Being Human (Or, What I Learned on My Sabbatical)
It’s hard to believe, and bordering on painful to set out in declarative form, but my sabbatical comes to an end tomorrow. I’m not back at work tomorrow, I should hasten to add—like many, I have appended my holidays to the end of my sabbatical to stretch it out a bit further—but my three month sabbatical officially ends July 31. So in the interests of trying to begin the process of transitioning back into thinking and writing mode, I thought I would throw up some reflections upon what I have observed and learned over these past few months where I have been (mostly) silent in this space. I’m not sure how much blogging I’ll be doing throughout August, but I suppose you could say this post marks my re-entry into more normal writing routines.
I’ve read two important books this summer—at least they’ve felt important to me. One has specifically to do with pastoral ministry, the other with the root causes of depression and anxiety that seem to be reaching crisis levels in Western culture. Both books have felt like they are addressing far more than just their declared topics, though. In their own way, they have each felt like powerful diagnostics of our present moment, whether in the church or in the broader culture.
The first is Andrew Root’s abysmally-titled book, The Relational Pastor (seriously, that title sounds borderline creepy). But the book itself is well worth the read. Root argues for a fundamental paradigm shift in how pastors think about their work and relate to their churches and communities, particularly in the ever-advancing tide of secularism that is coming to define most Western countries. For too long, Root says, pastors and churches have treated people instrumentally. We’ll provide the programs and the inspirational music and the religious content and even the ever-elusive “community,” and in exchange you will subscribe to the cognitive content about God, ethics, the meaning of life and death, etc that we are selling. It’s a very transactional approach to ministry and one that I’m not sure any of us ever really entirely avoids. We want people in the pews, after all. No pastor likes to look out and see twenty-five people worshiping on a Sunday morning. No pastor gets used to the idea of routinely being the youngest person in the room, even well into middle age. It’s quite easy to slide, however subtly, into crafting the “product” to appeal the customer in the hopes that the customer will stay and boost, or at least preserve the brand.
Root argues for a return to pastoral ministry (and, I think we could say, to Christian faith and practice more generally) that loves and gives with the expectation of nothing in return. We don’t love and invest in people to get a desired outcome, but because human beings are made in the image of God and because loving and giving is what humans were created to be and to do. This approach is profoundly incarnational (to borrow an overused word) in nature. Just as Jesus did not enter into the human experience for the instrumental purpose of transmitting a body of cognitive content about God to build a brand and manage afterlife affairs, but to share in, embody, and transform the experience of being human, so our task is to reflect this in our communities. We enter into the experience of human persons convinced that God is and will continue to be present in our shared relationship. This has value in its own sake, regardless of what we or our churches “get” out of the deal. This should not be news, of course—at least not for those of us who follow the One who taught us to love our neighbours as ourselves (and who among us enjoys being treated as a means to an end?)—but it was a good and very necessary reminder for me. The church is not a corporation and human beings are not units of measurement on an economic calculus, easy as it is to treat each other as if this were true.
The second book feels like one of the most powerful analyses of our cultural moment that I have encountered in some time—at least since I read Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind. I’m not quite finished it yet, but Johann Hari’s Lost Connections feels significant to me in ways that I doubt I’ll fully be able to express at this early juncture. Hari is looking, partly through the lens of his own experience and partly through analysis of some of the best science out there, at the epidemic levels of depression and anxiety that are all around us. He is pushing—hard, at times—against the assumption that many in our culture have that these are physical problems involving the chemical composition of our human brains and that the “solutions” are primarily pharmaceutical in nature. If I were to summarize Hari’s thesis thus far, it would be that when it comes to depression and anxiety, we should be spending far less time analyzing and manipulating serotonin levels in people’s brains, and far more time looking at the ways we live, the things we value, the nature of our social interactions and assumptions in these fraught and frantic days of the technocratic, individualistic, consumeristic late-industrial capitalistic age.
To put it bluntly, Hari argues that we’re depressed and anxious because we’re living poorly. Our communities are fragmented and isolated due to plummeting civic engagement (volunteerism, church participation, etc), many struggle with meaningless and undervalued work in unstable economies that are designed for efficiency and profit rather than anything resembling human flourishing, the metanarratives once provided by religion that gave meaning to life have been discarded or subsumed under totalitarian forms of individualism and consumerism, marriages and families fall apart at catastrophic rates due to changing social and ethical norms, the aforementioned unstable economies (that drive people ever further away from familial and communal supports), and unrealistic expectations. According to Hari, we are lonely, unhealthy, addicted, adrift, and often broke, forever chasing after the dictates prescribed to us by the advertising machine which conditions to us be relentlessly chasing more and perpetually dissatisfied. And all of this has, of course, coincided with the rise of the Internet which magnifies all of the above. Social media very often makes us even lonelier and more depressed than we otherwise might be, with its relentless demands to be performing and parading our best lives constantly online.
Hari’s prescription will, I assume, be to urge us to reconnect with some of the things that make life meaningful. Invest in friendships, spend time pursuing meaningful values, build community, rediscover the natural world beyond all the concrete and ether, pursue meaningful work, spend less and do more, get offline, reach out to other human beings. All of this is good. We need to do these things and more (might I have the temerity to suggest the possibility of worship and the pursuit of God?) if we are ever going to make a dent in what is starting to seem like an avalanche of mental health crises. But it starts with being honest with where we are and what we are doing.
Our problems—as individuals and as a society—will not be solved by popping a pill to alter our brain state. This can help, perhaps, on occasion and for a short time. But brain states are not static things that exist in a vacuum. Every human behaviour, emotion, decision, habit, and experience has a brain state with fancy words like dopamine and serotonin associated with it. It should not surprise us to realize that the way we live and the choices we make affects the chemical composition of our brains. That’s sort of what it means to be a human being. The problem is that for too long now, we have “scientized” (to borrow Hari’s word) our approach to mental health and assumed that the causal arrow flows only and always in one direction (brains states cause or determine human experiences like depression). This is manifestly not the case. Science is now discovering that at the very least, the causal arrow flows in both directions. Our experience of the world and the way we live in it affects the chemicals in our brains. Which is, you know, sort of what we might have expected, given that human beings are complex, interdependent, holistic beings.
This is a long post by now, I know. A quick glance at the word count tells me that I am well over double what the blogging experts tell me that I should be in order to give myself a chance of anyone reading this. Ah well, so it goes. It’s been three months, and I apparently have some words kicking around in the brain.
But I wanted to close with one final sabbatical observation. My sabbatical combined with the arrival of summer has reminded me of the simple gift of having a community and how crucial this is for my own mental health. I have the rare blessing of living within fifteen minutes of at least six couples/families that I count as dear friends. Several other couples/families live further away, but we pick up right where we left off whenever we meet again. Many of these people, I have known for over two decades. As I’ve been reading Hari’s book and encountering some of the startling realities he describes (one stat that blew me away was that in 2004, the most common answer given by a cross section of American citizens to the question, “How many confidants do you have?” was “none”), I’ve been profoundly grateful for the gift of good friends. I probably take it for granted that I have people in my life that I can call up when I’m lonely, or have a beer with on a nice summer evening, or have “World Cup breakfasts” with (as I did often in June/July!), people who love my kids dearly and whose kids I love the same, people who have walked with us through some of the hardest and most joyful parts of our lives, people who are also there in the most mundane and ordinary days as well. Reading Hari’s book and paying more careful attention to the people I see in my own neighbourhood has reminded me of how uncommon and unlikely my experience is in a transient world where people are constantly moving around to stay employed or climb the socioeconomic ladder. This is, as I say, a gift.
Every once in a while, an opportunity to make a professional change in my life comes up. There was a time in my life, perhaps, when my wife and I would have evaluated such opportunities based mostly on the nature of the position, the potential for upward mobility, remuneration, opportunities for the kids, etc. Increasingly, one of the first things we ask ourselves is, “Would it require a move from this area? Would it take us away from our community?” We’ve come to realize that this isn’t some optional extra that we’ll have to get around to cultivating once we get jobs and cities and schools sorted out. It’s rare and it’s hard to cultivate. It’s also desperately necessary and profoundly life-giving. I think both Andrew Root and Johann Hari might smile and nod at reading those words. In their own ways and with their own language, they’re trying to tell us that this is what we’re made for.
If you’ve made it all the way to the end of this post, I congratulate you and I thank you. I’d be glad to hear your thoughts on any of the preceding. And I’ll try to post shorter entries as I get back at it over the next month or so. Evidently, the first casualty of my sabbatical was my customary gift of brevity 😉 .
A final note: I know that some (many?) regular readers of this blog are notified of new posts via Facebook. On August 1, Facebook is apparently eliminating the possibility of automatically publicizing posts from WordPress to individual Facebook profiles. Perhaps this is one of Mark Zuckerberg’s attempts to deal with fake news on Facebook, who knows? At any rate, I don’t yet know how I’m going to work around this. The ability to link my blog to Facebook has at times seemed like one of the few benefits to keeping a Facebook page for me because it drives engagement and traffic in a way that little else does.
At any rate, while I try to sort out how to deal with this unforeseen issue, if you want to be notified of new posts I guess you’ll have to either sign up via email (button on right side of the blog) or just check back to the blog itself now and then. I’ll let you know if/when I come up with something resembling an actual social media strategy (maybe I’ll have to abandon my principles and my soul and rejoin Twitter!). Sorry about this. Direct all your complaints to the aforementioned Mr. Zuckerberg.
Feature image source.