At times I wonder if some ‘mental conditions’ might be reflections of how we live (see the theme of Mind). Not all cases of course, as certain illnesses seem to have biological causes and treatments; but depression or anxiety could be seen as relatively reasonable responses to modern society and the reality of human existence. So here, in the light of various writers, I will consider how we make sense of life and exist within it.
Society can be seen as the ways we connect with environment and others, plus the sense of meaning, order and structure serving to sustain that (Notes One). Essentially, that human communities exist within and depend upon both nature and mutual cooperation; drawing upon resources to fulfil needs and looking to one another for personal and social meaning.
In the past, it seems societies had strong belief systems; yet, as expressed in New Renaissance, lately “our lives have reached a pitch of meaninglessness … empty of all but materialism … which threatens the stability of our society”. Which is an idea expressed in many writings referenced here: that modern society, having shaken off traditions of meaning, has grounded itself on material knowledge.
This idea of meaningless and possibly flawed social structures seems a recipe for an unsettled mind: as thinking creatures, we almost inevitably seek underlying meaning and purpose in our lives; yet applying ourselves to understand and find our place in a society that claims to have no ultimate meaning and may well be organised in ways that undermine human worth is surely problematic.
It’s something Aldous Huxley considered, drawing on the work of Dr Erich Fromm: “Western society … is increasingly less conducive to mental health, and tends to undermine the inner security, happiness, reason, and the capacity for love”. Pointing out the value of ‘illness’ as “where there are symptoms there is conflict, and conflict always indicates that the forces of life which strive for integration and happiness are still fighting” (Note Two).
The question of what’s a healthy reaction to an unhealthy situation is an interesting one, and touches onto the psychological impacts of modern life as explored by Huxley among others (Notes Three). If society creates a reality of overwhelming choice, detachment from true understanding, and technologies that distance us from nature and others, then where does it leave the human mind in its search for meaning?
After all, our surroundings shape us. The world presents opportunities and gives meaning, and we adapt ourselves to what it offers (Notes Four). So, society and its systems – with culture and economy essentially running off selling to the human psyche rather than genuine needs or respect for environment – is what’s informing our sense of personal worth, agency, and meaning in life.
Of course, if you’re ill you try to get better; but the idea that symptoms might be signs we should listen to – as canaries in a mine – seems worth thinking about. How we respond, as individuals and a society, is another question.
Notes and References:
“New Renaissance. Essays in Search of Wholeness” by Maurice Ash, (Green Books, Bideford, Devon), 1987.
“Brave New World Revisited” by Aldous Huxley, (Random House, London), 2004 (originally 1958).
Note 1: “Small is Beautiful”
Note 1: “New Renaissance”
Note 1: Writings on Education
Note 2: “Brave New World Revisited”
Note 3: “Response Ability” by Frank Fisher
Note 3: “Paradox of Choice”
Note 3: “Education’s End”
Note 4: “Spiritual Emergency”
Note 4: “Ecological Intelligence”