The Church, Belonging and Depression

It all started with a book review in the paper. These days, there has been an increasing emphasis on medication for mental illness. I can’t help thinking that the fashions in treatment of mental illness go in parallel with fashions in the economy. In the mid to late 19th century, when Capitalism was having a high point, and criticism of religion was also at a high (think of Marx, Nietzsche and Feuerbach) the ‘materialist’ approach to mental illness was also at a peak. Then it was called ‘phrenology’ and people measured the shape of people’s skulls to see if they could correlate head shape with illness or criminality.

Then came Freud and ‘The Talking Cure’. The combination of two world wars and lots of soldiers with what we know now as ‘post traumatic stress disorder’ produced a great upsurge in psychology and psychotherapy. But along came the 1980’s and with them came an upswing in capitalism (known then as ‘Economic Rationalism’) and more criticism of religion and a more materialistic view of mental illness. Now people are treated with drugs like Prozac and other drugs that change the production of transmitter substances in the brain. I guess if there is a sick person it is much cheaper to prescribe a medicine than spend hours talking.

So capitalism has taken a beating recently. Correspondingly, there is a return to questions of ‘the meaning of life’ and the experience of mental illness. So back to the book. This book, by Valeria Ugazio, called ‘Semantic Polarities and Psychopathologies in the Family’ (Better subtitled ‘Permitted and Forbidden Stories’) has as its main thesis that mental illness is the product of internal conflicts that arise because of the  stories that families believe. Ugazio relates four major illnesses to four basic types of conflicted stories. Without going into all of them, being subject to depression, I was particularly interested in her take on it. Here is what she says (in my words): Depression is about denied belonging. A person experiences a tension between being ‘themselves,’ or having some personal integrity, and ‘belonging’. If the family can not tolerate much difference, then the conflict between ‘having personal integrity’ and ‘belonging’ is set up. In order to belong a person must deny their own ‘self’ in doing this they feel ‘unworthy’. This promotes a kind of defiance or provoking of conflict in order to establish one’s integrity. This defiance results in exclusion and ‘non-belonging’, and so the person feels ‘unworthy’ again (re-establishing the status quo with which they feel somehow comfortable) and so the cycle continues.

I found this description very powerful because it described a lot of situations in my own experience. I remember a significant occasion one Easter. I was nineteen, and had come home from Agricultural College for the weekend. As a matter of integrity, because I did not believe at that stage, I did not go to Church with the rest of the family that year. When everyone returned, you could have cut the air with a knife. Many other stories revolve around this polarity for me. Now, as a particularly religious person who loves God dearly, I have found myself regarded with suspicion and put on ‘the outer’ by more conservative Church authorities. At the same time, I have sometimes become very anxious at being given important roles, because it conflicts with the basic story of being ‘unworthy’. So there you go.

This question of belonging is crucial for the church. Here is another story. When I went to work in Brisbane there was an opportunity to join a congregation. Close by were two. One was a struggling congregation, and one was middle class and looking successful, with more people. Friends of mine went to the smaller place. But in the end, I chose to go to the bigger congregation because it felt safer, and I would not be asked to do anything till I felt ready, and because I could ‘belong’ without too much being asked of me.

The Faith Development people say that even though we may have reached a certain level of functioning in our faith (like me, being a clergyman) when people move, or go to new places, there is a kind of regression. People who are quite able to make a contribution in one setting regress and want to be held, want to find a place to which they can belong before they make a contribution. For us, this means  a certain degree of sensitivity is needed, and that we offer a place of acceptance in the first place for people who are sensitive to issues of ‘belonging’.

But then comes the issue of negotiating difference. If a low toleration for difference produces the kind of exclusion that results in depression, how do we help people to belong who are different from us? One way is to have multiple congregations. This has the effect of minimising the contact that ‘different’ people have with one another. Some people like quiet, spoken Church, other people like more ‘up-beat’ church. Here, we do not have that luxury because of our small size.

The Bible’s answer to this question is love. Each person has a different gift from the Spirit. Each person has a right to belong because they are present, not by choice but by God’s call. Experiencing difference can lead to a moral judgement about the fact that ‘this’ difference is morally wrong, and so we have a right to exclude that person. The logic goes ‘You are different from me, I don’t think you should be different from me, therefore you are morally defective, therefore we can punish you by separating ourselves from you, or you from us.’ The only way out of this is the kind of love that lets the relationship continue, while the differences are explored. It is love that breaks the cycle of  ‘difference…exclusion…unworthiness…
depression…defiance…exclusion…unworthiness…depression’ because love holds people together long enough to explore the issues. Love encourages us to withhold moral judgement on a person’s difference.

But what happens when a person really is in need of correction. Ugazio tells us that some of the ‘assertion’ of self that is expressed is an unconscious attempt to recreate the more comfortable, if pathological state of ‘unworthiness’. If genuine correction is needed then love has to be able to ‘hold’ a person while a correction is made.

I remember seeing some sessions of ‘restorative justice’ in indigenous communities. The offender is sat among the elders who say ‘We appreciate you a lot! Here is what you bring to us! You belong to us no matter what. But, here is what we would like you to do…’ This is the kind of loving correction within a community that does not exclude. This takes time in the Church to develop. It is why I am an advocate of small discipleship groups because they can hold the members, while a correction is happening, instead of having the member go, or be excluded.
There is so much more to say about this. But here is a brief contribution about how the Church can be a community of redemption, by the miracle of the grace of God.


About frpaulsblog

Paul Dalzell is now a semi-retired priest living in Alexandra, Australia
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