When we feel depressed, anxious, or distressed, are we mentally ill? Or are we spiritually confused?
Not long ago, I railed against the mental “illness” concept (see The Death of Mental Illness). While it can’t be denied that people have problems in the mental sphere, I object to the widespread assumption that they suffer from organic diseases. Yes, symptoms sometimes diminish with pharmaceutical treatment, but that doesn’t prove they are caused by faulty neurons. Yet if we abandon the “brain dysfunction” formula, what do we replace it with?
It’s tempting to call depression, anxiety, mania, and other psychiatric symptoms spiritual maladies. Unfortunately, many people in our culture object to the language of mysticism and prefer the supposedly verifiable terminology of science. And yet, there does seem to be an aspect of soul-sickness in the conditions we label as mental illnesses.
How much control do we have over the course of our lives? Is there free will or not?
Sorry, I won’t be answering these profound and ancient questions in this short essay. I won’t even be scratching the surface of the debate. But my sister died recently, which forces me to look back at past actions. Sadly, it’s a discouraging vista: repeated carelessness toward others, frequent outbursts of anger, and chronic negativity. There is no doubt that I should have behaved better, but the question is: did I have any choice in how I acted?
In a moment we’ll discuss how corrosive actions often lie beyond our conscious control. First, however, let’s notice that even good behavior may not feel chosen.
On my personal blog, I’ve written about the recent death of my sister. These were personal musings that didn’t fit the psychological thrust of PsychCentral. But of course everything that happens can teach us about life and help us grow, so there is something in my recent experience that does belong here. My sister’s passing deeply affects me, and there has been transformation even in this first week after the dreaded phone call. The theme that keeps hitting home is the difference between a person’s potential for grace and her ability to display it consistently.
Like me, my sister lived through a traumatic upbringing. Our parents divorced acrimoniously, our mother became severely depressed and soon killed herself, and we were then put in the care of our father’s new wife, who hated us and treated us with awful cruelty.
The home never felt safe, disrupted as it was by alcoholism and sexual chaos. My sister was six years older than me, so she was hurt more by the divorce and less by our stepmother. By the time she turned sixteen, she was already in trouble. She spent six weeks in a psychiatric hospital after LSD use left her in a persistent psychotic state. She was attracted to cruel and violent men who involved her in illegal and dangerous activities. She went on to suffer severe alcoholism herself, and she died from complications of liver failure.
There’s no answer to this question, or rather there are too many answers, but it’s still worth asking: Why don’t we behave better?
Most of us understand what would make us healthy and happy. We build an image of our perfect lifestyle: eat well, exercise vigorously, do yoga with the sunrise, meditate twice a day, act kindly and helpfully at all times, avoid negativity and pessimism, forgive freely, and so on. We would cut out saturated fats, processed carbohydrates, caffeine, and other mood alterants. We’d discard our televisions and limit our web surfing. We’d spend quality hours with our loved ones during free time, and apply ourselves diligently during the entire workday. We’d be satisfied, saintly, and applauded all around.
So why don’t we act like this? Why do we carp at those nearest when we’re fatigued? Why do we eat ice cream instead of carrots? Why do we zone out before electronic media rather than reading to gain knowledge, wisdom and enlightenment? Why aren’t we better people?