardless of whether or not that fear can be understood as legitimate – and portraying the reality of mental illness as a loss of status as a human being. And this storyline plays right on the edges of that socio-ethical question. Thomas Adés, the internationally renowned composer/conductor/pianist, makes the following statement whilst being interviewed by the BBC’s Tom Service: “Ethics are a distraction the artist can’t afford.” The ramifications of the storyline transcend the story itself (which is precisely what makes it compelling storytelling). Hollywood’s motto is: “show, don’t tell.”
In this instance, mental illness is something that a person could not possibly want. So if we think in a very binary way about this, it means that to have mental illness is to experience a living nightmare. And it can of course be argued that the reality of mental illness is itself simply ‘grist to the mill’ for the story itself – because it serves the story. But what does that ‘show’ us about how mental illness is conceived and understood? What are the ethical implications of this story beyond itself as an ‘entertainment experience?’ Are we left with any real sense of compassion for those who – for whatever reason – find themselves ‘sectioned?’
This storyline extracts a limited set of entirely negative social constructions about mental illness and appropriates them into a story about revenge (‘not forgiveness,’ as the narrative voiceovers state clearly), leaving the viewer with a highly distorted view of mental illness. But there is of course more to the story – Emily’s character has been very badly mistreated by the very same psychiatrist who now – in exchange for her own life (etc) repeats the same trick of falsifying reality in order to sign off the ‘sectioning’ of Victoria’s character.
There are fewer things in life that reduce a person’s personal power (a philosopher and psychiatrist might use a word like ‘agency’) than the loss of mental faculties. But is a person only worth the quality of their mind? How is a person’s worth measured? Elsewhere in the same series, Emily’s character is literally saved from self-destruction by the man she loves, but as she realises what she has done and what he has done, she states clearly that she is not sure that she ‘was worth it.’ Her self-destruction was itself caused by emotive and cognitive breakdowns – and we are left with a clear sense that all of this ‘revenge-pursuing’ activity comes at a very high price.
This is an increasingly bleak and sordid world, and one in which health itself is not regarded as a gift (and I say this in the context of a religiously pluralistic world) – but as a ‘right’ and as a token of power. One’s worth is dependent on one’s appearance and one’s competence, and the greater the levels of physical and mental health, the easier it is for one to take one’s self-perceived ‘rightful’ place in the world. But I want to argue forcefully that we do not deserve our places in the world because we are ‘well enough’ to ‘do something’ and ‘offer something.’ We human beings have the gift of life if we come safely through the womb and into the world, but we don’t have ultimate control of anything. Some people live very healthily and still contract freak diseases and die young. Others live very unhealthily into their late eighties. And mental health seems to be even more capricious – the more we know, the less we know.
Yes, a person may lose their cognitive functionality and reach a point of self-risk where they may have to be sectioned for their own good. This is a sad, vicious reality of our world. But perhaps – even as we are surrounded by various messages about mental health, most of which are less than holistic – we can remember that what we loosely call ‘madness’ is much closer to all of us than we care to admit. The plotline of this TV storyline has done nothing to humanise people who really are genuinely sectioned for their own safety and that of others – instead, it subtly reinforces the unverbalised fear and loathing that many of us feel at the idea of mental illness. As ‘art,’ it may have been compelling viewing, but what are we left with?
Let’s not allow the media to determine our values for us. Let’s choose our values for ourselves, and continue to rethink mental health. One day, you may be the one who needs compassion…
I have had to watch a number of people wrestle with the side-effects of various forms of pharmaceutical medications (anti-psychotic drugs being the most complicated in my experience). I have listened to people talk with real feeling about how they wished they never had to take ‘mind-altering’ substances. Their desire for what I will loosely refer to as ‘regular cognitive functionality’ was great indeed. And wholly understandable. And absolutely heart-breaking.
I am sure that some of the readers of this post will know what it is like to deal with family members who function well on their medication, but who do not function at all well when they stop taking whatever it is that they are supposed to be taking. The stress and grief that can be caused is incalculable at times.
Charlie Parker was a phenomenal jazz musician who – having developed a heroin dependency – needed to get high in order to actually feel normal. But the terrible legacy created by his drug habit (and those of other jazz luminaries) was essentially driven by a total failure to understand the truth of my previous sentence. So on the basis of sensory perception (i.e. what they could see), younger, impressionable jazz musos see him (and others) doing two things:
a) playing jazz to an extraordinary standard;
b) using illegal drugs on a regular basis (hence ‘drug habit’).
They then fall headfirst into the worst possible type of syllogism (google if necessary!) – namely:
The tragedy is that it wasn’t too long before jazz musicians found out that shooting heroin didn’t – and couldn’t – make you a better player, but by that time they had become addicted and so the tragic cycle was perpetuated. And over forty years later, as an aspiring professional jazz musician, I personally discovered that this same myth was still alive and well…
In case you were wondering if this was a mad digression: the point just made is that the narcotic substances did not take one ‘beyond’ regular human experience to interstellar space where creativity reigns. They facilitated a level of ‘normality’ on the part of the musician in question. Now, a ‘normal’ person should not have to take (let’s say) antidepressants; and a mentally ill person wants the truth to be that they are not mentally ill (deliberate focus on the ‘negative there). Taking the medication means that they are ill, but they don’t want to be ill. They want to be ‘normal.’ But sometimes really bad things happen when they don’t take their medication which causes pain and grief to their family and carers. So they also need pharmaceutical (in this case, literally mind-altering) substances to be ‘normal.’
The sadness of some of these people who have to depend on mind-altering substances to be able to function in the ‘real world’ has stayed with me. And that brings me to the crux of this post.
It has been a source of both heartbreak and anger for me that so many Christians that I have met in many denominations really do not think rigorously about their faith. But now I want to speak specifically about my experience as a member of a church in which our UK membership is over 80% black (although this is not in any way part of our constitutional and theological identity). There is a brokenness of language which has led to a brokenness of actual thought. There are all sorts of different social and ethnic and cultural groups who all use and abuse the English language in their own specific ways as part of their respective group identities. But I have grown up in a cultural and racial and religious community with thought-values and language values that I have had to conspicuously reject for my own sanity.
As a result, although I have never left my church or committed the kind of major ‘sins’ that make you a pariah in church circles, I experienced a type of socio-religious disenfranchisement that has meant that most of my closest friends do not share my religious beliefs. I have been able to enjoy honest fellowship with them despite some quite radical differences in terms of ideology – because all parties have done their best to be honest. And honest disagreement has always been better than dishonest agreement. Indeed, we could go further and say that difference, per se, is essential to actual relationship. For if there is nothing different about any of the people with whom we associate, our very friendship network is an exercise in narcissism!
It is not that we must all think the same way on the same issues. And it is not that everyone must think the same things that I do (please don’t take that to mean that I am a religious pluralist or a liberal Christian, for I am neither; I do, however, acknowledge people’s right to be both of those things and more if that is what they choose). But so many of the reasons for religious and Biblical belief that I hear week in and week out are so vague and nebulous that the very words ‘vague’ and ‘nebulous’ sometimes seem kind indeed. So many people in my community are blessed with better mental health than some others, but for more of us than could ever be ideal, our patterns of thought and reasoning often lead to unusual and cruel consequences – not least when it comes to judging others.
Many of us Christians are the quickest to condemn a person (Christian or otherwise) who falls into psychosis for their ‘lack of faith’ or ‘secret sins in their lives’ or to castigate their parents as spiritually underpowered – to say nothing of the classic ‘demon possession’ argument. Now, I am a Bible-believing Christian and I believe in the supernatural – for sure. But we cannot always know what is wrong with someone who has a mental health problem and if we are as quick as my own eyes have seen to judge a person harshly as opposed to showing them the love of Christ, small wonder that the UK is full of self-identifying Christians (2011 census) who are living their understanding of that Christian identity as far away as possible from the churches themselves. This kind of reasoning is just as bad if not worse than that encapsulated in the syllogism I gave you earlier – and totally unjustified (Biblically and theologically!).
This is a seriously weird way of showing gratitude to God for good mental health and sentience. Instead of using it to think spiritually and creatively about how we can help those less fortunate than themselves, far too many of us have taken those very gifts of mental health and sentience that we believe to be God-given (because we are Christians) and thrown it straight back into God’s face. Willful ignorance of mental health issues leads to poverty of thought; itself a mockery when one claims to worship the God who is the author of life, cognition and language – each of which are indispensable to actual thought (not to be confused with vague and vacuous mental flutterings).
There is absolutely no point in having the gift of good mental health if you are going to abuse it and abuse others with it.
This means (of course) that it is not just religious people who have a case to answer for in terms of stewardship of mental health. If you are someone who has no such problems, then this could be a great time to pause for a moment and take stock of all the reasons to be thankful that you are not in the NHS system as a mental health service user – not least because the number of ‘preventable’ deaths in this area of the NHS is higher than would be ideal. Let’s all make a decision to be more understanding of these people and those who care about them.