A Difference That Can Make a Difference: Mental Distress as a Call of Being


I was reading Rollo May’s book The Discovery of Being the other day. I came upon a quote that I find important as the intro to some substantial issues concerning perceptions of mental distress. It helps to explain the notion that we have lost a sense of “being“—of realizing ourselves, our responsibility for ourselves, and our sense of potentialities. This has been replaced by the sense that we are defined by our status as a cog in the machine of productivity.

Rollo May writes:

A more serious source of resistance is the one that runs through the whole of modern Western society—namely, the psychological need to avoid and, in some ways repress, the whole concern with “being”… A man knows himself not as a man or as self but as a ticket-seller in the subway, a grocer, a professor, a vice president etc. On the other hand loss of sense of being is related to the mass collectivist trends and widespread conformist tendencies in our culture.

This is what I also often notice in everyday life of contemporary society. Ever since the period of the Enlightenment, the functionality that was supposed to help us in production has somehow taken over our lives. Functionality here refers to the guiding principles of purposeful rational action and viewing everything through an economic lens: maximizing resources and minimizing costs.

This principle has, since the Enlightenment period, spread through our culture. As the principle leading economic production, it has enabled financial growth and technological development. However, it has simultaneously overflowed from the area of production towards other areas—our emotions and symbolic meanings. What happens here is that functionality is often used to run away from the messiness that accompanies being human.

Who likes messiness? It is unstructured and unknown. It can pour out of its bounds and make us face experiences that seem to make no sense. When we see messiness in something, it can potentially remind us of our own possibility to succumb to it, which we don’t even want to think about. We don’t want to deal with that. We prefer our experiences to be ordered. This gives us a sense of certainty. As a civilization, we rely a whole lot on the repression of uncomfortable and painful experiences.

Mental distress is also seen as one such experience. Mental distress is definitely not orderly. It is uncomfortable and seems chaotic. There is often little interest in staying with this process, at least as far as the general public is concerned. To explore it and to see what its meaning might be is harder than resorting to the quick fix routes. So mental distress is shoved into medical categories of (dys)functionality and pushed to the margins of society. All the while, it is bubbling under the general surface, reflecting the imbalances of the society we live in. The connection between mental distress and societal inequality, however, is something we rarely acknowledge.

When it is talked about in public discourse, mental distress is talked about in strict, orderly medical categories. This simplifies things, no doubt. It gives one a clear set of actions that are needed to lessen the distress.

However, perhaps it simplifies things a bit too much? Namely, these categories never quite seem to fit the experience and the process of the person experiencing them. There is always something escaping the category, some irregularity pouring out of its bounds, making the situation more complex. As Gregory Bateson argued, life is inherently messy and can hardly be ordered into neat categories.

This is what the philosophy of Zen Buddhism also tries to teach us. Our plans often don’t go as we envisioned. Unpredictable things happen. Life tends to escape our notions of it. Zen Buddhism practice is a lot about acceptance and coming to terms with life as it is—unpredictable and messy, and not as we would often like it to be—predictable and orderly.

Why is it important to address this? Similarly to life, mental distress will often have a tendency of escaping when it is shoved into preconceived orderly categories. However, the area that escapes can potentially be the space of the biggest growth.

I am not implying that the pain of the suffering is not real or trying to underestimate it. I am just saying that failing to understand the complexity of mental distress outside of the bounds of dysfunction can potentially be (to use the popular expression) throwing the baby out with the bathwater. This is why I favor approaches such as existential therapies that explore what the process means for the person.

Of course, it can be hard to make sense of these experiences. The pain and the suffering can be so intense that it can sometimes be hard to see meaning in the middle of these experiences. However, according to Zen masters, the moments of biggest discomfort are the moments of biggest growth. They also point out that we tend to run away from these discomforts.

It is often that these discomforts are faced only when there is no other option left. It is a moment that Pema Chodron described so well in her book When Things Fall Apart—the moment in which something strikes our life so hard that we are out of places to hide. Then we are forced to encounter the messiness to the fullest. This can potentially make a shift in our perception of reality and bring us to new ground.

How would this look in practice? For example, depression can in this manner be understood as the mourning and shedding of old values. It can be looked at as an attempt of the being to protect itself from a situation it finds unbearable. From this perspective, the process of recovery is also understood as a sort of symbolic passing of the person through mourning for old values. Although it can be painful, if passed through, this mourning can bring new ways of being. Perhaps this kind of approach can bring more meaning to the suffering.

It is more constructive to look at mental distress in this manner than to simply push it into categories of dysfunction. One could explore whether mental distress is a call of the being for balance it is missing somewhere. Mental distress is often seen this way in approaches favoring systemic outlook.

However, in terms of being, I would suggest that perhaps tendencies underlying different ways of existing and coping—different neurodivergent experiences—are different ways of being. Different human experiences with accentuated different aspects that manifest distress and potential growth differently.

Perhaps this is a more constructive way to look at mental distress than through the reductionist idea of malfunction. By making malfunction everything, we are getting rid of the being. In the narrative of dysfunctionality, the emphasis is rarely on growth and understanding of processes in a symbolic manner.

The wider implication of this is also that when certain type of existence are the only norm, we have a society which has trouble understanding any other kind of experience. Instead, every divergence from this norm is seen as something to be managed and to be afraid of. This kind of understanding of reality does not understand difference as new information in the system that could produce a change, to use Gregory Bateson’s discourse. It does not understand that, if viewed from the systemic perspective, these differences, though scary and unknown at first, can potentially be something to learn from -something that enriches and adds nuances to the spectrum of a being.

Perhaps we could try to see what different human experiences could be telling us on  a collective level. Perhaps they can be seen as a collective call of our attention to different aspects of being we currently may be denying or repressing. Maybe some of them are pointing to where we are collectively hurt, to our collective parts which are neglected and demand attention.

Perhaps those who have trouble adjusting are calling us to collectively itch where the system is not worth adjusting to. Perhaps some of them could be understood as a call of being, a symptom asking to reassess our collective symbolic meanings and our emotional needs. To paraphrase Bateson’s words, a difference that could make a difference.


Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.


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  1. Thanks Dr Iva,

    “…as a cog in the machine of productivity…”

    If it’s possible for a self driving vehicle to drive itself from from Edinburgh to London successfully, then the day when a lot of human cogs become redundant should be close.

    I believe technology has now probably become a lot more advanced than the example above, but is being deliberately slowed up – to keep people occupied.

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