Tag Archives: health

Creativity: Neither Magic Nor Madness

Nothing like telling the entire world about one’s clinical depression to enliven a Tuesday.

Here’s my latest for Ploughshares Literary Magazine, in which I own up to the depression that yanked me out of music-touring
and in which I punch the Mental-Illness-Makes-Better-Artists myth in the throat.

Regardless of whether you’ve suffered from mental illness, there are things we can all learn from the popular myth that “madness”—or at least some kind of untamable magic—begets creativity. By owning up to our reliance on Magical-Muse thinking, we empower ourselves and each other to make more and better work. And to be healthy while we’re at it.”

The choice may not be between “madness” and dullness, but between passive and active engagement. Here are 5 ways to kick your magic-thinking habit, and get to work.

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opiates, meaning, and asking the wrong questions

get you some religionSo The Atlantic posted a health column today with the following title:

Where Life Has Meaning: Poor, Religious Countries.

It’s a writeup of a recent study published in Psychological Science about the quest for meaning around the globe. The grabby tag:

“Research indicates that lack of religion is a key reason why people in wealthy countries don’t feel a sense of purpose.”

As you might guess, the article is a mild celebration of religion as a source for meaning and purpose among those who don’t have much materially. And it comes with a not-so-subtle assertion that those who wish to be psychologically healthy may need to get themselves some religion.

Freetown, Sierra Leone

Freetown, Sierra Leone

Journalist Julie Beck begins an analysis of the Psychological Science study with a nod to the cliche (yet truthy) notion that money can’t buy happiness. This is obviously the case, because the countries in which people had the most meaning (a version of happiness) were definitively not the wealthiest:

“Toward the top [for meaning] were Sierra Leone, Togo, Laos, and Senegal, all of which were in the bottom 50 countries in the world for gross domestic product per capita in 2012, according to the International Monetary Fund.”

But as Beck notes, the study demonstrates that meaning requires more than just rethinking money as a source of fulfillment. Wealthier countries are also less religious than poorer countries — and according to the study, secularity sets wealthy countries back in the meaning department.

The researchers found that this factor of religiosity mediated the relationship between a country’s wealth and the perceived meaning in its citizen’s lives, meaning that it was the presence of religion that largely accounted for the gap between money and meaning. They analyzed other factors—education, fertility rates, individualism, and social support (having relatives and friends to count on in troubled times)—to see if they could explain the findings, but in the end it came down to religion.

What we wind up with here is the assertion that having a sense of meaning ultimately requires a religious frame of reference. At first glance, this looks like a win for religious evangelists: evidence of the necessity of religion. After all, “it appears,” the author writes,

“there’s something to be said for being given answers to the big questions, whether they are true perhaps less [sic] important than just having them, sparing yourself the agony of looking.”

But such a statement baldly sets up religion as an opiate (not a win for evangelists after all), while the article as a whole — particularly given its categorization under “Health” — identifies religion as our only viable source of meaning. In other words, we may be better off if we lie to ourselves. Beck tells us that the Psychological Science study actually wraps up by quoting Roy F. Baumeister’s book Meanings of Life,saying,

“creating the meaning of your own life sounds very nice as an ideal, but in reality it may be impossible.”

The takeaway? You can’t make adequate meaning on your own. You need religion. But don’t fear: the religion doesn’t have to be true! You simply need to buy in so that you never have to view your circumstances without the assistance of an inherited (or enforced) frame of (mythical) reference.

The article doesn’t claim to be offering religious or psychological advice, but it nevertheless functions as an excuse to settle — in the name of health — for what appears to be kind of working. It also reduces faith to a desperate self-protection method — a reduction which rings true to atheists, but would likely offend those who claim their faith sustains them.

what might we be missingWhere I believe Beck ultimately falls short in reporting on this study is her failure to frame the study within a global system of oppression, repression, and assertions of power. Granted, she likely didn’t set out to do so. But without critical and overarching frames of reference, studies like this help us minimize the material oppression, suffering, and/or disadvantages of those in less wealthy economies by celebrating their ability to “find meaning.” For example, the study notes that poorer countries do have much lower rates of “satisfaction” (which “has to do with ‘objective living conditions.'”) But satisfaction and meaning aren’t the same things, and at least in this study, meaning takes precedence over satisfaction. Better to be poor and have meaning than to have nice living conditions, but wind up merely “satisfied.”

Unfortunately, this conclusion is implied by those conducting the study — who may be representative of economically-privileged populations. (Is it clear that those who claim to have great meaning wouldn’t also like to have better living conditions?)

A simplistic approach to the study’s findings also encourages a creeping condescension that says, “Sure, I may have more amenities, but those people have more meaning. That’s so good for them! I’m glad they have their faith.” This removes any sense of urgency with regard to questioning the global structures and systems that reinforce privilege and disadvantage. After all, disadvantage has been so deftly handled via religion and its accompanying meaning.

Meaning and purpose are obviously common human quests, and studies of how, when, and where they are found are not only legitimate but necessary. However, when simplistically described and represented, studies like this one become a means by which the wealthy can dismiss their advantage by feigning envy of those with whom few of them would actually be willing to trade places.

Ultimately, rather than questioning the economic, political, and possibly religious reasons for a gross disparity in “living conditions” and satisfaction, this article leads readers — for a moment, anyway — to see income advantages as disadvantages. Yet even then, we aren’t encouraged to alter our privileged circumstances, or to move to a place in which we have less access to material amenities. (Not that such choices would “work.”) And we certainly aren’t urged to consider our roles in perpetuating global systems that channel wealth to places in which it already abounds. (A choice which could be truly positive.) Instead, readers are urged only to consider adding religion to the mix.

That’s all we need, after all. Some answers to the big questions.

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sometimes, “staying together for the kids” needs to suck it

Note: I’m in a (long!) marriage that I love, and I don’t have kids. That said:

this will be greatMany of my friends are contemplating divorce. And I’ve noticed that, when kids are involved, a super-sized ever-present argument gets touted about how parents should “stick it out for the kids.” If you’ve experienced a more nuanced approach to divorce with kids, hooray. This blog isn’t for you. For the rest of us, imma punch the “stick it out” thing in the face.

The cultural assumption is that, if parents base their divorce decision on what’s best for their children, they’ll of course decide to stay together. Um.

As if kids are only or primarily benefitted by living with the same two people for 18 years, even if those people don’t like one another. Even if, and even if in subtle ways, those people routinely inflict emotional harm on one another. Even if those two people are never able to find fulfillment as human beings, and thus never able to model fulfillment-finding to their kids. As if no positive impact can possibly result from two adults’ divorce and subsequent happiness-finding. (And I’m not just talking about marriages that involve an abusive or addicted spouse.)

HOWDY KIDSI readily acknowledge that some couples consider divorce, decide to stay together “for the kids,” and find later that they’ve fallen in love again. That’s great! But it’s not the rule, so let’s move on. Of course divorce can be bad for kids. But so can staying together, for different – but equally significant – reasons. Let’s not make this simpler than it is.

Ultimately, good models for deep, respectful, fulfilling, intimate human relationships may be the best possible gifts a child can receive from her parents. So here’s this:

Dear Parents Considering Divorce,

Your children won’t be fooled by the fact that you live in the same house or sleep in the same bed. Instead, they will learn what to expect out of a relationship by watching yours. They’ll glean ideas about what they’re worthy of, what they should tolerate, what they’re allowed (and not allowed) to hope for, etc. Because of this, it’s possible that the best gift you can give your children is to model what it looks like to believe you’re worth being loved for your whole self, and not just for the sake of tradition, a promise, or some ideal familial construction. Sometimes, such modeling requires divorce. More than having everyone under one roof, it’s possible that your children will prefer to learn how to respect themselves and their dreams, by watching you do it.

xo,
tg

The ideal is of course that parents can be personally fulfilled and stay together. But when they can’t, we must admit that sometimes, it’s divorce that allows for possibilities, love, and fruitful Life Education for children. Sometimes, the best parenting move is to move on from a relationship that fails to model the potential inherent in human intimacy. Yes, children of toughing-it-out parents get a model of commitment, perseverance, and sacrifice, and this is worthy of respect. But let’s not pretend the “perseverance model” is automatically the one a child needs – or later appreciates – most.

hey kids! we hopeFor one thing, (this rarely gets heard), the choice to tolerate one another “for the kids” may turn into a Great Burden of Guilt that your children take up once they recognize the choice you made (and why). That’s too much for any child to have on her head, even if it takes her years to see it.

Two, the choice to “persevere and sacrifice” may model – disastrously – the idea that a longterm relationship is not a situation in which individuals can or should expect to be fully loved, fully respected, and/or fully themselves – at least not if they have kids.

I’m not saying that by choosing to stay together, parents are always and necessarily committing themselves to misery. In fact, there’s good reason to hope that couples at the brink of divorce can come back from it more loving, more respectful of one another, and able to present even more solid examples to their children of fulfillment, connection, vitality, and commitment. When this happens, it’s beautiful.

But when this isn’t possible, we must admit that children will suffer regardless. If parents divorce, the family is broken and life irrevocably disrupted. If parents instead “suck it up” in a hopeless situation, children grow up in the context of a relationship defined by mere functional co-parenting and personal martyrdom. Let’s not pretend the latter is unequivocally preferable.

The divorce + kids quandary is the grief-worthy result of broken-down love – of lives that shift, evolve, and/or cease to connect. It is complex and imprecise. We have to be wary of simplistic black/white notions of what it means to wrestle with love that isn’t working.

i just love an easy solutionDivorce is not always (or even often) the best solution. Sometimes it’s just the selfish, easy one. In such cases, marrieds should swallow our pride, work hard, get help, and press on. (So been there.) But we must also be willing to recognize when our perseverance isn’t yielding a healthier marriage. And if that sad point comes (here’s hoping it won’t), we must refuse simplistic solutions where kids are involved.

The suck-it-up-for-the-kids message is everywhere, and many parents have swallowed it blindly. So I’m agitating for nuance. Hear me roar. There’s remarkably little said about the negative impacts – on children – of parents’ forfeiture of a fulfilling intimate relationship… And of the positive impacts – on children – of parting ways. So:

I reject the assumption that divorce is always selfish,
that having a parent who actively pursues his/her personal fulfillment is a loss for his/her child (I find this notion particularly heinous),
and that parent-Togetherness is always best for a child.

I suggest that watching a parent esteem him or herself enough to work toward self-fulfillment, respectful intimacy, and a healthy partnership may be the best gift a child could receive. (How else will s/he learn that it’s possible? Or how to do it?)

When love is broken, children will be hurt – either via divorce or via f*cked up ideas about self-fulfillment and intimate relationships. In either case, these children will require healing. Let’s respect their inevitable aches enough to recognize they’re far from simple.

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