Mental Health and Holiness are Two Different Things

This post first appeared in February of 2004. It’s a review of a forgettable book; I’m reposting it because it points at a common problem in mainstream religion in the United States today.

Competitions is the second book of Green’s series The Blending, which I panned. So why did I read the second book if I disliked the first? I have three answers. First, Jane liked it rather better than I did, and wanted to read the second book. Second, the premise is somewhat interesting; I was curious to see how it played out. Third, I didn’t read this book–rather, I got through a hundred pages or so and decided I didn’t want to read any further thanks to a case of acute moral indigestion.

It’s dangerous, of course, to guess a novelist’s views from their work; one is all too likely to take some sentiment vehemently expressed by some character or other as a statement of the author’s beliefs, only to be proved ludicrously wrong. Nevertheless an author’s worldview generally does show up in their writing–and Green’s world view, as I see it reflected here, is one that I find particularly pernicious, as well as all too prevalent. It is, quite simply, the belief that spiritual growth equals mental health, that religion equals therapy.

An examination of Green’s characters is illuminating. The “good” characters are open, thoughtful, and friendly (with each other, anyway). They are mostly emotionally damaged in some way: one is claustrophobic; one fears sexual intimacy because of a prior marriage to a cruel husband; one has little understanding of people because his domineering mother attempted to fixate him on her; another has a heart of gold but is unreasonably jealous (that is to say, he believes in traditional monogamy!). But because they are “good” they are all trying to overcome this damage and grow into full emotional balance. And–this is where the book becomes particularly wearing–those passages which don’t advance the plot are dedicated to the characters administering therapy to each other. It’s not called that, but that’s what it is.

The “bad” characters are also mostly emotionally damaged, but unlike the “good” characters have no desire to grow into health. Instead, they glory in their infirmity, which generally manifests as some kind of sexual perversion. They are sadists (genuine sadists who really enjoy causing pain to non-consensual partners), or masochists, or indulge in unloving promiscuity, that is, promiscuity for pleasure only, with people you don’t care about. It’s clear that in Green’s world, promiscuity with people you love isn’t a problem–as I noted above, a hangup about this is the obstacle one of the “good” characters has to overcome.

Tellingly, the only major characters I’ve noted who are not emotionally damaged, that is, who are “well”, are adepts of Spirit. In Green’s world, every person is aligned to a greater or lesser degree with one of the five elements: Air, Earth, Fire, Water, and Spirit. Adepts of Spirit are able to read very clearly the emotions of others, even those the others might wish to keep hidden, and if strong enough can manipulate the emotions of others as well. Supposedly, strong adepts of Spirit have to be emotionally stable, because otherwise the emotions of others would destroy them.

One of the two “healthy” characters, Jovvi, is not only an adept of Spirit but a prostitute by trade who has grown rich in her profession by manipulating the emotions of her customers with her magic talent. She never manipulates the emotions of the other “good” characters, of course, except for their own good.

And there we have the pinnacle of Green’s moral pyramid: emotional stability, along with the ability to manipulate the emotions of others “for their own good.” It’s a world in which the only saints are therapists.

It’s a world view that’s becoming increasingly popular these days; it’s a world view that has nearly consumed the Episcopal Church, of which I’m (used to be, Ed.) a member. And it’s a lie. Most people are not emotionally damaged and in need of therapy. Spiritual growth is not the movement from a position of emotional injury to one of emotional stability (though it may involve that). Spiritual growth is a movement from being centered on one’s self to being centered on God, a process which can involve considerable discomfort, and which has little to do with being a well-adjusted member of society.

The ironic thing is, I could probably tolerate Green’s world view if she’d just leave out all of the therapeutic conversations and sexual healing (by the good guys) and weird sexual power games (by the bad guys–one of whom is purely disgusted when he finds out that a woman he knows is a dominatrix. In his view, the man ought to be holding the whip)–if, as I say, should discard all of that and just get on with the damn story.

But where the first book was told from five good, ever more healthy viewpoints, this book adds five additional mostly sick and twisted viewpoints. And there are three more books to follow before we get the payoff. Frankly, I decided that I couldn’t stomach it and put the book away.

Please note–I’m not rejecting therapy altogether. It fills a need, and sometimes it’s lifesaving. But it’s a really bad way for most people to approach spiritual growth.

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photo credit: drewleavy via photopin cc

About willduquette
  • michicatholic

    They are indeed two different things, but they often do intersect. One of the places they intersect most painfully is in the compulsions and belief systems of people with distorted thought patterns, voices, hallucinations and the like. It is absolutely imperative for people with these kinds of intersections between thought patterns and religion to seek help. These kinds of things can show up in a number of contexts and are very serious. Help is available.

    • Will Duquette

      Yes, and I don’t intend to minimize that. What I object to is the reduction of virtue to mental and emotional “stability”.


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