Another Week Ends

Therapy Righteousness, the Obligations of Wellness Culture, Christian Humanism, and Adolescent Crises

Cali Yee / 10.14.22

1. Starting off this week is an essay from Mychal Denzel Smith in the New York Times that asks a jarring question, “Why Do People Think Going to Therapy Makes You a Good Person?” Society has made significant strides in the de-stigmatization of mental illness and therapy. We see this in celebrity culture, social media, and even in consumer brand campaigns. It is important progress, but is it (unintentionally) making people believe themselves and others to be morally superior if they go to therapy?

The list of celebrities opening up about their mental health issues grows by the day — Ryan Reynolds has spoken about his anxiety, Jonah Hill announced he would no longer do press tours because of panic attacks, and everyone from Selena Gomez to Jay-Z has extolled the virtues of therapy and mental health care. On an episode of Taraji P. Henson’s show “Peace of Mind With Taraji,” which highlights mental health issues, particularly within Black communities, the rapper Megan Thee Stallion talked about her struggles after the death of her mother and how she had come to view therapy differently.

But I’ve started to wonder if there’s a flip side to this new openness, a new form of judgment that has broken down into a too-simple binary: In therapy, good; not in therapy, bad.

This summer, The Times ran an article headlined “Seeking Relationship, Therapy Required” about single people who insisted that their would-be partners be in therapy — who, seemingly, saw being in therapy as a signal for the kind of person they were looking for, the way someone might want a partner who votes in every election or buys organic. “The way u people use ‘therapy’ to telegraph ur feelings of moral superiority is corrupting our relationships and sucking the romance out of life,” a tweet in response to the story said. “Some of the best people have never, never been to therapy,” the user said in a follow-up.

In our conversations, therapists confirmed the idea that people are going to therapy without a goal broader than “working on themselves,” and sometimes to show others that they are working on themselves.

If I’m being honest, I saw it as a “green flag” if the guy I dated also went to therapy (not that I put it in my profile though). But Smith has a point, whether or not you go to therapy doesn’t make you a better or worse person. And chances are, a person who is going to therapy already has plenty of expectations that they’re trying to dispel with their therapist, they don’t also need the expectation that they are a good person.

2. Therapy isn’t the only thing people prescribe to work on yourself. There are millions of wellness products and services that can aid you in that department. Wellness practices supposedly sooth us and give us rest when we feel burnt out and exhausted from work. But I’m not so sure if a twelve-step skincare regimen is going to make me feel rested. It just sounds like more work. Sophie Gilbert, in the Atlantic, is very aware of wellness culture, writing that “Wellness has become yet another obligation to fit into our schedules”:

The more overwhelmed and exhausted we get, the more we seemingly owe it to ourselves to pursue “wellness.” The more burdens we accumulate — children, aging parents, student loans, mortgages, anxiety disorders, bad backs, extra pounds — the more we’re urged to be well by way of still more effort: throwing out our plastic containers, cutting out lectins, practicing mindfulness, learning about environmental toxins, doing the research. “We live lives that demand too much of us,” Rina Raphael writes in her new book, The Gospel of Wellness. “Wellness, which spans both real groundbreaking solutions and total bunk, is the direct response to genuine complaints.” Somewhere along the way, though, the thing that was supposed to help us heal ourselves became yet another obligation. […]

The Gospel of Wellness argues that the industry has mushroomed in such a way because it’s filling a void that many people, and especially women, feel. We used to live more communally; we used to see one another at church every Sunday; we used to draw on friends, family, and neighbors for help. As work has atomized Americans into tiny, self-sustaining units, the joy of collective experience has been lost.

I wrote about self-care and wellness culture for the upcoming Sleep issue of The Mockingbird magazine, so I don’t want to go too much into it, but it makes sense that a culture that prioritizes productivity and encourages busyness would try to solve our work problems with more work. One to-do list is traded for another, more “holistic” and “healthy” one. What was intended to make us feel better actually made us feel worse and under even more obligation.

3. This next one is a bit of a longer read, but nonetheless an interesting one. It’s an interview between David Brooks and Luke Bretherton, for Comment magazine on Christian humanism. Christian humanism begins with Jesus as an expression of the ideal human and that through Jesus, we are able to both define and recover our humanity. Christian humanism, Bretherton explains, puts all of humanity on the same playing field:

But the point Christian humanism affirms is not that I am nothing. It is that I am frail, and I am weak. To truly understand what it means to be human is to recognize our fragility and to live according to that. Medieval and Renaissance paintings often included a skull or some other memento mori to remind us of our finitude and frailty. Or as the Ash Wednesday liturgies put it, you are dust and to dust you shall return. We are not gods. All attempts to live as gods are characterized by hubris that lead to the destruction of myself or others. To say I’m the maker of my own world, or I’ve just got to be strong enough to secure myself in the world, is to render myself less than human. It is to become inhuman.

You can never secure yourself. You’re dependent on God. You’re dependent on others. You were born a mewling babe, and you will be a gibbering old person. And that’s a central part of what it means to be human. […]

… the old person who’s forgotten everything, is still fully human. And that’s the key emphasis in Christian humanism: That the incarcerated are fully human; they are no less human than the free. That the poorest person with no education has full dignity and should be given as full an ability to participate in determining their living and working conditions as the Harvard graduate living in a penthouse. Christian humanism declares that whatever your condition, mental, economic, cultural, whatever it is, you are fully human, and your humanity participates in Christ. It is secured in Christ, who died for you, and in whom your life is liberated and redeemed.

One might be forgiven for thinking that Christian humanism is just a fancy term for Christianity (because it is!). Even still, it’s certainly worth appreciating how radical this humanism is compared with some of the more secular alternatives. Because life is more than whatever utility we have to offer society, the value we might give to shareholders, or the latest gizmo we can purchase.

4. Some kicks and giggles:

Fake it ’til you make it? “Woman Tilting Her Head In Art Gallery Must Really Know Her Shit

I guess this is one way to put more butts in the pews: “Hip Youth Pastor Doesn’t Believe in God

For all y’all excited about the various soups you can eat this fall and winter: “How to Make the Most of Soup Season

Watch Seinfeld season 7 episode 6, “The Soup Nazi.” Also, debate with your archnemesis on whether soup is a meal (season 6, episode 7).

Cut toxic people out of your life, namely the ones who say, “Shut up with the blender — it’s 2 a.m.!” and “You don’t even have kids, so you need to stop going to random kindergarten classes” and “Why have you turned your guest bathroom into a shrine for minestrone?”

5. The teenagers aren’t doing well. Mental illness rates have increased. And as great as the vulnerable conversation surrounding mental health has been, it isn’t solving the problem that teens are confused and depressed. Maybe the root of the problem is teenagers’ lack of identity and support in finding out who they are. Jamieson Webster writes about the struggle for identity in her poignant essay for the New York Times:

Article after article shows us that America’s teenagers aren’t doing well, without putting their finger on what is wrong beyond issues of individual “mental illness” and the usual bugbears trotted out — social media, video games, the weakening of the family unit. But what are the teenagers telling us is wrong? We seem to have forgotten that adolescents are lightning rods for the zeitgeist. They live at the fault lines of a culture, exposing our weak spots, showing the available array of solutions and insolubilities. They are holding up a mirror for us to see ourselves more clearly.

In 1950, the psychologist and psychoanalyst Erik Erikson theorized that the danger for American adolescents was “diffusion” when they needed identity. Deep down, he felt Americans lived a series of extreme contradictions between the “open roads of immigration and jealous islands of tradition, outgoing internationalism and defiant isolationism; boisterous competition and self-effacing cooperation,” to name a few, only loosely held together. Our identity isn’t grounded in accrued cultural sensibilities but rather the unstable ideal of being able to choose in any direction, at any moment. […]

Society, he wrote, must lighten the conflicts for our children through a promise of security, identity and integrity that allows for true spontaneity and flexibility that alone can keep a person intact.

Teenagers are growing up in an era where they have every tid-bit of horrific news and gossip at their finger-tips — where they can’t hide from the bad things that go on in the world. And because of this, teens more directly bear the brunt of cultural maladies.

Webster suggests that caring for the wellbeing of adolescents could help broader social health. Part of caring for teenagers is recognizing the immense weight they hold on their shoulders and listening to their hurts and struggles. And in recognizing that burden we can also shoulder some of it and hold them as they navigate their hopes, struggles, dreams, and failures in a world that isn’t so forgiving.

6. Lastly, there’s Plough’s analysis of Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman and its TV show adaptation on Netflix. The Sandman is known for its harrowing monsters and villains, but perhaps there is more to the story than evil and hopelessness:

Gaiman resists the simple representation of the monster as a bad thing. Monsters are what emerge from the corruption and erosion of hope, and hope is vital for their repair… As a nightmare, the Corinthian was made with a purpose, to show something cautionary to the dreamer, and his flawed performance of this does indeed show the viewer how despair can inspire the worst kinds of crime and corruption, a cult of killing. But the possibility of redemption, even for the darkest and most destructive of characters, is left open; hope persists. […]

The world changes around us, generations come and go, with each existing in an environment scarcely recognizable to those who have inhabited its predecessors, but people remain persistently human. We continue to need symbols and stories that give us hope, like the ankh that Death wears, a pre-Christian symbol, assimilated to the cross in the iconography and material culture of Coptic Christianity: a symbol of death that is truly the symbol of life.


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One response to “October 8-14”

  1. Pierre says:

    A fine edition of AWE, thank you Cali.

    To item #1, I have noticed this trend among my peer group and I have a few theories. I suspect that people who go to therapy believe (when it is “going well”, at least) that it is making them a better person, and so that sense of self-improvement gets elevated to the status of a universal moral claim about therapy as an enterprise. De-stigmatization of therapy seems fine and good to me, but it has opened the door for it to be co-opted and eventually commodified into an identity-marker status symbol. Without goal orientation or a robust sense of humility, it can be just another way to demonstrate who you’re better than (cf. Nadia Bolz-Weber).

    That’s concomitant with the claim that “everyone should be in therapy,” an assertion I’ve heard regularly from friends who talk about being in therapy. To them, there is literally no limiting characteristic for participation; the answer is a blithe “Everyone!” if you ask. Something about that strikes me as off, but I can’t quite put my finger on it. I guess I think of therapy (in its many forms) as a culturally-conditioned tool that exists to respond to specific realities, but it’s one possible tool among many. I wouldn’t suggest that everyone has to use a scythe to deal with the long grass on their lawn; some people might prefer a lawnmower, and others might say “This grass is fine as-is; why would I cut it?”

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