Another Week Ends

1. A lot of mental health features this week, and we’ll start with this one published […]

Ethan Richardson / 3.2.18

1. A lot of mental health features this week, and we’ll start with this one published by Vox, and written by Johann Hari, whose new book Lost Connections, delves into the problem of depression, and the limits of its modern prognoses, most of which are medical. Not at all wanting to dismiss the anti-depressant as a useful tool, Hari points out that the problem starts when the medicalization of depression clouds our understanding of underlying social and environmental factors.

Our focus on biology has led us to think of depression and anxiety as malfunctions in the individual’s brain or genes — a pathology that must be removed. But the scientists who study the social and psychological causes of these problems tend to see them differently. Far from being a malfunction, they see depression as partly or even largely a function, a necessary signal that our needs are not being met.

Everyone knows that human beings have innate physical needs — for food, water, shelter, clean air. There is equally clear evidence that human beings have innate psychological needs: to belong, to have meaning and purpose in our lives, to feel we are valued, to feel we have a secure future. Our culture is getting less good at meeting those underlying needs for a large number of people — and this is one of the key drivers of the current epidemic of despair.

The solution to this epidemic of despair, for Hari, is not to de-value the use of medication, but re-value the use of relationships and changing of environments to get at the underlying problem. The part most interesting to me, though, the emphatic question he brings to the table: “Is there a type of depression utterly unconnected to life circumstances?” While Hari suggests that there is a very small portion of the community that has a purely biological depression, most people suffer from something in their lives. Even in the age of “mother’s little helpers,” in the age when anxiety or depression was simply “a problem in the nerves,” when every circumstantial factor in life seemed met, Hari points out “these are not what people need to have meaningful lives.”

I am reminded of the famous John Cheever quote, that “the main emotion of the adult Northeastern American who has had all the advantages of wealth, education, and culture is disappointment.” I am also reminded of Walker Percy, whose hero in the Moviegoer describes a similar conundrum underlying everyday life, which is loneliness.

I have discovered that most people have no one to talk to, no one, that is, who really wants to listen. When it does at last dawn on a man that you really want to hear about his business, the look that comes over his face is something to see.

And speaking of loneliness and belonging, let’s move on to our next mental health venue, a story about an English town that has solved many of its “medical” issues with friendship. The Guardian tells the story of Frome:

The Compassionate Frome project was launched in 2013 by Helen Kingston, a GP there. She kept encountering patients who seemed defeated by the medicalisation of their lives: treated as if they were a cluster of symptoms rather than a human being who happened to have health problems. Staff at her practice were stressed and dejected by what she calls “silo working”.

…Sometimes this meant handling debt or housing problems, sometimes joining choirs or lunch clubs or exercise groups or writing workshops or men’s sheds (where men make and mend things together). The point was to break a familiar cycle of misery: illness reduces people’s ability to socialise, which leads in turn to isolation and loneliness, which then exacerbates illness.

Of course, you could read this as one more eye-rolling account of human goodness and neighborliness, but what I found most prescient about the story is not the types of intervention so much as the diagnosis: that the real diagnosis lies beneath the medical one, and that the best medicine is directed at the individual heart.

2. For the food television binger, the new David Chang special on Netflix, “Ugly Delicious,” is probably something you’ve already seen, but this New Yorker profile on the show makes the case that it’s a food show more about the people (and the people’s religion of food) than most others. Of particular interest to Chang is the notion of food purity, and the little-L Law of Authenticity that so often accompanies any local dish.

What makes “Ugly Delicious” compelling, ultimately, is Chang’s commitment to rejecting purity and piety within food culture. “I view authenticity like a totalitarian state,” Chang declares, in the show’s first episode, adding, “It’s not that I hate authenticity, it’s that I hate that people want this singular thing that is authentic.” In food culture, particularly American food culture, the concept of authenticity is wielded like a hammer: This pizza, made with San Marzano tomatoes and mozzarella di bufala and a yeast-risen dough, blistered in an ultra-hot wood-fired oven for less than a minute, is authentic; that pizza, ordered on the Domino’s Pizza Now™ mobile app, dressed with toppings that arrive at a franchise location pre-sliced in a vacuum-sealed bag, passed through an industrial conveyor-belt oven, is not. The problem with such rigid categorizations, according to “Ugly Delicious,” is, for one thing, creative stagnation. Chang, after all, made his career on an exuberant disregard for convention. His restaurants—with their Japanese names, Taiwanese pork buns, Korean rice cakes, Continental flourishes, and intellectual-bro Americana twists—remix and subvert everything from ancient culinary traditions to standard restaurant-service expectations.

And speaking of creative stagnation, and the compelling disregard for convention, there’s this story on, yes, the banning of funeral strippers in China. Underlying the indescribable phenomenon is the singular question–well, let’s be honest, there are a lot of questions–of immortality.

3. For the difficult-reader geeks out there, an interesting interview with Marilynne Robinson for the Guardian where the author announces an upcoming new novel. She also discusses her writing process, her old reading standbys, and, because she is Marilynne Robinson, waxes poetic on the faithlessness of our time.

One thing I cannot understand about contemporary society is that, as we learn more, and become more aware of the incredible singularity of our Earth, we cannot seem to allow ourselves to recognise it. And even if one day we were to discover there is another planet out there, just like ours, that fact would just mean that, in all this universe, there were only two things so absolutely extraordinary. Such a sort of atheism, that rejects this thought, seems so antiquated. I don’t see any reason in it. There is a kind of rudimentary thinking at work in it, whether it is based on Darwinism or on other theories; to deliberately exclude all that will not tolerate the experience of human subjectivity.

(BTW, not surprised that MR does not have a list of books she “reads for fun.”)

4. And you thought we were done talking about mental health, did you? HA! Never! Two more for you, dealing with the rise of perfectionism in Western culture (one article calls it an epidemic), and the resulting health risks. Despite the Western world’s obsession with metrics and achievement and the corresponding work-hard-play-hard attitude, perfectionism:

doesn’t mean each generation is becoming more accomplished. It means we’re getting sicker, sadder and even undermining our own potential.

One of these health effects, the other article explains, is psychological burnout, or “a state of vital exhaustion.” Moya Sarner discusses how this is no longer the state defined solely by those on the floor of the stock exchange. It is as possible in the perky, colorful halls of the happy workplace.

And speaking of the perils of perfectionism, rearing its ugly head at the Olympics, there’s this dose of irony.

5. Because it’s Lent, it’s time to really be intentional about discarding the habits you wish your friends didn’t see, or anyone, for that matter. Thus, the Bee’s story: Man Publicly Resolves Not To Argue On Internet Anymore, Gets In Heated Debate In Post Comments:

PORTLAND, ME—Moments after posting on his social media accounts that he was resolving to refrain from arguing on the internet anymore, local man Will Peters was reportedly drawn into a knock-down, drag-out fight in the comments of his Facebook post, sources confirmed.

“LET IT BE KNOWN: From this moment forth I will no longer be wasting my time engaging in pointless arguments on social media!” he posted at 8:02 a.m. Tuesday, mere minutes before his first internet fight of the day would kick off in earnest in the comments underneath the declaration.

6. Let’s close with some candor. The Wall Street Journal’s Peggy Noonan (say what you will), in an homage to Billy Graham, had this to say about the “ecumenical evangelist,” using one subject in particular, Louis Zamperini (of Unbroken fame) as one Graham’s Catholic converts:

I asked the archbishop of Philadelphia, Charles Chaput, if he saw this (ecumenical air) also. He emailed back: “When I was growing up, back in the 1950s, relations between Catholics and Protestants were still wary.” But Catholic families “felt that Billy Graham was the Protestant preacher they could feel a real kinship with. He had the ability to reach across all the fractures in Christianity and speak to the common believing heart.” Archbishop Chaput compared him to C.S. Lewis. “In a sense, he spoke the same kind of ‘mere’ Christianity that Lewis did so well, but with an American accent.”

As the big thing to be desired now is that we hold together as a nation and not split apart, Graham’s ecumenical force should be noted among his achievements. Throughout his life Billy Graham had an air of “I’m not important, God is important.” It didn’t seem like a line but a conviction. He said once: “I am not going to Heaven because I have preached to great crowds. . . . I am going to Heaven just like the thief on the cross who said in that last moment, ‘Lord, remember me.’ ”