Man Turned in on Himself, excerpt 8

Martin Luther, who struggled mightily with anxiety, believed that one cannot deal with life’s daily fears without first making peace with life’s ultimate fear—death. If Luther is right, then America is not getting any closer to the target. “In today’s narcissistic culture, man seeks not to inflict his own certainties on others but to find meaning in life . . . The contemporary climate is therapeutic, not religious. People today hunger not for personal salvation, let alone the restoration of an earlier golden age, but for the feeling, the momentary illusion, of personal well-being.” (Marc Galanter, MD)

As long as Americans continue to pursue that well-being without turning back to God, anxiety will continue to metastasize. Businesses seem to be banking on it. In the fall of 2012, the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America issued a report touting the many new drugs being developed for mental illness. Twenty-six of them were for anxiety.

“The society that we believed we understood and in which we felt secure during the 1950s has become incomprehensible and threatening in the 21st century. Our level of trust of authority, from religion through medicine to politics, has declined dramatically. . . . Though much of our trust in the past was misplaced, our more accurate view of society has lead to what some call “the gravest sort of anxiety.” Such anxiety results from a sense that we have lost our foundations and that chaos reigns. Chaos and its resultant anxiety cannot be tolerated for long, and depression, a signal to withdraw, is perhaps a natural adaptation to these feelings.” (Dan G. Blazer)

Depression

Anxiety and depression are “fraternal twins.” Close to 50% of those who suffer from anxiety disorder will develop major depression within five years. Depression is the leading cause of disability worldwide, and is a major contributor to the global burden of disease. Many experts feel it has reached a state of epidemic. Twenty years ago, about 1.5% of the U.S. population had a level of depression that required treatment; today, as many as 50% can expect to experience depression’s symptoms.

Any discussion of depression in the context of religion—particularly in the context of sin—is potentially volatile. Within the religious community there is dissension about the relationship between depression and faith. Many struggle to understand why God would allow depression in the first place while others chide—much like Job’s friends—that the depressed Christian must be doing something wrong. Some insist it’s a sin to use medication to treat depression—that only Christ can heal what is, in effect, a spiritual problem—others that it’s a sin not to use medication when tangible help is available. After all, “Jesus told his disciples that he had come to Earth so that they should have more joy and have it completely.” Twelfth-century mystic, Hildegard of Bingen, contended, “At the moment when Adam disobeyed the divine law, at that exact instant, melancholy coagulated in his blood.” Contemporary writer and Christian, Kathleen Norris, takes a peacemaker’s role. “Depression has many causes: genetic disposition and chemical imbalance in the brain, as well as unwelcome change, notably loss in all its forms. Can we agree that there are many treatments as well?”

Because the landscape is so vast, for the purposes of this short section the focus will be on 1) how the acceleration in cases of major depression parallels the trend in modern psychiatry away from a consideration of social context to a purely individualistic model; and 2) the individual’s experience of depression and how it relates to their connection to God. Let’s begin with a view from 10,000 feet.

Over the past 50 years, those tasked as healers in the field of depression have abandoned examination of society’s role and placed the focus wholly on the individual, both in cause and solution. Since this might leave the individual stigmatized, depression was then re-envisioned as a one-size-fits-many disease for which the person is not responsible. The cure is a pill, and, for the most part, the pill works —problem solved—which makes it less likely that experts will ever go back to looking for the social causes behind the problem. The arc is eerily similar to the pattern we’ve followed in removing “sin” from the public square. First we made it an individual act (as opposed to a condition that applied to all mankind). Then, so that the sinner is not stigmatized, we decided that this act or that was no longer a sin—problem solved—and that, really, sin doesn’t even exist anymore. We’ve conquered it. And yet our sickness grows….

From RECLAIMING THE WISDOM OF HOMO INCURVATUS IN SE: “MAN TURNED IN ON HIMSELF” AS AN ENTRY POINT FOR THE DISCUSSION OF SIN IN 21ST-CENTURY AMERICA by Heather Choate Davis

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