I’ve been thinking a lot about the end of the world. This is not just because of how much has been damaged by the pandemic; I have thought about the end of the world my whole life.
I’ve had the sense that I was born too late and always wanted to be born much earlier than I was because it would have been further away from the end of the world. I used to take solace in select nonfiction because what I was choosing to read and review for Real Change News focused 98% of its efforts on the direness of whatever social, economic or environmental problem it had in its crosshairs and spent the last 2% of its material on vacuous platitudes it called “solutions.”
This complete avoidance of positivity at all, let alone toxic positivity, was validating—I wasn’t called “Megativity” in high school for nothing. (Yes, ouch. But it only hurt because it was true).
Then, a few years ago, I got burned out. I hadn’t yet resolved my other lifelong neurosis—to save the world as a way to make up for/apologize for my own existence (I am aware of how thoroughly screwed up this is, so no need to point that out)—and I had reached my tolerance level with nonfiction authors not providing any actual, concrete solutions that we lay/little/insignificant individuals could do about the Worst Problem Ever they’d just spent 400 pages expositing in grave detail.
I wanted to fix things, damn it. Not just to finally justify my existence, but also because I was tired of suffering and being scared. I despaired about trying things that didn’t work even on the teensy scale of my personal life—doctors, therapy, yoga, whatever all I tried to break free of anxiety that runs corrosively hot but was stealthy enough to hide under faux-altruism and monstrously informed five- and ten-year plans—let alone the global transformation I’d known “forever” we needed.
I was frustrated and impatient with nonfiction authors for excusing their failure to provide guidance and direction with claims that “they are just here to educate” and “what readers decide to do with this information is up to them” because it felt like abdicating responsibility, as if purveying knowledge and information was “their part” in fixing this metastatic hell we’ve made for ourselves on this planet. I couldn’t figure out what I as an individual person could do about any of the rapidly advancing doom nonfiction so relentlessly harps on. Today I realized why.
I was trying to figure it out individually. I spoke against individual action when I was an environmentalist groupie: the idea that individual actions for greener personal lifestyles like biking rather than driving or taking shorter showers could add up to have any meaningful effect on climate change serves corporate interests because it gives the impression that we are all equally responsible for climate change and distracts from the drastic need for systemic change.
And yet, here I was hypocritically demanding answers from these authors (yes, I would contact every single one of them I could find email addresses for) about what individuals could do to solve all these problems.
I can’t believe how long it’s taken me to see the hypocrisy in that: I write about the dangers of individualism all the time, how self-care further entrenches isolation and how we need each other, how damaging loneliness is, how unhealthy our culture is because of the levels of loneliness we think is normal, etc. I’m kind of obnoxious about how much I rail against individualism and how much I mourn my own aloneness, self-induced by heavy social anxiety as it is. And yet, when it comes to facing global problems, I request answers for individual people.
It’s no wonder I’ve been deeply dissatisfied with any answers I do get. I don’t think individuals by themselves can solve these problems. The big names from the annals of history did not do what they’re known for on their own even if we don’t know the names of those who they couldn’t have accomplished all they did without.
I don’t even believe that aggregating individual efforts toward, say, decreasing their carbon footprint, would address the climate issue the way we need to address. But even if I did, that approach further entrenches the lie that is killing everything on the planet: the one that says we are alone.
There are times when I’d even like to believe that’s true, that I am alone and am therefore not responsible for or to anyone, but the current state of our society (not to mention quantum physics—remember when I talked about that?) clearly demonstrates that we are, at this point, woefully connected to each other.
That’s why we should stop encouraging people to seek what they as individuals can do. We shouldn’t allow individuals to bear so much responsibility, to wander so long and so far alone. We need to stop giving lip service to the extremely true and urgent fact that we are all connected, we need to work together, we are not alone, strength in numbers, etc.
The abolition of individualism has got to be at the center of any “alternative” mental-health movement/theory/philosophy. Otherwise, it’s not “alternative.” Whatever mental health means, it’s not an individual endeavor/diagnosis/signifier.
I’m not simply referring to the axiom that it’s the systems that are sick, not the individual. I’m saying that mental health is a group effort. Fixing or abolishing systems that cause disability and disease is necessary, but it alone will not make us well. Finding our way back to each other, to really embodying our connectedness (which persists for good or for ill) is essential as well.
I’ve been thinking about why we haven’t done this, and how we got so far away from each other in the first place. It is, of course, much easier and much more immediately satisfying, to argue and point out what’s wrong with someone else’s viewpoint than to actively work to find common ground. It’s easy to argue we’re not the same, that forcing agreement or consensus is erasure. It’s easy to believe that we actually don’t have anything in common with people we dislike and to gravitate toward like-minded people and spaces where we can find validation and safety. This is all totally normal and totally human. We all need belonging and no one is going to belong everywhere. I’m talking about something bigger, though.
We are, of course, allowed to have people we belong with, without negating the fact that we are all connected. That’s precisely my point: our connectedness persists despite the ways we voluntarily divide each other. We have got to really reckon with the fact of our connectedness, that it cannot actually be changed, and that it can work for us or against us.
Another word for connectedness is dependence, which is probably one reason for the instinctive rejection of or resistance to truly owning and living into our connectedness. Mainstream mental health “services” don’t connect us at all; they place the problem on individuals and then patronizingly offers solutions. Mainstream individualistic culture denies human connectedness, or at best paints it as something we can choose to opt into rather than an immutable part of the human condition.
To truly be alternative, we can’t just believe that the problems are with the systems we are living under, but also that we actually are not alone, that we are all connected, for better or worse. We have to resist the urge to focus on differences (which is a slippery slope toward emphasizing and strengthening division), arguing with/correcting each other as our first line of defense, or else we are no difference than the mainstream.
What would it look like for those of us who which to challenge or eradicate the current “mental health” system to advocate for caring for others be a national priority?
We would stand up against this common kneejerk response to people sharing their pain to “go talk to a professional.” We would publicly stand up for the value of friendship and no longer outsource people’s need for empathy to professionals; there are more people feeling alienated by the professionalization of human connection than we may realize—there are even novels being published about it now.
We would heal our own tendencies to isolate and avoid the pain of interacting with other people without denying that it is indeed often painful to interact with each other. We would emphasize understanding and finding points of commonality rather than differences and correcting each other.
This sounds Polyanna-ish, but building healthy relationships is much, much harder than remaining divided. It is much more difficult (partly because it’s scary) to admit our dependence on each other, not as an illness but as a fact of our humanity, than it is to attend Codependents Anonymous groups every week.
It’s easy to misunderstand what I’m saying as “we all need to get along” or that we have to sacrifice what’s most important to us for “middle ground.” Connectedness is not about agreeing, false peace, or forcing a middle ground where none is possible or worth whatever effort would take to find/create it. It is about prioritizing a way of being that advocates for everyone’s basic needs being met at the very least, and recognizing that one of those basic needs is belonging.
They don’t have to belong with you, and you do not have to provide belonging to everyone. It’s not about you personally providing for everyone’s needs; it’s about living in the stance that everyone deserves their basic needs to be met. This includes your enemies, those who have hurt you and those who do not care about you.
The mental health benefits of releasing people who have hurt you, even if they’re not sorry, can be extensive. I have experienced some pretty serious abuse (by the church and at the hands of therapists, among others) and have experienced reduced anxiety, emotional freedom, all that good stuff after truly releasing the pastor, those therapists, and my ex, but that’s not why I advocate for coming into alignment with the fact that we are all connected, dependent on each other, starting with really living into the value of everyone getting their basic needs met.
Our connectedness to each other, our dependence on each other, is reality, whether we like it or not, by virtue of the fact that we share a single, closed-system planet and have central nervous systems that form in relation to our environments, which we and others are forming and changing constantly. I don’t know about you, but I want the people who I don’t have the option but to share space (this planet and mine personally) with to be as healthy as possible.
I’m not naïve enough to think that abuse and violence stems only from unmet needs, but I do know that I am a mess when my basic needs go unmet. For one, I ruminate more acutely on the end of the world. Then again, at the risk of sounding like those nonfiction authors I’d complained about earlier, maybe that’s because this also feels like reality at the moment in so many ways for so many of us, if not all of us—we are all connected, after all.
We’ve tried depriving people of what they need, even shaming them for needing, since at least the dawn of capitalism. We’ve tried severing ourselves from each other and from the knowledge that we come hard-wired to need each other since at least the advent of Western civilization. We’ve tried division and oppression and medicalization and “therapy” in countless iterations since time immemorial. And what we’ve gotten is a nearly ended world.
I don’t know that there is a way to remedy the predicament we’re in—many say it’s too late to do so—but even if they’re right, I still think it would be interesting to see what would happen if we as a human species gave the fact of our connectedness and advocating taking care of everyone accordingly a try. Before you find/make all the holes or list out all the reasons this won’t work or why we shouldn’t even try, I invite you first to genuinely try to imagine what such a world would feel like.
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.