“It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.”
– Jiddu Krishnamurti
This is a long article. Here’s links to the CONTENTS:
- Intro — Our Unhealthy Default Reality
- This is Depressing … Why Talk About It?
- Why Are So Many People Unhappy? Why Are We All Depressed?
- What is demoralization?
- What Creates so Much Demoralization?
- Three things to keep in mind:
- Kabir Helminsky Clarifies The Problem — A SPIRITUAL Crisis
- Once you really “see” this, you can’t unsee it
- So where does this leave us? (Next Steps)
Intro — Our Unhealthy Default Reality
Recently I’ve been reading a helpful and challenging book by Pilar Gerasimo that focuses on physical and mental health, but it has profound implications for our spiritual life … and for addiction and recovery.
Gerasimo was the founder, and for many years editor, of Experience Life, a health and fitness magazine. Her book is called “The Healthy Deviant.” As her background might suggest, her focus is more on physical health, but it also drifts into mental health (as those two are integrally connected). Her point in the book is this: “Currently, we live in a culture that produces exponentially more unhealthy, unhappy people than healthy, happy ones” … and therefore, the only way to be healthy and happy is continually and deliberately go against the grain of conventional wisdom and practice.
Here’s more of what she says in the book:
In fact, right now, the unhealthy-to-healthy ratio is arguably running about a hundred to one. … If you are currently a healthy and happy person in today’s United States of America (or in any one of a growing number of countries now following our lead), you represent a tiny and shrinking minority. You are, statistically speaking, an endangered species. …
In my mind these facts raise a rather captivating question: What kind of society makes being healthy and happy so difficult that only a single-digit percentage of its population can hope to pull it off?
The answer is self-evident: A sick society. And within a sick society—one where chronic illness, obesity, drug dependence, anxiety, and depression are rapidly becoming the prevailing norms—what does it mean to be one of the few who buck those unhealthy odds?
You might wonder about her assertion that so many of us are unhealthy. Are things really that bad? I dare you to get the book and read it. She backs it up with a lot of research.
But there are two things that are striking about this … and are very sobering to reflect on:
- Though it was published in 2020, she wrote this book in 2018 and 2019 … before the COVID health crisis, and lockdowns associated with it, made everyone’s physical and mental health worse.
- Although she mentions them in the quote above, she doesn’t really focus much on mental health issues. She’s able to make her case for how unhealthy and unhappy we are by pointing to physical health markers alone. She doesn’t even get into the numbers of people dealing with addictions, and mental health struggles like anxiety and depression.
This is not a criticism of the book — as I stated above, her background qualifies her to focus on the physical health side of things. But it’s important to keep this in mind, because it makes her point in the book all the more important and pointed. If you were to add depression, anxiety, addiction, and suicides into the mix, the numbers look even worse.
I have struggled with writing this, because I don’t want to be negative. But this is important … and there’s a reason why we need to talk about what Gerassimo calls “our unhealthy default reality.”
Let me be clear from the outset about a core belief of mine, which makes it so essential to honestly face what Gerassimo and others are telling us:
The antidote to what ails us — in terms of physical, spiritual, or mental health — is not complicated, but it IS difficult, and we are easily discouraged or distracted away from it. Therefore, we need crystal clarity about the severity of problem we’re facing, and we need regular reminders about the seriousness of our situation … otherwise we won’t do what needs to be done.
This reality informs my writing and teaching, and how I work with people as a coach and recovery counselor. We will not do the work required for recovery unless we understand — and never lose sight of — the danger we are in.
So let’s take a brief look at that danger. What’s happening around us in our world today? Like the proverbial frog in a kettle that gradually gets warm, it’s easy for us to lose sight of how crazy-making our world is, and how FEW people there really are who are happy and healthy.
Several years ago, retired psychology researcher and professor John F Schumaker wrote a ground-breaking article about the staggering growth of depression in the Western world. In it he makes the case that we need to think about depression more precisely, and that what is often labeled “depression” — and then treated with medication and talk therapy — is better understood as “demoralization,” which is the natural consequence of losing a sense of meaning, purpose, and community.
Schumaker writes this: “Three decades ago, the average age for the first onset of depression was 30. Today it is 14. Researchers such as Stephen Izard at Duke University point out that the rate of depression in Western industrialized societies is doubling with each successive generational cohort. At this pace, over 50 per cent of our younger generation, aged 18-29, will succumb to it by middle age. Extrapolating one generation further, we arrive at the dire conclusion that virtually everyone will fall prey to depression.”
What is depression really? It’s not always so clear. The issue of low energy and dysthymic mood is so prevalent, we don’t know what to do with it all. “Depression is so much a part of our vocabulary that the word itself has come to describe mental states that should be understood differently. In fact, when people with a diagnosis of depression are examined more closely, the majority do not actually fit that diagnosis. In the largest study of its kind, Ramin Mojtabai of Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health sampled over 5,600 cases and found that only 38 per cent of them met the criteria for depression.”
This is where Schumaker brings in the term demoralization. He suggests this is what many people are struggling with. “Contributing to the confusion is the equally insidious epidemic of demoralization that also afflicts modern culture. Since it shares some symptoms with depression, demoralization tends to be mislabeled and treated as if it were depression. A major reason for the poor 28-per-cent success rate of anti-depressant drugs is that a high percentage of ‘depression’ cases are actually demoralization, a condition unresponsive to drugs.”
The great therapist, and one of the founders of modern psychology, Carl Jung noticed, and commented on this years ago. He estimated:
“About a third of my cases are suffering from no clinically definable neurosis, but from the senselessness and emptiness of their lives. This can be defined as the general neurosis of our times.” – C.G. Jung
“In the past, our understanding of demoralization was limited to specific extreme situations, such as debilitating physical injury, terminal illness, prisoner-of-war camps, or anti-morale military tactics. But there is also a cultural variety that can express itself more subtly and develop behind the scenes of normal everyday life under pathological cultural conditions such as we have today. This culturally generated demoralization is nearly impossible to avoid for the modern ‘consumer’.
“Rather than a depressive disorder, demoralization is a type of existential disorder associated with the breakdown of a person’s ‘cognitive map’. It is an overarching psycho-spiritual crisis in which victims feel generally disoriented and unable to locate meaning, purpose or sources of need fulfillment. The world loses its credibility, and former beliefs and convictions dissolve into doubt, uncertainty and loss of direction. Frustration, anger and bitterness are usual accompaniments, as well as an underlying sense of being part of a lost cause or losing battle. The label ‘existential depression’ is not appropriate since, unlike most forms of depression, demoralization is a realistic response to the circumstances impinging on the person’s life.”
Let’s not get lost in the unusual terminology. Demoralization is “an overarching psycho-spiritual crisis” … in other words, it is a blending of what we tend to think of as psychological — or mental health — problems, with spiritual issues. Furthermore, I want to reiterate that what’s going on with demoralization is NOT any kind of mental health disorder. Rather, demoralization is a “realistic response” to life in a dysfunctional world.
What he sees as the culprit is modern consumer culture itself. It brings along with it a loss of connection with a larger community, people moving around a lot to get better jobs, and disconnection from others and community … and then ultimately also a loss of meaning or purpose in their lives. This comes about in large part because the focus of consumer society — finding happiness by accumulating things and experiences that supposedly bring enjoyment — ultimately fails. As time goes on, it stops working, because those things don’t bring either happiness or fulfillment.
“As it is absorbed, consumer culture imposes numerous influences that weaken personality structures, undermine coping and lay the groundwork for eventual demoralization. Its driving features – individualism, materialism, hyper-competition, greed, over-complication, overwork, hurriedness and debt – all correlate negatively with psychological health and/or social wellbeing. The level of intimacy, trust and true friendship in people’s lives has plummeted. Sources of wisdom, social and community support, spiritual comfort, intellectual growth and life education have dried up. Passivity and choice have displaced creativity and mastery. Resilience traits such as patience, restraint and fortitude have given way to short attention spans, over-indulgence and a masturbatory approach to life.
“Research shows that, in contrast to earlier times, most people today are unable to identify any sort of philosophy of life or set of guiding principles. Without an existential compass, the commercialized mind gravitates toward a ‘philosophy of futility’, as Noam Chomsky calls it, in which people feel naked of power and significance beyond their conditioned role as pliant consumers. Lacking substance and depth, and adrift from others and themselves, the thin and fragile consumer self is easily fragmented and dispirited.”
(1) Schumaker is not writing this from a spiritual or Christian perspective … yet he’s putting his finger on what is essentially a spiritual issue. This is what happens when a society turns away from God. We lose our sense of meaning and purpose, and then turn to other things to try to fill the gap.
(2) This was written in 2016, before the world-wide stress and trauma of COVID, and before the simmering political and social division exploded here in the US. These challenges have only made peoples’ mental health issues worse. Not only that, but others have written about how political and social identity and activism seem to have emerged as a “religious zeal” for people. (But that’s a topic for another time.)
(3) Schumaker is a psychology professor, yet in this article he sounds more like a sociologist or theologian evaluating our culture. I find it meaningful that someone within the field would so clearly call out its limitations. The issue is not that psychological issues aren’t a reality, and that psychological can’t be helpful in the right context. No one disputes that. The problem is our tendency to over-focus on this realm, and then try to fix cultural spiritual issues with only psychological tools. This happens all too often with addiction, but it’s also the case with anxiety and depression.
As Schumaker puts it: “Individualistic models of mind have stymied our understanding of many disorders that are primarily of cultural origin. But recent years have seen a growing interest in the topic of cultural health and ill-health as they impact upon general well-being. At the same time, we are moving away from naïve behavioral models and returning to the obvious fact that the human being has a fundamental nature, as well as a distinct set of human needs, that must be addressed by a cultural blueprint.”
Kabir Helminsky has an interesting and helpful perspective to add to this. He was born in New Jersey, studied in Turkey, and now lives in California. His background is Sufism, the mystical branch of Islam (which, by the way, claims to have been in existence centuries before Mohammed came onto the scene and established what we now know of by that name). Helminski is close enough to Western culture to understand it deeply, yet is also distant enough from it that he’s able to see it more objectively than most of us.
Here’s what he says in his book “The Knowing Heart“: “Our cultural value systems today are among the least spiritual ever offered to a human community. Basically, the meaning of life has been reduced to an unconscious operating mode: get a job that will enable us to buy what we want, pass through life with a minimum of pain and discomfort. The fulfillment offered to us is the fulfillment of being good and intelligent consumers, effective seekers of pleasure. We will have to repress many of our desires in order to eventually satisfy a few of them. “
In another place he adds: “Modern culture pays lip service to concern for the individual person, but the individual that our Western culture celebrates is a partial and fragmented caricature compared with the human being as understood in the great sacred traditions. This individual is a being whose real humanness is diminished, if not trashed, by a materialistic consumer machine. It is an increasingly toxic being cut off from its own essential source of healing. It is a being divorced from the sacred, a being that lives primarily to satisfy its own distorted desires.”
It’s true that once you see something, you can’t unsee it. The problem in this case is that we’re offered so many distractions and BS “solutions” to the problems around us that we tend to overlook what’s really going on . But once you do, it’s eye-opening.
And what is going on?
Our society has become so shallow, rootless, and spiritually disconnected that mental and emotional health are extremely rare, difficult to cultivate, and almost impossible to maintain (unless one puts significant time and energy into doing so).
What we see and accept as “normal” is profoundly unsatisfying, and often downright destructive to our well-being. The only way to be “well” in such a world is to be continually vigilant and critical about what’s happening around us, and actively “go against the grain” of what people consider to be normal. To be a “renegade” — or a “deviant” as Gerassimo talks about in her book “The Healthy Deviant.”
And once again, why is this so? Why is this happening? Why is it so hard to be emotionally and mentally well today?
Most people who write about this topic right now are focusing on two things:
- the stress, loss, and conflict around the pandemic have made things harder for everyone, and
- our media landscape and hyper connectivity stress us out and distort our inner worlds.
Those are true and important, but the spiritual crisis that leads to the mental health problems we’re talking about was brewing before the Internet, social media, and the pandemic. This is what Schumaker is pointing out … and he brings up thinkers from years ago to bolster his argument:
“In his groundbreaking book The Moral Order, anthropologist Raoul Naroll used the term ‘moral net’ to indicate the cultural infrastructure that is required for the mental well-being of its members. He used numerous examples to show that entire societies can become predisposed to an array of mental ills if their ‘moral net’ deteriorates beyond a certain point. To avoid this, a society’s moral net must be able to meet the key psycho-social-spiritual needs of its members, including a sense of identity and belonging, co-operative activities that weave people into a community, and shared rituals and beliefs that offer a convincing existential orientation.
“We are long overdue a cultural revolution that would force a radical revamp of the political process, economics, work, family and environmental policy.
“Similarly, in The Sane Society, Erich Fromm cited ‘frame of orientation’ as one of our vital ‘existential needs’, but pointed out that today’s ‘marketing characters’ are shackled by a cultural program that actively blocks fulfillment of this and other needs, including the needs for belonging, rootedness, identity, transcendence and intellectual stimulation. We are living under conditions of ‘cultural insanity’, a term referring to a pathological mismatch between the inculturation strategies of a culture and the intra-psychic needs of its followers. Being normal is no longer a healthy ambition.”
I worry that writing an article like this will be depressing, or seem alarmist. But I really think there’s an important note of hope here. If we finally understand the depth of the real problem, then we are able to do something about it.
The problem for many of us is that few people around us truly appreciate the magnitude of the problem, and therefore offer solutions that won’t really work over the long term.
As I write this, I’m working on establishing a new program and community that will help people address some of the things I’m talking about here. This community will be focused on how our dysfunctional society messes up our sexual drive … and what we can do to reclaim our healthy sexual selves.
I also work as a pastor of a church, and we are wrestling with these issues as well. (And no, I don’t believe that churches simply “doing business as usual” are succeeding at helping people deal with this level of brokenness and dysfunction in our society.
I will be writing more about the strategies for staying (mentally, physically, and spiritually) healthy in a profoundly sick society in future articles. For now, let me suggest several themes:
1. We’ve got to become much more aware of the problem, accept how bent out of shape we are — and those around us are — and become willing to think and do things differently. Gerassimo calls this “Amplified Awareness” — being able to step back far enough from the Unhealthy Default Reality to SEE the bigger picture and its alternative lifestyle choices.
2. We’ve got to embrace a new identity as “healthy deviants” (or iconoclasts, as philosopher Brian Johnson puts it) … people who live deliberately different from the norm. We don’t have to believe, behave, and dress like Amish people … but we’ve got to be more different than we are. Gerassimo puts it this way: “A Healthy Deviant is any person who willingly defies unhealthy norms and conventions in order to achieve a high level of vitality, resilience, and autonomy.”
What does this look like for her? “It means that you have to be prepared to successfully resist your society’s standard way of doing business. You have to oppose its rules and defy its conventions. You have to make all kinds of inconvenient and unpopular choices. You have to become a sort of renegade freak—or at least be willing to think and act like one some of the time. … This starts with understanding one basic, disturbing fact: If you aren’t breaking the rules, you’re probably breaking yourself.”
3. We’ve got to find ways of maintaining our focus on this new awareness — of how dangerously sick our society is — and identity as healthy deviants. One of the greatest challenges that our society presents to us is its endless waves of new information, ideas, strategies, issues, personalities, etc.,etc, ad nauseum. We all just get distracted.
4. We’ve got to identify the key practices and habits we need to install in order to stay healthy and flourish. And maybe it’s helpful to think about it in these terms: “What am I willing to do — quarterly, weekly, daily — that is good and important for me to do, that most people aren’t doing?” The philosopher Brian Johnson calls this “defining your protocol.” What do you need to do in order to be able to show up as your best self? Do you even have a protocol? If we don’t have one defined, and installed habits around it, we will inevitably get pulled back into the Unhealthy Default Reality.
5. We’ve got to be willing to look at the answers to the deep spiritual, existential questions. What’s my purpose? How can I find meaning in my regular day-to-day struggles? How can find meaning and hope in the midst of tragedy and trauma? Where have I come from? What happens when I die? Where can I find comfort?
It won’t do for us to simply point to the belief statements of our church. We’ve got to ask ourselves what we really believe. Over the years in my work as a pastor and recovery counselor, I’ve come to see how many people struggle with a disconnect between the beliefs they “aspire” to believe, or think they are “supposed to” believe … and what they really believe.
And the only way to know what we really believe is to look at how we’re living. That tells us what we really believe … everything else is just what we say we believe. As Dallas Willard once said “You don’t believe something just by wanting to believe, or saying you believe it. You believe something if and when you act as if it were true.”
6. We’ve got to establish ourselves deeply in meaningful and healthy community. We’ve got to strengthen the bonds in our families in relationships that are healthy and salvageable (sometimes commitment to our well-being might involve distancing ourselves from dysfunctional communities and/or family members). I don’t care whether you identify as an “introvert” or not. We all need meaningful connections with people. It’s built into our humanity. We need community, To be even more precise about it … we need healthy community.