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.