A Theory of Mental Health


I sometimes think to myself that people dwelling in the mists of lost time might not have had physical health–what with medicine being in many cases completely uninvented, and life in general being both brutal and short–but from all appearances (at least what’s survived in the telling of history) they had some level of mental and spiritual health. The material reality of poverty gave a person something to do–try to survive in a sin saturated and broken world of which they were fleeting members, eking out their brief dusty lives. There was a reason to long for heaven while busily and desperately trying to avoid immediately going there.

Now, of course, we have almost achieved complete material comfort. Nothing is difficult to do or requires any physical labor.

I mean, it might feel like some things are difficult to do. I was lugging laundry around yesterday, and washing my big pot, and also had to trudge back and forth around the house because I kept putting my iPhone down and forgetting where it was. While I did all those things I felt really sorry for myself, and put upon, because I also had to respond to some email and do some math with my children, which I hate.

But while I was reclining back on my soft, plump couch, speaking sharply to a child about the numerator and the denominator, a blanket wrapped around me, drinking a steaming cup of tea that took three minutes to make because my plug in kettle brings water to a boil so quickly, and I hadn’t had to go out into a field and wrench leaves from the plant myself, when I stopped to think about it, in other words, I felt sort of ridiculous.

Because, don’t you know, some of the things I did not do yesterday were plant my own garden and pray that it would take off so that I won’t starve to death in February. I didn’t build a stone shed with my own hands to house myself and my goat. I didn’t boil seventy five gallons of water to soak my one garment and then beat that garment with a stick for several hours, trying to dislodge the dirt. I didn’t walk half a mile to a cold outhouse what with the fact that I have an indoor loo. I didn’t boil some water and take a tepid bath on a cold night, staving off the chill that would later take over my fingers as I crouched by a candle sewing up some torn piece of burlap for me to wear later. I’m not sleeping on a sack of straw with my ten children arranged around me for warmth. Come to think of it, I have safely given birth over and over without dying, without getting an infection or tetanus, and I haven’t lost one of the children to a now preventable disease. My life is the height of luxury, the total absence of physical discomfort.

This freedom from physical discomfort gives a wide, capacious space for all the illnesses of the mind and soul to come into full flower. The modern person who believes him or herself to have a right to, an inheritance really, of happiness, has no impediments of the body to distract him from the sorrows of the mind. And so many many people in our modern world are troubled, crowded by unhappiness. Sometimes I am most assuredly one of them.

Indeed, the ease of my material circumstances makes me believe that I am, in some sublime way, owed even more. I ought not suffer for any reason. Nothing should ever go wrong or bad. Look, my stove heats up when I turn the nob, my food is preserved in my fridge, my house is basically warm, nothing bad should happen to me. When it does I am horrified and have no category in which to place such an eventuality.

Furthermore, all the comfortable helps in my life make me believe that I’m probably a good person. All the easy things around me make me think that I must be an easy and kind person with only upright motives and never bad ones. It’s other people out there who are wrong, just like when the tea kettle breaks–it’s not I who am broken.

And so, being atop a universe of myself, supported by technology and central heating, the deep sickness of my humanity has no context, no room for sorting out or being brought to heel. It only grows and flowers and bears fruit.

That’s my theory anyway. Of mental and spiritual health. Maybe I’m completely wrong. But I think that’s terribly unlikely.

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