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On Reconnecting

In my (long) last post, I said that I was part way through Johann Hari’s Lost Connections and I thought that it was among the more powerful analyses of our cultural moment that I had come across in some time. This morning, I turned over the last page. I remain convinced that as an analysis of the root causes of the epidemic levels of depression and anxiety in (primarily) Western culture, Hari’s book is rock solid. But the book is far lighter on the cure than it is on the diagnosis. Much of what Hari prescribes to address the seven “lost connections” he diagnoses seem to be scratching around on the surface of a problem that is at its very core profoundly existential and—dare I say it?—religious in nature. Hari is an atheist, so of course a religious diagnosis will not do for him. But as I closed his book this morning I couldn’t help but think that each of Hari’s recommended reconnections could easily be anchored in a robust Christian anthropology.

Reconnection One: To Other People. Hari tells the inspiring story of an eclectic neighbourhood in Berlin that rallied around an elderly woman whose life had been endangered by rising rent costs in 2011. It’s a great story about solidarity between unlikely people toward a shared vision. But from a Christian perspective, this sort of story should not be the exception that it clearly is in Hari’s telling, but the rule. Christian theology has always declared that we were created for community, that we are accountable to one another, that God’s very nature—as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—is community, that all of creation is an outflowing of this community. We were created in love, to love and to be loved. And Jesus not only ratified all this but took it to another level entirely in his command to love not only those who love us, but to love our enemies. Jesus knew that our health, as spiritual beings created for love and community, was bound to our ability to look beyond ourselves and to extend love to even the most unlikely corners of life.

Reconnection Two: Social Prescribing. Here, Hari praises a London clinic which has taken to prescribing and curating social connections, community gardening, etc for those who suffer depression and anxiety instead of the more common pharmaceutical approach that many doctors take. This is good. But it strikes me as odd that we are at the stage of the game where these things have to be prescribed, that this advice will (only?) be accepted if it comes from someone in a white lab coat. And, again, the idea that we are most fully human and healthy when we are learning how to love and be loved by others has deep roots in Christian history and theology (see #1).

Reconnection Three: To Meaningful Work. The inspiring example in this chapter is the story of a bike store collective in Baltimore that is formed by a group of employees that were disgruntled in their work and who decided to democratize and profit-share and create a super cool bike store. Again, great story. But not everyone will be able to to do this. The world will still need heavy duty mechanics and Wal-Mart greeters and farm labourers and retail clerks. Not everyone has the freedom or the resources to go out and create a new employment situation that is fulfilling and inspiring. Here, I think the Christian tradition contains deep resources and examples of those who have learned to cultivate the discipline of dignifying all labour as an offering to God and to neighbour. Perhaps the most famous example is that of Brother Lawrence washing dishes to the glory of God. But virtually all work can be meaningful, spiritual and even satisfying if it is offered in the right spirit and for the right reasons. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t do everything we can to eliminate labour conditions that are degrading and inhumane or that we shouldn’t push hard against economic and social structures that create these conditions, but Christian theology offers the possibility of transcending even the most difficult work conditions and consecrating work that would be considered meaningless by most people.

Reconnection Four: To Meaningful Values. Hari is quite rightly critical of materialism and advertising and the “junk values” they condition us to embrace. His recommendation is to reconnect to the things that matter to us—things like time with family, helping other people, and love. All good, so far as it goes. But of course it doesn’t really go far enough. I think we need more than to just each peer inside of our own selves and figure out what we personally find valuable and go with that. We need meaningful values that could actually constrain and shape our behaviour. Not everyone will find values like time with family and helping other people attractive or worth pursuing. There exist, I imagine, people whose values would never extend much beyond hedonism and self-interest. What is needed is something like transcendental, normative values—values that call us to our best selves, to what it means to be human. Values like love of God and neighbour. Values like worship and gratitude and self-sacrifice. Values like forgiveness and mercy to heal the wounds that inevitably inflict upon one another. Everyone just going off to pursue what they personally find meaningful might make a dent in our collective addiction to the junk values sold to us by the industrial capitalism advertising machine. Or, it might not. We need something beyond ourselves to lift our gaze.

Reconnection Five: Sympathetic Joy and Overcoming Addiction to the Self. This was easily the most bizarre chapter in the book. Hari tells a few stories which tell us that we should resist seeing life as a zero sum game and how to move beyond ourselves and be happy for others’ success. How, you might ask, should we do this? Well, meditation might help. Also, you might want to go on an LSD trip. I’m not joking. Hari commends a research experiment where people went were given LSD in a controlled environment and emerged realizing that they were part of a grand cosmic oneness and with the ability to let go of their ego and its attachments. Having spent the first half of the book explaining that we have been collectively wandering down a dead end road in understanding and treating depression and anxiety as a biological problem and trying to chemically alter brain states through drugs, Hari now finds himself recommending that the solution to this problem is to, well, chemically alter our brain states through drugs. The irony of this is not lost on him, but he hastens to add that this would only be a temporary experience for the purposes of learning what is possible in the rest of our lives. It’s not meant to be a permanent solution, only to expand our consciousness. We might be forgiven for treating this recommendation with a bit of skepticism. Manipulating our brain chemistry to show us how to live without manipulating our brain chemistry seems a curious prescription. Alternatively, we might look to historic Christian teaching which has always taught that self-denial is the path to true freedom, and that the cultivation of a love that keeps no record of wrongs, always protects, always perseveres, is patient, kind, and trusting is the highest human end we could and ought to aspire to.

Reconnection Six: Acknowledging and Overcoming Childhood Trauma. We are here encouraged go be honest about our experiences, tell our story, moving beyond shame as a way to counteract the depression that these experiences can cause later in life. Hari even offers muted praise for various forms of the practice of confession—sharing our pain with other people, listening compassionately, and finding a way forward together. Again, these are all great recommendations, but they are not scientific discoveries, as Hari often presents them. These are things we have forgotten, things we have left behind, things that ancient religious traditions have long taught and, at their best, modelled (and yes, I know that religious traditions are not always or even often at their best).

Reconnection Seven: Restoring the Future. Hari talks about how our economic structures have robbed people of a sense of a meaningful future and how this fuels depression and anxiety. I think he is right about this. He recommends a Universal Basic Income (UBI) as one of the ways forward here. He may be right. But I think restoring a sense of a hopeful future goes far beyond reconfiguring economic structures, important as this task may be. One of the main results of the secular turn that has taken place in the West over the past half-century or more is the almost compete severing of any kind of meaningful eschatological horizon. Even many Christians I talk to have no sturdy hope that this world is but a foretaste of the world that is to come. We have largely lost a sense of Christ within us, the hope of glory. And beyond the church, of course, our sense of “the future” has been radically constrained by the secular assumptions that bleed through almost every crack and crevice of modern life. We are alone in the universe, we believe, and we have nothing to hope for beyond what we can secure for ourselves. And yet, from a Christian perspective, to be human is to be dependent upon the One who made us and the One who has promised goodness in our future. This is not applying the balm of an imaginary heaven to heal the wounds of the present. This is to ask deep existential questions about who we are as human beings, why we value what we value, and why we seem so utterly unable to live without hope. 

This has been another long post, I know. I really will work on whittling things down to more internet-appropriate, easily digestible sizes in the weeks to come. The endless words come, I suppose, from a sense that these are massive issues that we have only begun to wrestle with as a culture, and which I see looming on the horizon in ominous ways with the generations coming up below me. I’m grateful for Johann Hari’s courageous work in pushing us beyond an approach to depression that is simplistic and far less than we need as human beings. He’s dead-right, in his sense that we have lost connections—with one another and with the created world—and that this is the deepest source of the unhappiness that is so pervasive in our times. I just think he’s left an important connection out—connection with God and with the way of being human that we were made for.

7 Comments Post a comment
  1. Thank you for this post. I found it to be thoughtful, logical, and stimulating.

    August 3, 2018
  2. Kathy Shantz #

    Occasionally I wander over to this blog having been prompted by a FB share from a friend. You write thoughtfully on many topics that interest me. The two posts you title On Reconnecting are of particular interest, especially as you reflect on mental health challenges that seem to be on the increase.

    Just a caution not to go overboard with Hari’s thesis about loss of connection being the central cause of a supposed increase in depression and anxiety. In my own reading and discussions with a relative who is a psychotherapist, I realize first and foremost that I am not an expert and second that diseases of the brain including depression are very complex, there are multiple causes and the diagnoses and treatments are equally complex and many faceted.

    I haven’t read Hari’s book but did a quick Google search and learned that he is a journalist who has suffered from depression and has a decidedly anti-drug perspective on treatments and a fairly narrow view on the causes of mood disorders.

    This reminds me a little of the many books and online posts about cancer, its causes and treatments written by people who are not experts. Having been diagnosed with breast cancer 4 years ago, there was no shortage of advice and resources that well meaning people were urging me to read. My sister, who had gone through cancer treatment as well, gave me the best advice: listen to your doctors they have devoted years of study and hours of clinical practice to this disease, trust them, they have your best interest at heart. Was chemo, surgery and radiation awful? You bet, but despite the still relatively primitive treatments they are by far better than the alternatives.

    Similarly, in the field of mental illness there is no shortage of people writing about a topic that they are not qualified to write authoritatively about. But fortunately more and more expert research is being devoted to understanding the brain, understanding its illnesses and treatment options which can include effective use of drugs. During the time that I was being treated for cancer another person from our church was hospitalized for life threatening depression. Both of us made it through treatment, both of us are still on drugs (with side effects) but I can say thanks to medical experts we have both been given another chance at life. (By the way this person does not fit the profile of Hari’s connection loss as a cause of depression)

    A further note about cause and illness. After I was diagnosed with cancer I was seized with guilt: what had I done to cause the cancer. I did not fit the profile of known causes and so I searched for things in my diet, stress, whatever. Then I read a John’s Hopkins article that stated that even though there are known causes of cancer ultimately who gets cancer is random. You can smoke all your life and not get lung cancer while someone who lived a healthy life gets cancer. This was a great relief to me, it wasn’t my fault that I got the disease. Similarly it might not help someone with depression to dwell too much on cause. It might well be true that loss of connection and trauma and many other factors contribute to depression but again it is random whose brain gets sick. This isn’t to argue that we should not pay attention to known causes and work on prevention. Its just a caution about how cause can end up feeling like judgement to someone who is stricken with a disease.

    Can the church and religion play a role in mental health? That’s a very fraught proposition, given the destructive role that church and religion has played is causing much trauma in people’s lives. The recent revelations of horrendous abuse and cover-up in Pennsylvania over 70 years is but one example of a truly epidemic problem. And of course Canadian residential schools operated by Canadian churches have been the cause of inter generational trauma among Indigenous people. So one might be tempted to conclude that the church is not a solution but one possible cause of the current mental health crisis.

    My own humble solution is money, much in life comes down to money. Here I mean money to generously fund mental health research, find new treatments and most important of all provide much more funding for mental health care. Because unlike my cancer care which was well funded and had a wonderful new clinic, the mental health department at the same hospital where my friend was treated is tiny and woefully understaffed.

    August 29, 2018
    • Thanks for your comment, Kathy. I appreciate hearing a bit of your story, particularly your reflections on your own journey with cancer and comparisons to mental health challenges.

      You are right, Hari did suffer depression for many of his young adult years. He was heavily convinced by and invested in what could be called a pharmaceutical understanding of mental health, depression, and anxiety and how to treat them (i.e., these are the result of chemical imbalances in the brain, caused we know not why, and nothing more). He had little interest in changing his views. He wanted the solutions to his struggles to come exclusively in the form of a pill. He didn’t want his research to lead him in the direction it did. And yet, the more he studied, the more he became convinced that the pharmaceutical approach was only a partial one—and one that very wealthy corporations had a profound economic interest in the public keeping as their default approach.

      I realize that Hari’s story is not everyone’s story. Of course it isn’t. Some people are deeply connected in life-giving communities and struggle with mental health issues. Many people’s lives have been changed in positive ways by anti-depressants. But Hari’s story and research is worth paying attention to. It is, in my view, a necessary corrective to a “pharmaceutical only” approach. Hari is not saying no drugs, he’s just challenging us to question drugs as the default or only option. He’s urging us to pay attention to the deep connections between how we live and what’s going on in our brains. He’s dignifying human beings by assuming that how we’re feeling about life might have some pretty deep connections with what we’re presently experiencing or what we have experienced in the past. He’s reminding us that human brains are enormously plastic—that we need not understand ourselves exclusively as passive victims of our brain chemistry. One of the chief benefits of Hari’s approach, from my stubbornly Christian perspective, is that it pays us the compliment of treating mental health challenges in holistic terms. We are not just biological organisms whose brain chemistry needs to be manipulated in order to get through life. We are rational, emotional, spiritual beings who can make choices that affect how we experience the world. Again, none of this is to say that drugs can’t play a role. But only as part of a larger package that takes seriously the complexity of who we are and what is good for us as human beings.

      And he’s asking us to pay attention to how the weakening of communal bonds and the decline of institutions that has characterized the postmodern West is affecting us as human beings. Is a culture that trains us in countless ways to be individualistic, consumeristic, and very often isolated by our myriad technologies good for our mental health? Is there a connection between what we have prioritized as a culture and the explosion of mental health crises? These are profoundly important questions for us to be asking, in my view.
      Re: dwelling too much on causes of mental health issues, I would agree that cavalierly rushing in with some single “explanation” for why someone is suffering is recklessly stupid and probably cruel. Human beings are enormously complex and there are many factors (biological, social, cultural, spiritual) that go into any human problem. But this doesn’t mean we don’t do our very best to understand the problems, in all their complexity, while maintaining all appropriate compassion and sensitivity in individual cases. There are ways to lovingly and thoughtfully pay attention to what’s going on in people’s lives who are suffering mental health challenges (while not ruling out pharmaceutical options as having a role to play) without being judgmental.

      Re: the church, yes, of course we must acknowledge that the church has done harm. Recent news has made this painfully clear, but it has ever been so. Yet to suggest that the church is only and always a negative force for human flourishing requires a fairly historically naïve and ideologically dogmatic approach, in my view. The church has caused trauma, without question. The church has also bound up wounds and offered healing. The church throughout history has provided strength and enormous resilience to people in suffering. On an anecdotal level, I can’t count how many times I’ve heard someone say, “I don’t know how I would have made it through difficult situation x (including mental health challenges) without my church community.” As always, depends where we look and what we focus on. Both the harm and the healing offered by the church must be named truthfully if we are going to make any progress on these fraught matters.

      At any rate, I’d encourage you to read the book. It might confirm your impressions from Google or it might offer a surprise or two. Thanks again for your comment here.

      August 30, 2018
  3. Kathy Shantz #

    Thanks, think I’ll pass on the Hari book. No one that I am reading ever advocates a pharmaceuticals only approach to treating illnesses of the brain. And no competent mental health care expert reduces mental illness to “chemical imbalances” In many ways research on the brain and its illnesses is still in its infancy, probably because we have had a mind body split for so long.

    What’s of crucial importance to understand is people who are experiencing mental health challenges frequently lack access to competent mental healthcare professionals. Sadly, people go to family doctors or emergency departments doctors who are not trained to diagnose or treat mental illness and this is where the use and abuse of drugs does play a role. A GP might reach for the prescription pad because its the only option available to a sick person who has no financial means to pay for a psychotherapist. And referrals to hospital psych departments are reserved for the most critical cases. This situation is like a GP trying to treat a toothache with pain killers when the patient should be seeing a dentist.

    As to the church providing an antidote to our secular post modern malaise? Maybe, but I contend that the institutional church has about run its course, maybe less focus on worship, on words, belief, confessions of faith and more focus on the dignity of human beings. I think The Relational Pastor might be on to something, but I don’t think we need the scandalously expensive infrastructure of church to focus on that.

    P.S. its not really naive or ideologically dogmatic to pose the question whether the institutional church has been on balance a negative force throughout history. Insomnia is one of the side effects of the drugs I take so I listen to podcasts and documentaries about history, mostly European history. My oh my, what a bloody history we have. I am almost tempted to surmise that our secular post modern era isn’t so bad after all.

    Thanks for listening, I enjoy thoughtful exchange.

    August 30, 2018
    • Perhaps no one that you read advocates a “pharmaceuticals only” approach, but I think Hari is speaking to many people’s experience. In his own case, when the effects of anti-depressants began to wear off, the only solution offered to him was either changing the drug or upping the dosages. Or both. He was not once asked what was going on in his life that might contribute to his depression. Perhaps he encountered uniquely incompetent doctors. My sense, though, is that his story is not that unique. I think you’re right that many people lack access to good care, and that GPs and ER docs might reach for the only tools available to them. But even having said that, my suspicion is that Big Pharma is playing a not insubstantial role in the options that many people are presented with.

      Re: the church, well, I suspect we’re going to have to agree to disagree here. The institutional church may soon run its course. I, for one, hope not. I think that our secular age barely understands how many of our assumptions about the world (including the centrality of human dignity) can be traced right back to Jesus and the church that has (imperfectly) carried his story and his ethos forward. The church has a bloody history, it is sadly true. The church also has a history of education, the spread of literacy, care for the poor, hospitals, a justice system based on the rights of individuals and many of the other things that we take for granted. The church has many sins to atone for. This is indisputably true. But it also has done much for which we ought to be profoundly grateful. Our Western secular ethical assumptions are profoundly Christian in origin and character, determined as we are to ignore or downplay this. A consistent secular ethic, finally and truly rid of God and church, would have to contend more seriously with Nietzsche than many have the stomach for. But that’s probably another post.

      Thanks for this exchange.

      August 30, 2018
  4. Kathy Shantz #

    You seem to be anxious to have the last word so I promise this is my last comment on your post.

    It strikes me as ironic that Hari’s book is very much part of the same profiteering motive he evidently ascribes to Big Pharma. The long version of the title is more than enough to put my BS meter into the red zone. The sad reality is that as mental illness finally emerges from the shadows of stigma, there is an expanding market for “alternative” treatments. The media and the general public are woefully ignorant of what clinical depression is and Hari’s book falls into the broad category of self-help books written with a simplistic and conspiratorial message: BIG PHARMA AND DOCTORS ARE NOT TELLING YOU THE TRUTH ABOUT DEPRESSION AND THEREFORE CAN’T HEAL YOU BUT I CAN. (Buy my book and attend my workshops to find out how I can save you)

    Regarding church, I don’t think we have to agree to disagree. I am merely proposing that the church as an institution may have done more harm than good both historically and at present. I am interested in the investigation as much as I am the conclusions that might be drawn. I don’t have a problem with secular society continuing to draw on Christian thought, ethics just as I don’t have a problem with drawing from Indigenous learning and spirituality. The latter is especially important as we face the environmental crisis.

    The Nietzsche comment strikes me as odd. I studied Nietzsche way back in undergrad and quite frankly have forgotten most of what he wrote, I am getting old and forgetful, but I suppose you might be referring to the the “Gretchenfrage” in Faust: “Wie hast du es mit der Religion?” Or how can we be moral without religion or belief in God. I guess that might be a vexing question but we can easily turn the question upside down and say why does belief in God necessarily constrain us humans from doing immoral things? We only need look at Trump’s evangelical America to see evidence of a rather vicious immorality based on a certain kind of Christian belief.

    Finally a quote from Bertrand Russell, one of my favourite philosophers: “I think we ought always to entertain our opinions with some measure of doubt. I shouldn’t wish people to dogmatically believe any philosophy, not even mine.”

    August 31, 2018
    • I seem to be “anxious to have the last word?” Not at all. I thought this was a dialogue. I have always sought to make this blog a place where ideas could be freely exchanged and honest conversations could be pursued in a common search for truth. I’m not sure what I’ve done to give you the impression that this is in any way a contest to see who gets the last word, but I regret anything I’ve said that would lead you to that conclusion.

      At any rate, in the hopes that a response will be taken not as an attempt to have the last word but as part of an exchange something like described above, I’ll respond to a few of your claims here.

      You don’t like Hari’s thesis. That’s fine, you don’t have to like the book or the summary you’ve read of it. But it strikes me as very strange indeed that you would interpret a book advocating paying attention to human relationships, connections and experiences, not to mention social structures, cultural assumptions, economic norms and technologies in addition to (not to the exclusion of) the chemistry of our brains as a “self-help book written with a simplistic and conspiratorial message.” This is simply bewildering to me. I can only suggest that you actually read the book, but you’ve already made it clear that you won’t, so I’m not sure what else I can say.

      Re: the church. I have no problem at all with your proposing that the church as an institution may have done more harm than good both historically and at present. I am simply offering evidence for why I don’t think this is the case. I think we barely recognize the effect that the church has historically had on much of what we hold dear, even as secularists. I am suggesting that secular society does more than “draw on” Christian thought. I am suggesting that it is dependent upon it in many ways. This is not to say that there are not many other good and helpful streams to draw from (including indigenous spirituality which, as you rightly say, has much to teach us when it comes to care for the earth). It is simply to say that the Western post-Christian secularism is more Christian in its worldview and ethical assumptions than it often cares to acknowledge.

      Re: Nietzsche, that comment was probably misplaced and I regret making it. I suppose my time researching the New Atheism in graduate school informs how I hear calls to leave church and God and all that business behind. I felt that the new atheists did not reckon nearly seriously enough with Nietzsche’s claim that if we reject God and Christian morality, we should have the courage to actually reject it, not vaguely hang on to its ethic. This struck me as pretty much precisely what they were trying to do and what much of the post-Christian West continues to do. Why not, as Nietzsche recommended, embrace power as the only remaining value? But, as I said, a misplaced comment and probably a conversation for another time.

      Re: the Russell quote, I can only add my agreement.

      August 31, 2018

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