A Christian Perspective on Mental Health

So, it’s been a while since I’ve posted anything, yeah? That means that what I’m posting now is something that I personally consider to be vitally important for everyone, but also Christians in particular. What prompted all of this, you may ask?

 

My Story

Well, I did. Since the age of six, I have been struggling with various manifestations of OCD, or Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. It was probably at its worse when I was younger, and I haven’t struggled with obsessions or compulsions since, but it still comes up in different forms from time to time. This tends to happen when I: 1) Don’t take my medication regularly, 2) Enter abruptly into a period of inactivity. So the reason I’m writing this now is because of those two things. I was incredibly busy and had a structured environment when I was in college, and coming home to total freedom and lack of activity triggered my depression and anxiety. You may be thinking “What the heck? That’s the best part of summer!” That may be true for you, but for me it’s very dangerous. I’m the kind of person that thrives on schedules and activity. So the abrupt change and the lack of medicine resulted in my eventual collapse.

And here’s where I open up to you about my dealings with this disease. First, I’d like you all to remember that it is a disease. I have no control over how my brain functions and it is not my fault if I feel or act depressed or anxious. It’s all in the brain chemistry. Let me introduce you to someone:

Serotonin

This is my good friend, serotonin (AKA the “happy” molecule). Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that is connected to feelings of happiness and contentment. Sadly, my body doesn’t produce enough of it, and the little bit that it does produce gets used up abnormally fast.

 

Theological Confusions

I can’t help the way I feel because I cannot, with my own willpower, produce more serotonin. And this, my dear friends is why I abhor anyone that either denies that someone has a problem or tells them not to seek help. The reason I bring this is up is because I tend to see it in many Christians, both my peers and even in those older than me.

There’s this strange notion going around some Christian circles that tries to make us feel bad for seeking mental help. If we’re depressed, it’s because we haven’t found “joy in Lord,” making us bad Christians. If we feel anxious it’s because we haven’t “cast our burdens on Jesus,” also making us bad Christians. If you can’t fix your problems with prayer and your own willpower, then you’re made to feel that you’re just not trying hard enough. Maybe even that you have unconfessed sins driving a wedge between you and God.

All of these things only serve to injure the mentally unstable, even with the best of intentions. The worst thing for anyone with a mental disease to do is convince themselves or let others convince them that there’s nothing wrong and that they can fix it. But as I mentioned before, with something like depression, you cannot fix it yourself. Mental disorders are uncontrollable by nature, so seeking to control them with willpower will always be a fool’s venture. Always.

 

Solutions

So, what can you do? Tell someone who you trust how you’re feeling. Look for a psychologist that is sympathetic to those with mental disorders (not all are, especially counselors). Be open about all of your emotions, even if they seem irrational. Don’t be afraid to embrace medication. Sometimes, people like me simply cannot benefit from counseling alone. We need antidepressants to get us to a place where we can live comfortably. I take Prozac, which is classed as a Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitor. Basically, what it does is keep my brain from using up its serotonin reserves too quickly, leaving me more content overall. I am not weak because I take this medication, and no one that takes medication for mental reasons is. I consider it to be incredibly foolish not to take medication if it can significantly benefit you.

If you’re still struggling with the question of how God fits in, the answer is everywhere. If you believe (as I do) that all good things come from God, mental healing counts. Taking care of yourself because you are made in God’s image and therefore are infinitely valuable counts. Psychologists and medication exist to assist us in living and functioning well. Denying their value and worth is denying a possible way for God to work in your life through healing.

So, that’s my spiel. It’s probably not very well-written or organized, but I felt that it was necessary to stomp out the idea of self-medicating through willpower and prayer. Those things are important, but if you’re like me, they are not enough.

The Inadequacy of Convention to Reach the Common Good: An Aristotelian Perspective

And now, since I’ve been busy cleaning and moving and such, I’ll post another essay. This one is much longer, a little over 7 pages, but it’s probably the one that brought me the greatest sense of accomplishment from this semester.

This was written for a course called “Justice and the Common Good” in which were asked to answer a certain prompt using only our brains and the class texts. I chose Aristotle because Aristotle. And no, that last sentence was not a typo. 

I thought the question I chose was iffy, so I rephrased it and answered accordingly. We were allowed to do so, which was kind of refreshing.

This essay will explain the relationship between convention, justice, and the common good. The basic question is not one of the original questions chosen to discuss, and I argue that the third question, – “How does the common good not simply equal ‘what we do around here’?” – is not a question that can be given careful attention and discussion. What it is essentially asking is why the common good is not the same as convention, the answer simply being that they are not the same kind of thing. The common good is an end to be aimed at, according to the definition of a good. [1] Convention is an established system serving as a means to an end, automatically making them different by definition. The question fundamentally asks why an end cannot be the same thing as the means to an end. An end cannot be a means to an end because an end is arrived at, and a means to an end is the process of arriving. They are fundamentally different, and so the question receives a short answer.

Since the original question is obviously seeking to find a relationship between convention and the common good, it can be rephrased and synthesized with elements of the second question, which asks about justice. This essay will therefore respond to this question: Is justice as convention sufficient for a city to attain the common good? It is a two-part question: is justice the same as “what we do around here”? And can such a system reach the common good? This is a better pair of questions than the original as they ask for a difference between two means to an end (justice and convention) and whether the means can reach that end (common good).

Human Good

            Let us begin by discussing the end in question: the common good. This, however, cannot be fully explained without an explanation of the human good, as “the good is the same for a city as for an individual.”[2] A city is, after all, made up of individuals seeking the highest good. As previously mentioned, the good is what everything aims at, the end that is pursued in a specific action.[3]

There are many actions that pursue different ends (e.g. playing an instrument for the end of music) and as there are many ends, there are many goods. Why are these goods being sought after? Many of them are desired only insofar as they can lead to another good. For example, the smelter produces useable metal, which is used to produce other goods. The flute-maker makes a flute from this metal for it to be played. The flute player plays the flute for the sake of music. However, it is impossible for this series to go on ad infinitum otherwise all desires would be “empty and futile.”[4] People would not seek any good if there was no ultimate end, therefore there must be a highest good.

The highest good is undoubtedly happiness, as it is the only good people seek for itself, i.e. it is a complete good.[5] What is meant by this is people do not choose happiness for any other reason than to have happiness. Indeed, it seems it is actually all other goods that are done in order to have happiness. And so, it is commonly agreed that happiness is the best good, the good all people seek. This would also make it the common good, but this will be discussed later on. The reason happiness is so desired has to do with exactly how it is obtained.

It is obvious that goods are obtained through some sort of function[6], such as sculpting being the function producing a statue and, ultimately, the good called art. Since happiness is the highest human good, there must then be a human function that reaches it. Aristotle speculates as to what this function would be:

“What, then, could this be? For living is apparently shared with plants, but what we are looking for is the special function of a human being; hence we should set aside the life of nutrition and growth. The life next in order is some sort of life of sense-perception; but this too is apparently shared, with horse, ox and every animal. The remaining possibility, then, is some sort of life of action of the part of the soul that has reason.”[7]

Recognizing that the human function must be something exclusively human, Aristotle appropriately describes the human function to be reason. His very argument demonstrates that it could not be otherwise. The very structure of an argument to show that humans are reasonable necessarily shows we are! The ability to use logic and critical thinking to come to a conclusion is something that is not found in any other species on earth, making it a purely human function. The function alone is not enough, however. As each other good requires a function to be performed well (e.g. music requires a good performance), so must the human function be performed well. As any function requires virtue to be performed well, such as the virtue of good flute-playing, the human function must express virtue in order to reach the human good. Put simply, “… the human good [happiness] turns out to be the soul’s activity that expresses virtue.”[8] This is important to note; happiness is not simply a pleasurable, passing feeling, but a complete fulfillment of human nature and function. Understanding this definition of happiness is necessary for the understanding of justice and the common good.

The Common Good

Now that the highest human good has been sufficiently explained, the common good can be better understood. As stated earlier, the common good and the human good are one in the same.[9] The difference between the two is the object the good is focused on: the human good is focused on an individual, but the common good is focused on the community.

What does it mean for the common good to be community-based? Consider the reasons behind forming a city; that “it comes into being for the sake of living, but remains in being for the sake of living well.”[10] A community does not form simply for the sake of people to survive; it would eventually dissolve after individuals had enough resources to be self-sufficient. Rather, it is formed with the happiness of the community in mind. What is this communal happiness? It is not the individual good of each person added together. It is not focused primarily on individual good at all, but the good of one’s neighbor. Essentially, it is better described as each individual’s desire for all people in the community to have the best good. Every person’s desire for their neighbors to be fulfilled people – this is the common good. This is the good we are trying to reach when we form a city, the good that justice is inherently focused on.

Justice as a Virtue

With an understanding of the common good, justice and convention must be defined and differentiated. First, justice must be fully understood as a virtue. Convention is related to justice and will therefore be explained afterwards.

The most important thing to remember about justice is that it is a virtue, linking it to the highest good, and, necessarily, the common good. The definition of virtue itself is complex, and cannot be fully explored in this discussion. What is important to know about virtue is that it is 1) a state, or person’s disposition to act in a certain way[11], and 2) “a mean between two vices, one of excess, and one of deficiency.”[12] Remember that virtue is essentially the same as “reason well done” (reason is the human function, and the function done well is virtuous), so all virtues are reasonable. This is why virtues are means; they are a reasonable intermediate between two extremes. Virtues of character include concepts such as generosity, courage, temperance, etc. Justice is a virtue, but it is also a bit of a special case.

Justice is differentiated from other virtues in a number of different ways. Defined as “the state that makes us doers of just actions,”[13] it involves “what is lawful and what is fair.”[14] The description of justice as lawful reveals a unique characteristic of the virtue of justice. Law deals with a great many other virtues, as Aristotle observes: “Now the law instructs us to do the actions of a brave person – not to leave the battle-line, for instance, or to flee … ; of a temperate person – not to commit adultery or wanton aggression; of a mild person – not to strike or revile another; and similarly expresses the vices.”[15] From these examples, it becomes obvious that justice is not a solitary virtue, but one concerned with all other virtue. It is, in fact, “complete virtue, not complete virtue without qualification but complete virtue in relation to another.”[16] In other words, all virtues are themselves just, and justice is the sum of what it means to be virtuous. As it is such an important virtue, it is necessary for one to have in order to be fulfilled with the highest good of happiness. This also means it is what a city most needs in order to reach the common good.

Convention

The idea of convention is linked with justice, but it is not justice itself. There are two distinct parts of justice, one being legal and the other natural. Legal justice is synonymous with convention, which is described as “what originally makes no difference whether it is done one way or another, but makes a difference whenever people have laid down the rule.”[17] Take systems of measurement for example. A city in formation must decide how to measure its products in order to organize and distribute them. It does not really matter which system the community decides to use. Be it metric or English, it only matters after it has been chosen and used for a certain amount of time. In fact, it must matter if the city is to be consistent. However, it is not founded on any real “law”; it is completely arbitrary. The original question then asks: “Is justice the same as ‘what we do around here’ [convention]?” The answer is no. Convention is not the whole of justice, only a part. There is another part of justice – a natural part.

Natural justice is “what has the same validity everywhere alike, independent of it seeming so or not.”[18] It is crucial for one to understand this part of justice. It seems easy to say that what is just is completely arbitrary, as many cities and nations have completely different laws. While this is true, it does not mean there is no fundamental, natural disposition of justice. Let us say, for example, that one city charges one price for a basket from a merchant, and another city charges a different price. The price, then, would be conventional. Now consider a city in which one can simply take a basket from the merchant whenever she pleases at no cost to her. This is a much harder scenario to imagine. Goods in trade, by definition, must be traded for. This is an example of a natural law, something that is naturally just: people must receive a fair payment for goods that they offer. This is a mild example, but convention cannot explain more serious laws either. Laws against murder, for example, are not arbitrary. Killing another person for one’s own selfish desires is not called unjust because “that’s the way things are done around here”, but because it actually is unjust.

The purpose of this distinction is not to savage convention and proclaim it useless, as it is still a part of what it means to be just. All virtues are reason executed well, and justice is no exception. This also means that convention is reasonable inasmuch as it is a part of justice. Reasonable conventions are not a bad thing, but are necessary for a society to run smoothly. Aristotle compares them to measurements. Conventions, like measurement systems, may differ from place to place, but theyare still concerned with the same things. They can even be used to aid natural justice. On their own, however, they are inadequate if a society wishes to seek the common good.

The Insufficiency of Convention

Recall that the human good is “the soul’s activity that expresses virtue”[19] and that the common good is the same as the human good, but for all people. The very definition of the good shows that convention alone is not a sufficient path to the good. How exactly is this the case? The common good requires virtue, and justice is a virtue. Furthermore, it has been demonstrated that justice is a necessary virtue because it is the whole of every other virtue. Now one could say that since convention is part of the good, it would be convention that leads to the common good. This is only partly true. Convention alone is not sufficient in obtaining the common good because it is arbitrary by nature, not focused on any one thing in particular. Such a naturally chaotic thing cannot align itself to something as precise and reasonable as the highest human good.

Convention utterly fails to reach the common good alone. However, what we do know is that convention is not alone. It is only one part of what it means to be just. The other part, natural justice, sufficiently advises convention, allowing it to aim properly at the common good. This is because it is natural, and what is natural for human beings will always lead to the human good because the good is the fulfillment of human nature. And so the answer to the question of whether convention can reach the common good is no and yes. No, convention by itself cannot reach the common good because of its foundationless and arbitrary nature. Yes, convention assisted by natural justice can reach the common good because this is the whole of justice. One part alone cannot reach its goal, but as a whole, the aim towards the common good is most precise and powerful.


[1] Aristotle. Aristotle: Selections, trans. Terence Irwin and Gail Fine (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 1995), 347.

[2] Ibid., 348.

[3] Ibid., 355.

[4] Ibid., 348.

[5] Ibid., 355.

[6] Ibid., 356.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., 357.

[9] See note 2.

[10] Ibid., 452.

[11] Ibid., 371.

[12] Ibid., 373.

[13] Ibid., 391.

[14] Ibid., 392.

[15] Ibid., 393.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid., 396.

[18] Ibid., 395.

[19] See note 8.

What’s new with me?

Summer has begun! Well, for college students it has. I’ve been struggling with keeping myself busy this past week. It’s hard to transition from an environment that’s strictly workworkworkworkwork readreadreadreadread writewritewritewritewrite to an environment that’s mostly absent of any real goals or deadlines.

This isn’t all bad, of course. Now, I can reread some texts from last semester that I wanted to understand more thoroughly. And I have all the time I need to do that. It can be hard to process certain concepts and ideas under deadlines, so I’m grateful for the opportunity I have to read more closely.

But overall, it been a little strange coming home and getting used to a slower pace. I can’t complain about the fact that I’m getting plenty of sleep, but it still feels like I have NOTHING to do. I will be getting a summer job at some point and have started filling out applications. Every part of my body is dreading the fact that I’ll be working in retail again, but I am in desperate need of some cash for next semester. Once I do start working, I’m hoping I’ll suck it up and act like an adult.

As for now, I’m just focusing on getting my room clean and moving my things back into my house. Not to mention reading. So much reading. And writing for this blog as well. I’m trying to focus on one topic at a time so I don’t get overloaded with information and ideas. Now that the semester is over, I have the liberty to do so.

I’m currently focusing on the issue of redistribution of wealth. It was brought up somehow a few days ago and the subject has really been grinding my gears. A fabulous and highly recommended book I read last semester, Hadley Arkes’ First Things, has a chapter on the subject that I’m working through, so I’m hoping to get some of my thoughts on the subject up once I’ve finished reading that.

Thanks all for reading and please continue to do so!

What have I been reading?

- My Brother’s Keeper: What the social sciences do (and don’t) tell us about masculinity by Dr. Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen

-The Trial by Franz Kafka

- Wherever I Wind Up by R.A. Dickey

- Good News for Anxious Christians: 10 practical things you don’t have to do by Dr. Phillip Cary

- First Things: An inquiry into the first principles of morals and justice by Hadley Arkes

Zygote: “Mass” or “Human”?

The following was a short essay written for one of last semester’s courses. Read it as an academic essay, not a blog post (yes, I know this is a blog, but I can’t exactly post Word documents here)

In all debates concerning abortion, it has become increasingly obvious that the issue boils down to a question of where human life begins. Many women feel that they have sovereign right over the embryo at all stages of development because it is simply a part of their body. However, this argument flies in the face of basic biology and genetics. In doing so, it has many different implications for other pro-choice arguments.

The argument that is usually heard is something along the lines of “it’s my body” or “it’s just a lump of cells, not a person.” These types of argument seem to come intuitively. We all know and experience people and know what humans look like. Surely a microscopic ball of cells cannot be described as a person. It is merely a part of the woman’s own body, and therefore she should have the same right to destroy it as she does to cut her hair or fingernails. This position fails not because of some lofty, complicated religious principle, but from the very basics of biology.

In order to understand the nature of the debate, the discussion must start from the ground up and ask “where does life begin?” This is somewhat of a misleading question as there is no doubt as to whether or not a zygote is alive. Many are apt to claim that it is just a “mass” of cells and dismiss it as unimportant. What is crucial to remember is that size has no bearing on whether or not something may be alive. The zygote (fertilized egg) may be a single cell, but so are most bacteria, and protists, which are all considered to be living. While a strict definition of life is a debated issue, the main “definition” is actually more of a list of certain features that are recognized as signs of life. These things include, but are not limited to “reproduction, growth, metabolism, movement, responsiveness, and adaptation.”[1] As the fertilized egg displays many of these traits, (most notably reproduction as it divides) it would be very strange if someone were to doubt its status as a living thing. With this made clear, it becomes evident that what the question of “human life” addresses is mostly concerned with the human aspect. The question is not “is it alive?” as much as “is it a human?”

There are many stages in the life of the embryo that cannot be described as looking “human”. However, appearances of a living organism do not typically determine what it is. That is the work of the specialized DNA code of the organism. When fertilization occurs, half of the father’s chromosomes and half of the mother’s chromosomes combine to form a full set of chromosomes. This does not simply mash the two together – their combination creates an entirely new set of DNA, unique to each individual (except for identical twins, of course).

This means two things, each of equal importance. First, the DNA of these cells is what classifies it as human, not the way it looks. As Hadley Arkes notes, “all species are identified biologically by their genetic composition, and by that measure the offspring of Homo sapiens cannot be anything other than Homo sapiens.”[2] Genetics are not to be taken as a part of what determines the status of a human – they are indeed the only thing that could establish this. With the mapping of the human genome finally being completed, geneticists can now fully differentiate human DNA from that of apes, cows, and corn. This also means that humans can only bear humans and come from humans. This all seems pretty elementary, but has profound implications for many a pro-choice argument. Many push the idea of the “ball of cells” to establish that what is in the womb is not human. Considering the scientific fact that humans come only from humans and that that is determined by the DNA of the cells, one must wonder, if this “ball” is not human, what else could it possibly be?

The second thing to draw from this is just as important as the first. The fact that the DNA of the cells is unique means that is not “part” of the woman’s body. A more accurate way to describe the situation would be that the zygote contains part of the mother in that half of its DNA is from its mother’s egg. However, let us not forget that the other half of its genetic material is from its father. It is precisely the combination of these two halves that distinguish it from either one of its parents. It has a completely different genetic makeup than its parents, and is therefore a completely different being. The rights of the mother can no longer extend to justify abortion, as the zygote is not part of her own body. This is why the famous “sperm murder” myth that pro-choice advocates sometimes bring up is preposterous. This myth states that if abortion were outlawed, then male masturbation would have to be outlawed as well because sperm are being killed. This argument does not make sense in reference to genetic science. The sperm (and egg) are each a part of the mother and father because they contain the DNA of the mother or father, not of a new being. Yes, they have potential to form a unique being, but this does not make them unique beings in themselves.

The implications of genetic biology make it clear that a human cannot produce anything but a human. Therefore, scientifically speaking, it is nearly impossible to argue that an embryo is not a human life. The notion that a fetus is not a human life should then become a nonissue. Perhaps the more intriguing question is whether or not the fetus is a person and whether or not one can be human and not be a person. The arguments for this are also extensive, but cannot be approached without first understanding of the nature of the fertilized cell. Discussion of embryo status must start with the DNA code in the zygote cell.


[1] “Biological life.” Hutchinson Encyclopedia. http://encyclopedia.farlex.com/Biological+life (accessed April 26, 2012).

[2] Arkes, Hadley. First things: an inquiry into the first principles of morals and justice. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton Univ. Press, 1986, 364.


Bloggin’

Well, this certainly is new. Still I thought it best to keep up with my writing over the summer so that I won’t be too flabbergasted by the work I have to do when classes start again in fall.

This will probably only be visible to friends and family, but if the occasional stranger wanders in, that’s cool too.

It’ll be a blog about anything and everything I want to write about, so hold onto you hats! I’ll probably start by posting some essays that I wrote for last semester. I liked some of them enough to make them public, if only to a small percentage of people.

Thanks for reading, and please continue to do so!