1) Aeon covers the small, “half-crazy” Belgian town of Geel, where the mentally ill have taken refuge and been given a family for over seven centuries. Given its reputation in the 1300s after the martyr Dymphna was killed by her mentally ill father, the town has become well-known by Belgians as a place of respite for the mentally handicapped, where they are brought into a family and treated as such. The tradition continues today, and people wonder where the lines have been drawn between “therapy,” whatever that means, and “belonging.” The people of Geel even built a hospital on the outskirts of town, not in the institutional style, but in the aesthetic style of mansions, with arched windows and a large portico. The town’s tradition, with no insider/outsider dichotomy, is now under threat by the stark lines drawn my modern medicine and psychiatry (ht JD).

Today, the system continues along much the same lines. A boarder is treated as a member of the family: involved in everything, and particularly encouraged to form a strong bond with the children, a relationship that is seen as beneficial to both parties. The boarder’s conduct is expected to meet the same basic standards as everybody else’s, though it’s also understood that he or she might not have the same coping resources as others. Odd behaviour is ignored where possible, and when necessary dealt with discreetly. Those who meet these standards are ‘good’; others can be described as ‘difficult’, but never ‘bad’, ‘dumb’ or ‘crazy’. Boarders who are unable to cope on this basis will be readmitted to the hospital: this is inevitably seen as a punishment, and everyone hopes the stay ‘inside’ will be as brief as possible.

The people of Geel don’t regard any of this as therapy: it’s simply ‘family care’. But throughout the town’s long history, many both inside and outside the psychiatric profession have wondered whether this is not only a form of therapy in itself, but perhaps the best form there is. However we might categorise or diagnose their conditions, and whatever we believe their cause to be — whether genetics or childhood trauma or brain chemistry or modern society — the ‘mentally ill’ are in practice those who have fallen through the net, who have broken the ties that bind the rest of us in our social contract, who are no longer able to connect. If these ties can be remade so that the individual is reintegrated with the collective, doesn’t ‘family care’ amount to therapy? Even, perhaps, the closest we can approach to an actual cure?


…Medical supervision brought great improvements, but the directors of the new hospital insisted that it should supplement rather than replace the unique regime of family care. In the terminology still used by boarders and townspeople today, ‘inside’ — the world of the hospital — was a resource to use sparingly, and ‘outside’ — the wider community — was preferred wherever possible. For routine supervision, boarders were required to attend one of three bathhouses at least once a week: ostensibly for hygiene but also for more general health checks, as well as a chance for a conversation with someone outside the family sphere. The fact that these checks could be performed ‘outside’ rather than ‘inside’ meant that, for most boarders, the smell of the hospital and the sight of asylum wards vanished from their lives.

The reformed system became a source of great professional and local pride. Doctors and psychiatrists from across Europe and America came on fact-finding missions. Dozens of towns in Belgium, France and Germany established their own versions of the ‘Geel system’, some of which still survive. In 1902, the International Congress of Psychiatry officially settled the ‘Geel question’, declaring it an example of best practice to be emulated wherever possible.

…Modern aspirations — the increasing desire for mobility and privacy, timeshifted work schedules, and the freedom to travel — disrupt the patterns on which daily care depends. Increasing wealth is also a disincentive…The boundaries have blurred in Geel too, and the old system is hard to maintain within the institutional logic of modern mental health care. More than half of the boarders now receive some form of service, such as day care, therapy or supervised work programmes. Families come under pressure to be trained in therapy or psychiatric nursing as part of their duty of care to their boarders, but many insist that they aren’t clinicians and don’t want responsibility for medical issues such as their boarders’ drug regimes. In accordance with their patient rights, boarders are now given their own diagnoses and they are free to share them with families or not, as they choose; either way, the inevitable effect is to medicalise their situation. Within the family home they might still be boarders, but outside it they are now ‘patients’ or ‘clients’.

2) In the continuing conversation about happiness–what causes it, prolongs it, spreads it–the Atlantic gave an unsettling addendum. Turns out, according to them, and perhaps Jesus, that the “least of these” tend to be happier. Julie Beck writes, “Where Life Has Meaning: Poor, Religious Countries.” And maybe it’s a quaint observation–Lord knows how many times I’ve had conversations with mission boardmembers and service teams that have gone to other countries and said, “It’s just so much simpler there. People really get what matters.” But more than this, in this our age of “secularization,” it seems that poor countries have also been the countries to have kept religious belief as a mainstay in their sense of world order.

This looks at first like another tally in the “money can’t buy happiness” column (though in a lot of ways, it can). But the data also showed that richer countries were less religious than poorer countries. The researchers found that this factor of religiosity mediated the relationship between a country’s wealth and the perceived meaning in its citizen’s lives, meaning that it was the presence of religion that largely accounted for the gap between money and meaning. They analyzed other factors—education, fertility rates, individualism, and social support (having relatives and friends to count on in troubled times)—to see if they could explain the findings, but in the end it came down to religion.

…Taking the U.S. as an example, another Gallup poll from May 2013 found that 77 percent of Americans thought religion was losing influence in the U.S., but 75 percent thought the country would be better off if more Americans were religious. Precisely in what way, it didn’t say. But based on the global study, it appears there’s something to be said for being given answers to the big questions, whether they are true perhaps less important than just having them, sparing yourself the agony of looking.

Speaking of secularization, Slate published an amazing review of a book that will certainly be on my bookshelf soon (not for personal reasons, of course). It is called Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism, and analyzes New Atheists like Dawkins and Dennett as the progeny of American Evangelicalism, which, author Molly Worthen argues, was one of the first steps in the secularization of the world:

One unfortunate consequence of this background shift is that as unbelief seems to more and more people the only plausible construal, they find it difficult to understand why anyone would adopt a different one. Thus “they reach for rather gross error theories to explain religious belief,” and we are subjected to ignorant books by the likes of Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Daniel Dennett. Take Dawkins on Thomas Aquinas, for example, a discussion so inept that it’s as if Noam Chomsky had decided to publish a primer on black metal. (See David Bentley Hart’s elegant demolition of Dawkins’ analysis in The Experience of God.)

The “undergraduate atheists,” as the philosopher Mark Johnston dubbed them in Saving God, have been definitively refuted by Hart, Terry Eagleton, Marilynne Robinson, Johnston himself, and others. As intellectual bloodbaths go, it’s been entertaining—like watching Jon Stewart skewer Glenn Beck. But of course Richard Dawkins is merely a symptom. I have encountered atheists who seem not only to have never met an intelligent, educated believer, but to doubt that such a creature could exist.

3) Continuing the theme song of DZ’s post yesterday, regarding the conflict between ideology (how things ought to be) and reality (how things are in actuality), this GMO thing is insane. Read the entire story of Hawaiian farmers and the GMO panic  that will undo their livelihood (from the New York Times of all places!), and you will get a beautiful parable about how the targets of should is all-too-often blind to reality, and thus, the heart of the matter. My favorite paragraph:

In the three minutes allotted to each speaker at the July hearing, some told personal tales of all manner of illness, including children’s allergies, cured after going on a “non-G.M.O.” diet. One woman took the microphone “on behalf of Mother Earth and all sentient beings.” Nomi Carmona encouraged Council members to visit the website of her group, Babes Against Biotech, where analyses of Monsanto’s campaign contributions are intermingled with pictures of bikini-clad women.

And, going with oughts and shoulds, the WSJ threw us a softball in the science department, a la Romans 7. This is the opener (KM):

Consider your average preschool, which ends each day with parents picking up their kids. But there’s a problem: A handful of parents are habitually late. The school sends out a note, urging timeliness: “Please be considerate of our wonderful staff who, after a long day of caring for your kids, are tired and want to go home,” etc. This works with some parents, but others remain chronic offenders. The school finally becomes punitive: Parents who are late picking up their kids start getting a fine added to their tuition bill. What happens? Against all seeming logic, the incidence of tardiness increases…

4) From the world of Vimeo, Wow. And an interview with Malcolm Gladwell by Eric Metaxas, about his new book David and Goliath.

Malcolm Gladwell: David and Goliath from Socrates in the City on Vimeo.

And if the length/format is too much for you, here’s Gladwell’s piece in Relevant, which is really really good (ht RJ).

5) Finishing on the note of sports, Bobby Petrino was hired this week (once again) at the helm of Louisville’s football program, after Charlie Strong was hired by Texas. If you’re not altogether savvy on Petrino’s history, now’s the time to look, because it is everywhere on the web. There’s the Bobby Petrino Controversy Timeline and there’s this that Grantland had to say: “Nobody knows better than Louisville [Athletic Director] Tom Jurich just exactly what he’s getting into, but is it necessary to do quite so much pretending? Let this hire be about what it’s about, which is Louisville’s W-L column, and leave off sticking Jurich behind a live microphone to say things like, “Has anyone been through more adversity than [Petrino]? I can’t imagine.” Either way, Tom Jurich stood before the press and said that he “believed in forgiveness more than anything else in the world.”

No doubt, like another storied coach of success, Urban Meyer, Petrino is known to succeed at great expense to his family. But these moments in the world of sports are so rare–when a coach in public scrutiny is given new life–that it’s no surprise to hear the critics and jeerers and watch the lines they mark in the sand. On another note, it is just as interesting to see how quickly forgiveness is bestowed on someone who proves to be “a changed man” who will also win football games for you…


Faith Expressed in Maximum Security Prison

R.I.P. Brother Everly

New Veronica Mars Trailer

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