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Muddling Through
a weblog about knowing believing and getting better

The "Fallen" Realities of Human Nature

Robert "Bob" Fancher, Ph.D. Updated: Aug 9th 2010

Therapy, like religion, begins in suffering, trades in hope, and justifies itself in relief - if it justifies itself at all.

Adam and Eve Stained Glass WindowWe must be careful not to make too much of this. Analogy is not identity - very different things can resemble each other while diverging on vital issues. If mental health care were to become secular pastoral care, as I recommend, we would have to make some changes. We would have to embrace some things from religion that orthodox mental health care denies.

Religions all say that the human condition, by its very nature, entails suffering. Because of original sin, pride, attachment to self, or any of a variety of diagnoses, religion sees being human as inherently painful. Mental health care, historically, has claimed the opposite: suffering is a sign of pathology. The pain that brings people to therapy signifies deficit, developmental arrest, conflict, confusion, chemical imbalance, or some such deviation from "normal."

Of course, Freud famously claimed that psychoanalysis moved the patient from neurotic misery to normal unhappiness. Few mental health professionals embrace that idea. Mental health care generally claims to restore health and thus relieve suffering.

Religion does something else - it helps us transcend, compensate for, or otherwise come to terms with the "fallen" nature of the world.

The religious notion of care does a better job of capturing the overwhelming body of human experience than the orthodox mental health notion. The idea that "normal" is integrated, well-formed, and suited for satisfaction, is wishful thinking.

Biologists and evolutionary psychologists, as well as cultural anthropologists and historians, tell us that our nature includes jealousy, infidelity, malice, xenophobia, irrationality, and a host of other bedeviling elements of human experience. Neuroscientists now generally agree that our brains are "kludgey"-that our essential make-up is a hodge-podge of different modules or circuits, with newer ones laid over, but hardly in control, of older ones, and the whole mess is gerry-rigged together, not designed with some intrinsic harmony.

"Health" becomes a bogus category for seeking well-being once we realize that healthy people, by virtue of being human, lack nothing in the capacity to screw up their lives and the lives of others. We should learn, as ministers have always known, that our job is to mediate the anguishing realities of human nature and the better angels of our aspirations.

Well-being, as religious ministers have always known, is an achievement. It requires a great deal of effort, in which we reshape, overcome, perhaps even quell (as completely as we can) much that is natural. Well-being does not happen naturally in the absence of bad parenting, bad luck, bad genes, or other bad fortune.

"Mental health" is a pipe dream, a fantasy that sustains us through the often-perplexing, vexing, inescapably painful process of muddling through. Each culture of healing, each "school of thought," even each therapist who talks about "mental health" is offering, in essence, a dream of Eden - a myth of how life would be, if only we were not fallen creatures.

That has its uses. In fact, I'm going to argue that one of the ways that secular pastoral care should function is precisely to offer such visions of what life might become.

In practice, many of us already know that happiness is not normal - and the popularity of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy is a bright spot in current care, suggesting that many of us may be ready to break with the dominant paradigm of what mental health care does.

If we're not restoring health, if we are mediating between the anguishing realities of human nature and the better angels of our aspirations, what does that mean? Stay tuned . . .

 

Robert "Bob" Fancher, Ph.D.

Bob Fancher, Ph.D., is the author of Health and Suffering in America: The Context and Content of Mental Health Care and Pleasures of Small Motions: Mastering the Mental Game of Pocket Billiards. He is founder, CEO, CFO, marketing director, chief clinical officer, janitor, owner, and sole employee of Life Therapy Counseling Services in Portland, Oregon.

    Reader Comments
    Discuss this issue below or in our forums.

    I loved this new perspective - Karin Lugna - Aug 11th 2010

    I loved this new perspective on Mental Health. So much falls into place for me after reading it.  It seems as if I have been desperately trying to be something I am not and shall never be (always content and happy). I have been feeling so ashamed of my human-ness and my mistakes.

    Your article makes me feel less judgemental of the world around me and humanity. To understand perhaps we are all just being, doing what is natural.....muddling along in the chaos...... .

    Who was the wise-guy who came up with "happy ever after" ?!

    It is not real. Just a lovely idea.

    Yet if we are not "Happy, happy, smiley"  there is something wrong with us or in our lives.

    We are better off understanding that life is full of suffering, pain, tears, frustration and confusion. That our goal is really to help one another to achieve ways to also see and experience the wonder, extreme beauty, laughter and love, that is of life too.

    Through God's teachings/religion many people may find their way to a better way of coping with this journey we call life. It's a choice and not one to be ignored or banned from the Mental Health process.

    I shall remain tuned in Bob Fancher, thank you for this interesting food for thought.

    kind regards, Karin - Australia

     

     

     

    I shall definately stay tuned Bob Fancher!

    No Room - Cathy - Aug 10th 2010

    I don't think there is any room for God/religion in mental health care.  It is mixing oil and water.  Right now, it is wrong to have an opinion about anything based on a person's religious/God-based views, no one wants to hear it. I do enjoy your articles and yes, if you can put some real faith and a good dose of the Golden Rule and use it instead of many of the other medications, you got a winner! 

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