“It is no measure of health to be well-adjusted to a profoundly sick society” — Jiddu Krishnamurti
In the 1995 film, Johnny Mnemonic, the biggest scourge of humanity is something called “Nerve Attenuation Syndrome,” a.k.a., the “Black Shakes,” a neurological disorder that causes seizures, paralysis, and eventually death.
When the title character, played by Keanu Reeves, asks a doctor named “Spider,” played by Henry Rollins, what causes the disease, the doctor points to the electronic devices in the room and says, “This causes it . . . information overload. All the electronics around you, poisoning the airwaves. Technological [expletive adjective] civilization. But we still have all this [stuff] because we can’t live without it.”
The movie was set in 2021. So far, there’s are no known cases of the Black Shakes. Yet.
But there is an epidemic that can be linked, at least in part, to “technological [expletive adjective] civilization” that we live in: depression and anxiety.
As Time Magazine said in 2016, “The Kids Are Not Alright.” As the article tells readers, “In 2015, about 3 million teens ages 12 to 17 had had at least one major depressive episode in the past year, according to the Department of Health and Human Services. More than 2 million report experiencing depression that impairs their daily function. About 30% of girls and 20% of boys–totaling 6.3 million teens–have had an anxiety disorder, according to data from the National Institute of Mental Health.”
Not surprisingly, suicide rates among teenagers, especially teenage girls, have hit 40-year highs, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
Less dramatic, but probably more telling, “The average high school kid today has the same level of anxiety as the average psychiatric patient in the early 1950’s.”
What’s going on here? British journalist Johann Hari thinks he knows the answer, and it’s not all that different from Spider’s. In his new book, “Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression — and the Unexpected Solutions,” he writes that “If you are depressed and anxious, you are not a machine with malfunctioning parts. You are a human being with unmet needs.”
The bit about “a machine with malfunctioning parts” is a swipe at what Hari calls the “medicalized” view of depression and anxiety — the two are BFFs, what psychiatrists call “comorbid” — which sees them as almost exclusively caused by chemical disorders in the brain. This being the case, the best way to treat them is with drugs, especially selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, a.k.a., SSRIs, the most commonly-prescribed antidepressant.
Now, it’s true that there’s a lot of controversy over the efficacy, especially when the side effects are taken into account, of these drugs when treating mild or moderate depression. No such dispute exists regarding cases of major depressive disorder, which is why I have written that I’m alive because of these drugs.
At the same time, Hari’s emphasis on the shortcomings of the medicalized view of depression-anxiety and, especially, the efficacy (or lack thereof) of SSRIs has created a totally predictable controversy that obscures a much more important point: much of what makes us depressed and anxious is a matter of how we are made to live, not only our biology. As one doctor, riffing on John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address, told Hari, we “should ask not what’s inside our heads, but, instead, we should ask what our heads are inside of.”
Or, as Ezra Klein, by way of introduction to a conversation with Hari, put it, “Lost Connections” is “a book that claims to be about depression but is actually about the ways we’ve screwed up modern society and created a world that leaves far too many of us alienated, anxious, despairing, and lost.”
In Hari’s well-documented account, there are nine major causes of depression/anxiety, and seven of them have nothing to do with biology. These involve obvious — or at least should-be obvious — things like loneliness, stress, grief, trauma, and false values. They also include not-so-obvious ones like a lack of connection to nature, economic insecurity, and the lack of meaningful work.
Reading Hari, I was struck by two things. The first is the way that modern life either fosters these things or at least exacerbates their effects.
Take loneliness. The effects of loneliness on both physical and mental health are so well-documented as to be undeniable. What’s also undeniable is that societies such as ours are loneliness-producing machines.
It’s not just our individualism, although that’s a big part of it. It’s also less obvious things like that our economy, to an unacknowledged extent, is dependent on our willingness to sever our ties to the people and communities that provide us with a sense of purpose and security. I feel the effect of these forces every time I’m asked to list an emergency contact. My nearest relative is 250 miles away. My best friend is less than ten.
We label this willingness “dynamism” and worry about the fact that Americans are less willing to move even within the same county.
Maybe it’s something to be concerned about. Perhaps “Our ability to move to opportunity—our mobility—is a key factor in our own and our nation’s economic success.” But it’s also true that this mobility can come at a personal price. The willingness and/or need to move places a premium on the ability to forge and maintain close friendships.
And we’re getting increasingly bad at this. A study cited by Hari found that the average number of close friends, “confidants with whom Americans discuss important matters,” went from about three in 1985 to about one twenty years later. Even more troubling is that the most common response, what statisticians call the “mode,” was zero. Does anyone believe that things have gotten better in the past decade?
The second thing that struck me was that the Christian tradition has a great deal to say about all of these things. Again, some of it is, or should be, obvious. Concerning false values, we are told “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions.” (Luke 12), and “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Romans 12).
Then there’s the Dominical invitation to escape the life of stress: “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” (Matthew 11). And what Hari has to say about meaningful work brings to mind Christian reflections about calling.
No one knows these things better than me. But painful experience has taught me that knowing something and living as if it were true are two different things. What Hari, a self-described atheist, helps me understand is that part of the problem has nothing to do with weakness, much less sin.
It’s that I, along with most of my fellow believers, are too well-adjusted to our sick society. Throw in my particular genetics and brain chemistry, and my response will be worse than most. But the difference will be one of degree, not kind.
The saddest part is that the Gospel, with its proclamation of the Kingdom of God, is an unmistakable alternative to “expletive adjective” society. As theologian William T. Cavanaugh memorably put it, “The city of God is not so much a space as a performance.” The Church is acting out a comedy, i.e., a story with a happy ending, on the same stage as the world puts on its tragedy.
Not that you would know it by watching the Church in action most of the time. To borrow Klein’s formulation, “far too many of us [are] alienated, anxious, despairing, and lost,” about many of the same things as our non-Christian neighbors, and a few other things, besides.
“Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.”