The mental health system aims to help us build stronger and happier selves. But is this the proper goal?
Exploring how family shapes us, learning to adjust thoughts to build confidence, and even mindfulness techniques that foster comfort with sensations are all directed at us as individuals. True, the family is a collective, thoughts occur in a social context, and mindfulness can reveal the unity of the cosmos. But mental health clinics emphasize shoring us up as individuals, not increasing our awareness of interconnection to others.
Seldom are we trained to look outside our own problems to see the larger world. Even more rarely are we encouraged to explore the relationship between our personal wellbeing and the health of the social network as a whole. But how beneficial is total focus on personality? Centuries of ‘rugged individualism,’ as practiced in America, have failed to create either a just society or a happy citizenry. And without a thriving culture, none of us can feel truly actualized.
We will never achieve complete and lasting mental health in isolation. We might attain greater acceptance and spiritual grounding, but in a global human family true wellbeing depends on more than our own individual minds. It is also supported, or undermined, by the state of humanity and life on earth. As long as the world is torn by chaos and injustice, our mental states will remain uneasy no matter how comfortable our immediate circumstances. As an old bumper sticker of mine said: “No one is free when others are oppressed.”
Walking down Market Street in San Francisco recently, I witnessed a touching and distressing situation. Lying atop grimy pavement beside a low wall, enfolded in blankets and sleeping bags, surrounded by a few sacks of belongings, a middle-aged couple napped in the midst of Saturday’s chaos of tourists and hawkers and vehicles.
What struck me more than anything was the tender way they casually remained in contact with each other: his hand on her forearm, her head touching his shoulder. They looked like any longterm pair of humans, with history and affection, sleeping together in the comfort of a shared bed. Only it couldn’t have been very comfortable or relaxing to recline there, destitute and exposed. Danger and humiliation stalk all who live on the streets, and they looked neither hardened nor cynical enough to brush off discouragement and fear. They appeared to be an ordinary but unfortunate couple who lost whatever home they might once have enjoyed.