Tag Archives: mental health

Nothing Against Logicians! Promise!

A properly functioning mind can destroy itself. It can think itself, in a logical and rational pattern, into madness. But that’s really more about the motive than the mode. It’s not logic and rationality themselves that are the source of the problem. In that respect, my recent quotation of G.K. Chesterton might have been misleading in regards to my outlook. Chesterton wrote, “The poet only asks to get his head into the heavens. It is the logician who seeks to get the heavens into his head. And it is his head that splits.” But I don’t have anything against logicians! Promise! I have no campaign against logic or rationality. From classical Stoicism to contemporary psychological therapies like logotherapy, cognitive-behavioral therapy, and rational emotive behavior therapy, logical and rational thinking has been a sturdy pattern for healthiness. But logic and rationality also could be used in an unhealthy way. In quoting Chesterton there, my point was to identify a problem that was once explained by an evangelical psychologist, Larry Crabb. “There is an enormous difference between the joy of discovery and the passion to explain,” Crabb wrote. “The former gives life a sense of adventure. The latter makes us hate mystery.” And, I think, as Chesterton suggests, that passion to explain gets exhausting, overwhelming, and eventually, devastating. So his single metaphorical dichotomy provides me inexhaustible help: I’m not trying to get the heavens into my head; I’m just trying to get my head into the heavens. And by heavens, I’m thinking figuratively. I’m thinking about all the questions and all the data and all the good theories and all the history and all the apparent unknowns—better to sit within it all than to insist upon a perfectly systematic account for it all. The former is wonderful; the latter is exhausting. I think someone could simultaneously say discovery in any field is an amazing, exhilarating journey, and logical, rational methods help discovery on its way. Motivation makes the difference.

Knowing and not knowing stuff about God

Philosopher Charles Hartshorne apparently had a strong belief in divine love. However, he questioned the historically mainstream idea that we should think about God in terms of what He is not.

This excerpt is from an article entitled “Charles Hartshorne: Dipolar Theism,” from the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

“Many theologians, eager to affirm the transcendence of God, emphasize what cannot be known of God and argue that, in view of this ignorance, the most appropriate theological language is by way of negation (via negativa): God is not finite (infinite), not changeable (immutable), not affected by anything external (impassible), not contingent (necessary), not in time (non-temporal), and so forth. Hartshorne also emphasized what is not known of God and he did not deny that negations play an important role in religious discourse. In A Natural Theology for Our Time, he comments that our knowledge of the concrete divine reality is ‘negligibly small.’ He argues, however, that as the sole or even primary approach to religious language, ‘the negative way’ is a case of false modesty. Negative theologians are supposedly being deferential to God by stressing what cannot be known or said of God, but this masks the fact that they consider themselves privy to enough knowledge about the divine reality to know what cannot be attributed to it.

(Boldface added.)

As far as that boldfaced section goes, I have a vague recollection of reading something similar in a Norman Geisler book. His characterization of knowledge, at least in one respect, went something like this: Does it make sense to say we know we can go up to a certain point and go no further? Is it possible to know exactly where our knowledge stops without knowing something of what’s just beyond? Figuratively speaking, am I standing at an opaque wall or am I standing in a fog in which some objects and items are easily identified and others are harder to recognize?

I like the fog analogy because of something I recently re-read in G.K. Chesterton, not that Chesterton had the academic credentials of a Hartshorne or a Geisler. Chesterton said, essentially, the logician tries to get heaven into his head (and his head splits), while the poet just wants to get his head into heaven (and he is filled with wonder). I’m trying to re-route my own mind along those lines: do I want to sort everything out and explain everything and nail it all down, or do I want to discover and enjoy and immerse myself? One mode tries to get everything into one’s head, and the other mode tries to get one’s head exposed to everything.

Granted, ignorance is the mode that allowed bad religion to influence so much of history, and so much of my own life. A guy at least needs tools to protect himself, just as a farmer needs a fence around his flock and a rifle for the larger predators. Knowledge can be real light when it has real meaning for our lives. But once reasonable defenses are built against arrogant ignorance and manipulative control, maybe a guy can settle down and get back to enjoying life, the cosmos, even God.

Memories make us human, memories good and bad and neutral

When someone tells you not to be influenced by The Past, agree with him and then ask him to tell you about a formative relationship in his childhood. After he answers, ask him why he allows himself to be influenced by The Past. Who can really function without memory? The mind has to constantly reference memories, even when its attention is focused in the present moment. It can do no other. It has to learn and make adjustments in behavior based on what it has learned. Without remembered names, humans don’t know anything — as Dana Gioia said in his poem “Words,” “To name is to know and remember.” Isn’t it true that when a man loses his memory, he loses himself? His self?

 

 

In times of distress: pathological problems versus existential problems

“Pathological problems demand therapy to achieve a cure. Existential problems demand courage to reconstitute one’s self. There are ways of helping another ‘take courage’; they were for example the stock and trade of religious pastoral counseling before the clergy lost sight of the distinction we are discussing. Existential problems are problems of the human spirit, and so long as they are treated as ‘merely emotional’ the human spirit is denigrated.” — John Douglas Mullen, in Kierkegaard’s Philosophy: Self-Deception and Cowardice in the Present Age

The good suffering in your life; or, the struggle to know one’s vocation

Man's Search for Meaning, by Viktor Frankl

Image by elycefeliz via Flickr

I admit I don’t think our church does a great job of helping people find their specific, individual purposes in life, and as a vestry guy and occasional lay teacher, I’m as responsible for that as anyone else. But then maybe no help is better than bad help. No way around it: individual vocation is the central question in most lives. Saint Paul said some are called to be teachers, some evangelists, some prophets, and so on. Kierkegaard wrote about the need for that thing for which he could live and die. When he said “truth is subjectivity,” he was not articulating the past century’s fashionable relativism but rather recognizing that each person has his own subjective, personal, individual response to the objective Gospel and to God. In the life of the Church, roles are as diverse and varied as fingerprints, and anyone who tries to simplify or reduce the individual’s role to an objective platitude inhibits the Christian’s influence in the world.

The difficulty of addressing vocation is precisely that it is so personal. To share the core of the matter, I will quote someone who I think did an exceptional job explaining the nature of the struggle: Viktor Frankl, best known as the Holocaust and concentration camp survivor who became an internationally recognized psychotherapist. Here’s an excerpt from his book, Man’s Search for Meaning:

“Not every conflict is necessarily neurotic; some amount of conflict is normal and healthy. In a similar sense suffering is not always a pathological phenomenon; rather than being a symptom of neurosis, suffering may well be a human achievement, especially if the suffering grows out of existential frustration…. A man’s concern, even his despair, over the worthwhileness of life is an existential distress but by no means a mental disease…. Thus it can be seen that mental health is based on a certain degree of tension, the tension between what one has already achieved and what one still ought to accomplish, or the gap between what one is and what one should become…. What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for a worthwhile goal, a freely chosen task…. One should not search for an abstract meaning of life. Everyone has his own specific vocation or mission in life to carry out a concrete assignment which demands fulfillment. Therein he cannot be replaced, nor can his life be repeated. Thus, everyone’s task is as unique as is his specific opportunity to implement it.” — Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning

Related articles

Researcher notes that some people love their neighbors more than themselves

Below is the beginning of an article about an area of psychological research called “self-compassion.” Christianity, generally speaking, could address about the basis for self-compassion: redemption, grace, and mercy from the Creator.

From the New York Times:

Do you treat yourself as well as you treat your friends and family?

That simple question is the basis for a burgeoning new area of psychological research called self-compassion — how kindly people view themselves. People who find it easy to be supportive and understanding to others, it turns out, often score surprisingly low on self-compassion tests, berating themselves for perceived failures like being overweight or not exercising.

The research suggests that giving ourselves a break and accepting our imperfections may be the first step toward better health. People who score high on tests of self-compassion have less depression and anxiety, and tend to be happier and more optimistic. Preliminary data suggest that self-compassion can even influence how much we eat and may help some people lose weight.

This idea does seem at odds with the advice dispensed by many doctors and self-help books, which suggest that willpower and self-discipline are the keys to better health. But Kristin Neff, a pioneer in the field, says self-compassion is not to be confused with self-indulgence or lower standards.

Read the entire article here.

The suicide of Sparklehorse’s Mark Linkous

I remember a couple of years ago when Pinckney Benedict, one of the acclaimed writers who taught in my master’s program, announced on MySpace that Sparklehorse was his favorite band, ever.

Today I got the bad news from the Facebook update of another acclaimed writer, Dan Albergotti: Sparklehorse’s Mark Linkous has taken his own life.

I wonder if the following excerpt, from Walker Percy’s book Lost in the Cosmos, would help someone who is feeling the way Linkous might have been feeling:

If you are serious about the choice, certain consequences follow. Consider the alternatives. Suppose you elect suicide. Very well. You exit. Then what? What happens after you exit? Nothing much. Very little, indeed. After a ripple or two, the water closes over your head as if you had never existed. You are not indispensable, after all. You are not even a black hole in the Cosmos. All that stress and anxiety was for nothing. Your fellow townsmen will have something to talk about for a few days. Your neighbors will profess shock and enjoy it. One or two might miss you, perhaps your family, who will also resent the disgrace. Your creditors will resent the inconvenience. Your lawyers will be pleased. Your psychiatrist will be displeased. The priest or minister or rabbi will say a few words over you and down you go on the green tapes and that’s the end of you. In a surprisingly short time, everyone is back in the rut of his own self as if you had never existed.

Now, in the light of this alternative, consider the other alternative. You can elect suicide, but you decide not to. What happens? All at once, you are dispensed. Why not live, instead of dying? You are like a prisoner released from the cell of his life. You notice that the cell door is ajar and that the sun is shining outside. Why not take a walk down the street? Where you might have been dead, you are alive. The sun is shining.

Suddenly you feel like a castaway on an island. You can’t believe your good fortune. You feel for broken bones. You are in one piece, sole survivor of a foundered ship whose captain and crew had worried themselves into a fatal funk. And here you are, cast up on a beach and taken in by islanders who, it turns out, are themselves worried sick–over what? Over status, saving face, self-esteem, national rivalries, boredom, anxiety, depression from which they seek relief mainly in wars and the natural catastrophes which regularly overtake their neighbors.

And you, an ex-suicide, lying on the beach? In what way have you been freed by the serious entertainment of your hypothetical suicide? Are you not free for the first time in your life to consider the folly of man, the most absurd of all the species, and to contemplate the cosmic mystery of your own existence? And even to consider which is the more absurd state of affairs, the manifest absurdity of your predicament: lost in the Cosmos and no news of how you got into such a fix or how to get out–or the even more preposterous eventuality that news did come from the God of the Cosmos, who took pity on your ridiculous plight and entered the space and time of your insignificant planet to tell you something.

The difference between a non-suicide and an ex-suicide leaving the house for work, at eight o’clock on an ordinary morning:

The non-suicide is a little traveling suck of care, sucking care with him from the past and being sucked toward care in the future. His breath is high in his chest.

The ex-suicide opens his front door, sits down on the steps, and laughs. Since he has the option of being dead, he has nothing to lose by being alive. It is good to be alive. He goes to work because he doesn’t have to.