Another Week Ends

Mental Health Hashtags, the Gospel of Wellness, Lost Arts, and Symphonies of Home

Cali Yee / 9.23.22

1. It’s become common practice for brands to post on social media for mental health awareness month. A post with the rightly deployed hashtag and just the right kind of bland positivity is enough for the fast fashion and makeup brands to check off the box on their moral/ethical to-do list. I think awareness of mental illness is important, but it is interesting how one brand that forgets to post #mentalhealthawareness could come under fire for not “caring” enough (as if one Instagram post will solve all our problems).

What does the term “mental health” really mean? Or at least, what has it come to mean in society? Huw Green strives to answer these questions in his poignant essay for the New York Times:

The term “mental health” is a euphemism, and euphemisms are what we use when we want to obscure something. This language — in contrast to “mental illness” — encourages us to focus on the regulation of more or less transient states, and on the maintenance of something we supposedly all have. “Mental health” conjures phenomena that are, more or less, relatable: anxiety and depression. But who is being excluded as a result? The change in language was supposed to address stigma. But it has simply moved our attention away from the very people who face the most stigma — those with diagnoses of schizophrenia, for example, or symptoms that do not allow ready participation in the mental health curriculum […]

An emphasis on health and equilibrium, with accompanying “advice” and “techniques” for self-regulation, has resulted in the term “mental health” undergoing a kind of mission creep: from providing increased awareness of specific difficulties to offering a broad set of prescriptions about how we should live […]

Consider the relatively recent notion of a mental health day. We absolutely need to take days off work for our mental health sometimes, and it is important that employers recognize our needs. But people also need — deserve — days away from their work without justification. They should then be free to spend those days doing whatever they like. Is a day off less valid if it isn’t spent engaged in something that has been approved by one of the many websites that now offer mental health day advice?

We know that any prescription we give people will ultimately fail to do what we want it to do, even if it’s well-intentioned. It isn’t enough that we are burnt-out, exhausted, or simply want a day off to sleep in. We feel the need to justify our time off by presenting an organized and alphabetized list of everything going wrong with our mental health, and throwing in a therapist’s note for good measure.

2. One of the things that people “prescribe” in order to improve for our mental health are practices of self-care. “Self-care” is a now ubiquitously used for just about everything pertaining to our physical and mental wellbeing. With its fitness classes, Peletons, bubble baths, and facial products, wellness has become a trillion dollar industry.

The title of Rina Raphael’s new book The Gospel of Wellness: Gyms, Gurus, Goop, and the False Promise of Self-Care is wildly fascinating. Mary Elizabeth Williams interviews Raphael for Salon and gets to the root of the book’s title:

A lot of people see the subtitle of the book and they’re quite offended. They say, “Well, what’s wrong with self-care? That seems like a toxic idea.” I say, no, it’s the way we’re being sold self-care, which is that instead of looking at the root issues of why we’re so stressed, we’re telling people that they’re stressed because they didn’t prioritize enough face masks or bubble baths.

We’re masking the symptoms, which is exactly the issue that we have with the medical industry. People will tell you to go to wellness because medicine doesn’t look at the root issues, which is not true. That’s a trope. Then they’ll do the same exact thing with wellness. It’s becoming just as prescriptive as a medical industry. If you think you’re stressed because you’re not doing enough yoga, you’re fooling yourself. I’m not saying this is simple, but I give ideas like, go and collect your fellow coworkers and say, “We’re working too many hours, or stop emailing us after work hours.” Those are the solutions. But instead, we’re just telling women to self-medicate with all this stuff.

When I’m having a bad day, I want a quick fix or (even better) something that will simply distract me from my sadness … like reality tv, or Gilmore Girls, or TikTok. But over time, our self-care practices don’t heal our hurt, they just work to hide the problem for a little bit. What we don’t always realize (or maybe do but choose to ignore) is that most of the big things in life are out of our control and can’t be solved by a long bubble bath.

3. People always say such and such is a “lost art.” Like handwritten letters or the stick shift car transmission. Romantic handwritten letters are traded for text messages with heart emojis and abbreviated sentiments (luv u). Not only have we moved away from the stick shift toward automatic cars, but now our cars can drive themselves (!). Life has become easier in the digital age, but at what cost? Has life become less purposeful and connection with one another less intentional? Drew Gilpin Faust reflects on the effects of the lost art of cursive in her surprisingly astute essay for the Atlantic:

There is a great deal of the past we are better off without, just as there is much to celebrate in the devices that have served as the vehicles of cursive’s demise. But there are dangers in cursive’s loss. Students will miss the excitement and inspiration that I have seen them experience as they interact with the physical embodiment of thoughts and ideas voiced by a person long since silenced by death. Handwriting can make the past seem almost alive in the present.

All of us, not just students and scholars, will be affected by cursive’s loss. The inability to read handwriting deprives society of direct access to its own past. We will become reliant on a small group of trained translators and experts to report what history — including the documents and papers of our own families—was about. The spread of literacy in the early modern West was driven by people’s desire to read God’s word for themselves, to be empowered by an experience of unmediated connection. The abandonment of cursive represents a curious reverse parallel: We are losing a connection, and thereby disempowering ourselves.

The continued progress (intrusion?) of technology tends to make many things feel as if they are “lost arts.” Or is that what it means to get old(er)? Either way, as more things fight for our attention and distract us, we become unable to focus on that which now seems mundane, inefficient, time-consuming, or unproductive.

4. In keeping with distractions, here’s some A-list humor from this week:

From Little Old Lady Comedy, there’s: “Some Not-So Obvious Reasons Players Cry After Losing Their U.S. Open Match

1.  Their mother is going to torture them with, “See, I told you to finish college.”
2.  It’s 5:30 and the traffic going back to their Manhattan hotel is going to be a nightmare. […]

5. They won’t get to sign those three winner tennis balls and hit them into the stands, which seems like more fun than playing.

For the kids of parents that forced them to divide their laundry loads into colors, darks, lights, and delicates the New Yorker has, “Honest Laundry Care Symbols

And last but not least, a real-life newspaper clipping from September 29th, 1928 printed in The Missoulian:

5.  Next up, Tish Harrison Warren wrote a beautiful essay for the New York Times entitled “Our Memory is Flawed. Luckily, God’s Isn’t.” Ever since birth, we’ve all been accumulating memories that shape our understanding of the world and even who we are.  But sometimes our memory fails us. Sometimes we forget the thing we went upstairs for, or the grocery item we needed at Target. Sometimes we remember a fight differently than our family member or spouse. Memory is an all too human quality, paradoxically essential for living life and yet deeply flawed:

In his book on dementia, the Scottish pastor and theologian John Swinton wrote that we as a culture have a bias toward what he called “cortextualism” — a bias toward fusing our understanding of personhood with higher-order thinking and reasoning that leads us to depreciate the humanity of those not capable of typical cognition, including dementia patients.

But dementia cannot erase our inherent dignity or value. It does not erase the image of God in us. Cortextualism fails to see the intrinsic glory and beauty in each human life. It also strikes me as profoundly arrogant and self-deceived, rooted in the notion that with enough privilege, health and power, we can make ourselves strong; we can white-knuckle our way to the good life. But all of us, and every one of our strengths, are made of flimsy material. […]

But Isaiah also tells us that while we may be forgetful, God is not. Isaiah 49 contains perhaps the most poignant statement about God’s memory. In it, God speaks: “Can a mother forget her nursing child?” The verse continues: “But even if that were possible, I would not forget you! See, I have written your name on the palms of my hands.

Perhaps this is why community is important when experiencing God and faith — whether it be in church, at book club, or wherever — so that we have something and someone to remind us of God’s grace when we fail to remember ourselves.

6. Lastly, Plough published an interesting article on Dvořák, a Czech composer who traveled all the way to Spillville, Iowa to compose music. Music, too, can be something that helps our memory, specifically a memory of home:

His [Dvořák’s] music, especially the music he made in America, dealt with the joy of home, but equally with the universal human feelings of loneliness, estrangement, and longing for a place to fit in. These feelings came especially alive during his summer in the Midwest, and through his journey to Iowa that year, we can learn something about the nature of that fundamental longing and about music’s power to console it. Ultimately, for Dvořák, music was a way of knitting our souls back together with the world and the God who first composed it. […]

In an 1895 article in Harper’s Monthly, Dvořák gave his view on the hope and future of American music. “It is a proper question to ask,” he wrote, “what songs, then, belong to the American and appeal more strongly to him than any others? What melody could stop him on the street if he were in a strange land and make the home feeling well up within him, no matter how hardened he might be or how wretchedly the tune were played?” We can press the question a bit further: What melody could stop us in our tracks, wandering about this wild and strange world and, no matter how hardened we are, stir in us a dim memory, a dim hope, of our final home? Dvořák’s own music is an answer.

Strays:

  • Saddened to hear of the passing of Hilary Mantel, the remarkable author of Wolf Hall among other wonderful works. The Guardian wrote: “When asked by the Financial Times earlier this month whether she believed in an afterlife, Mantel said she did, but that she could not imagine how it might work. ‘However, the universe is not limited by what I can imagine,’ she said.”
  • Plough on Flannery O’Connor
  • The 75th anniversary of Goodnight Moon
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COMMENTS


3 responses to “September 17-23”

  1. Pierre says:

    Few compositions affect me at profoundly unspeakable depths more than Dvorák’s New World Symphony. I can’t explain it.

    And a friendly correction re: item #3, that should be *her* surprisingly astute essay – Drew Gilpin Faust is a woman, the former president of Harvard in fact (and the first woman to hold that post).

  2. Cali Yee says:

    Thank you so much for pointing that out, I fixed the mistake!

  3. Tasha says:

    The full article/interview on The Gospel of Wellness is worth a read! I found her stuff talking about how “toxic” is aimed squarely at women to be insightful and helpful (and also a bit frightening). Thanks!

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