The Brain and the Soul

Jan 30, 2010
I want to recommend an article to y'all before it vanishes behind the NY Times' newly-reimposed pay wall: The Americanization of Mental Illness. It's a great article overall, but it's the bit on the last page that realy grabbed me: the bit about American view of the self, the one that relies on self-determination and free will. They contrast this in the article with kinship groups and ancestry, but I don't think that quite gets at it (or at least, it doesn't get at all of it). The American (modern/Western/whatever) focus on self-determination rules out a view of the world that says that some things, you can have no control over.

This is not an uncommon observation in social science circles, or in political commentary; because we want to believe that we are masters of our own destiny, we pretend that horrible accidents can't happen to us, and that's why people don't want socialized medicine. But this article made me think -- what does that do to our selves? What is the impact on the soul when we assume that we are responsible for everything that happens to us?

This article argues that the disease model doesn't actually improve the situation, because "I have a brain disease" becomes a kind of identity, something you can never escape. But in cultures where the spirit-possession model of mental illness still holds forth, it's something entirely outside you: you've been attacked, and when it goes away, you're not just better, you are without its influence at all.

I'm not saying that spirit possession is an inherently better way to view mental illness; there are certainly situations where that model has resulted in horrific abuse. I know people for whom it has. But it does make me wonder. I have recurring bouts with moderate depression -- never bad enough that I can't get out of bed, but I'm aware that kind of despair may lay in my future -- what would it feel like if I could think of the depression as something that was not-me? Something foreign, that could be banished entirely instead of kept under careful control? Would that really help?

This is, by the way, something that has always bothered me a little bit about modern Pagan magic, at least the way I learned it, through 101 books and websites in the 90s. It may have changed since then, and I know I've seen other takes on magic that don't bother me as much. But when I learned magic, the focus was very much on personal power, the sense that you, alone can make things work the way you want them to. And I've led a pretty priviliged life, and I know the world doesn't work that way. Some Things Just Happen. It's like playing chicken with trains at a railway crossing: the Universe is bigger than you, and it packs a bigger punch.

(It took me until the second edit through this post to realize that my point has already been summed up much more elegantly in an episode of Babylon 5: "I used to think it was awful that life wasn't fair. And then I thought, wouldn't it be much worse if life were fair, and all the terrible things that happen to us come because we actually deserve them? So now I take great comfort in the general hostility and unfairness of the Universe." That quote's been a favorite of mine for a long time.)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hi, I found your blog through the SpiritsCast forum. I just wanted to say that I also loved this article, and I think you bring a much needed fifth element to it! Thank you for sharing that quote as well; what a balm!