Ever since I was a little kid, I have felt the pain of the world quite deeply (how’s that for a pretentious opening sentence?!). I don’t recall being an unhappy child—not by any means!—but I do quite distinctly remember being drawn toward more existential themes of pain and loss and identity and belonging, even as a relatively young person. Often the manifestation of these tendencies coincided with being dumped by a girlfriend (in grade 7-8!) or failing a test (mathematics and I are still sworn enemies) or some other utterly ordinary perceived injustice in the life of a kid. But I also remember wondering about and being saddened by some fairly big questions. Why do so many people suffer? Why do I have a mom and a dad who love and care for me while others do not? Why was I born in Canada and not Ethiopia? How does God expect us to live with joy and happiness when we see pain all around us and while we know that death is coming? If God is good and powerful, why does he allow so much horrific pain in his world?
All this is to say, I suppose, that from my earliest memories I have lived with the knowledge that life is a mixed bag and that all of our human stories will inevitably include pain. There is a kind of inherent sadness built into the system, it has always seemed to me, and this ought to be reflected in how we think and live in the world. I always marveled at those around me, whether inside or outside the church, who could so easily come to peace with the world as it is. “That’s just the way things are… Gotta make the best of it… God knows best… Focus on the good…” Etc., etc. But why are things like this? I would often say, to God or far less frequently, to a real unfortunate human being who happened to be in the vicinity. How can God expect us to celebrate the good with all of this badness skulking around in the shadows?
None of this is, of course, in any way unique to me. But I have been thinking about these themes in light of an article I read last night called “Mind Games” by Kwame McKenzie from this month’s issue of The Walrus. The article deals with the most recent edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), the “bible” psychiatrists use to diagnose mental illness. The overarching question raised by the article is, to what extent are we over-diagnosing mental illness? According to the article, a recent survey indicates that fully 26% of the American population would have some sort of mental disorder according to DSM-5. What is the apparently ever-shrinking “normal” that these 26% don’t fit in? Who defines it? And, beyond that, larger questions loom: Are we turning unhappiness itself into a mental illness? What does this say about us as a society?
This paragraph from McKenzie’s article stood out:
The increase in the number of DSM diagnoses may reflect a larger shift in society’s expectations. Out of the 400 medical students at my lecture, only one considered it reasonable to expect psychiatrists to return patients to a state of normal unhappiness. Everyone else thought we should strive for more. This suggests that the psychiatrists and psychologists who created the manual, as well as the North American society they serve, now expect to achieve something other than normal unhappiness. It also raises questions: If unhappiness causes distress and people do not want to be unhappy, does this make unhappiness an illness?
I’m hardly the first person to think along these lines, but I wonder how many of history’s truly great minds would have been diagnosed with a mental disorder? Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Kierkegaard, Luther, Julian of Norwich, John the Baptist, any of the biblical prophets (to remain only under the broad Christian tent)… the list could get very long, very quickly. We could even include Jesus for that matter. Each of these people were, in their own way, profoundly in touch with the shadow side of human existence. They could never have done what they did and had the influence they had without this capacity to hurt, to feel deeply, to grieve, lament, weep, rage. These were not “happy,” “well-adjusted,” “normal” citizens. They were wild and shrill voices from the deep, dark places of life—voices that needed, and still need, to be heard.
There is something about the way the world is that ought to make us unhappy, I think. Aside from the pain that we witness in our world, the pain we experience personally, and the pain we inflict on others, there is something deeper yet. Most of the writers of DSM-5 obviously would not accept a anything like a Christian understanding of human beings, but according to a Christian anthropology, there something fundamentally wrong with us. We are not as we ought to be, as we were made to be. We are restless, rebellious, narcissistic, and hedonistic (among other things). We are incredibly resourceful when it comes to denying death, ignoring pain, and pretending things are other than they are in our world and in our lives. We do not adjust well to reality. We are forever trying to turn ourselves or our world into something they are not and cannot be.
But we are never successful at this endeavour for very long. And then, when our misguided expectations go unmet, when things come crashing down, or even when we begin to see life as it really is, we are unhappy. So we go to a doctor, get a diagnosis—an official-sounding name for our “condition”—and we pop a few pills, trying to feel happy again, trying trick our brains into telling us that everything is fine. Normal. Happy. Well-adjusted.
Perhaps part of what it means to live truly in God’s world is to recognize that sometimes, unhappiness is normal. Sometimes, indeed, it is far more abnormal to be happy.
This is where the obligatory caveat goes. I am, of course, aware that the diagnosis and treatment of mental disorders can be a profound source of healing and hope for many people and that there is heavy and tragic human cost associated with untreated mental illness. I do not wish to discount this in any way. I am simply wondering here about the scope of “mental illness” the nature of “normal” and about how we ought to think and live in a world containing such a bewildering amount and variety of both goodness and evil.