Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Mental Health and Technological Power

Recently, two American celebrities died by suicide in the same week. I have written numerous articles that address directly the tragedy of suicide, the frequent underlying struggles with mental illness, and my own experience with Depression.

I am also among those who have lost loved ones. For me, this is an intensely personal topic.

At this time, I find it too difficult to address directly. But I have observed the wider conversation, and it has prompted me to put a few thoughts together on mental health within the context of the peculiar circumstances we live in today.

The news, the blogosphere, and the social media world have chewed over various aspects of these recent suicides and what might have led to them, as well as broader mental health issues.

People are beginning to become more aware of mental illness, at least in general terms. The extent of the problem, however, has also begun to generate reflection about what it means to live a happy life. What do we need to be happy? Why are so many people unhappy? Are we "doing it wrong," somehow?

The frequency of tragic deaths among those who are regarded by our society as competent and successful is one of the circumstances that has prompted people to raise these larger questions. Is the increase in suicide today a sign of a fundamental dissatisfaction with a life rich in material prosperity but poor in personal values, community, and ultimate meaning?

Here we identify an important problem. We need to recognize our distorted and dangerous ideal of human achievement, and revise our isolated, individualistic paradigm of a self-sufficient, autonomous human existence focused on self-generated success.

In fact, living isolated in this society and being measured by its standards breaks people in many ways, including the ravaging of their mental health.

No doubt this is part of the problem. But mental health, like all human health, is subtle and comprised of many facets. We cannot forget that there are also neurobiological propensities that have a hereditary element (among other elements) and that can develop into pathological conditions that need health treatment. It shouldn't surprise us that we see more of this in the ferociously stressful and disoriented society we live in.

I find the need to emphasize the reality of mental illness because too many people still don't see it as a factor at all. That can be a dangerous mistake.

Mental illness is real. Psychiatric care is health care. It might be necessary. It is nothing to be ashamed of. We can ask questions about our understanding of what makes for a happy life and what diminishes happiness and also address the nature of mental illness as a medical problem. These are not mutually exclusive (or even competing) conversations.

At the same time, the problems in our society today require us to consider a new set of factors that we are also prone to overlook. We are living in the midst of an enormous, epoch-defining event—the ongoing, unpredictable technological revolution.

We hardly notice, it seems, that we live in conditions never known before in history. Insofar as we do think about this fact, we tend to consider it to be an unqualified improvement of life. In truth, it is more complicated and ambivalent than we know, and we have hardly begun to grapple with it.

In the "developed world," our ordinary ("normal") lifestyle is vastly extended by the environment of gigantic and
dizzying possibilities opened up by technological power. I am not speaking about some occasional remarkable augmentation of human activity, but rather the immense apparatus that we employ in the basic gestures of engaging with reality in our daily life.

Even a little reflection makes this clear. We start the day using the light switch and the water faucet, but these are just two examples of the whole complex technological infrastructure that shapes our homes and the way we live in them.

Outside the house, technology, its frameworks, and the environments they create shape so much of the way we do things and engage in relationships.

Examples abound. Cars and mass transportation have changed human interaction as much as anything in history. We move our bodies around the world with a speed and ease beyond the wildest dreams of our forebears. This affects the way we experience space and time, places and relationships. Clearly, this is having a profound psychological impact on us, and it will affect future generations in ways we don't even know.

Meanwhile, we turn to more technology to further the extension of power we have already achieved, but also to compensate for the impact of other technology on what we know to be the more stable elements and basic needs of our humanity. Transportation technology has extended the power of our bodies to travel great distances. Not surprisingly, we have sought to extend further and more fully our capacity to communicate over great distances with communications technology.

This represents another expansion of human possibilities at the expense of a certain remoteness and dislocation from basic reality.  Social media and smartphones in part represent the desperation of people trying to be connected while also being uprooted and constantly moving around.

There have been remarkable technological advances in health care too, of course. But the question needs to be asked: Is the whole impact of the ongoing technological revolution generating unprecedented kinds of stress and new (even as yet unknown) challenges to the fragility of human physical and mental health?

We could go on and on, analyzing and unpacking the implications of technology in every facet of life to a point we might find shocking. But we wouldn't remain shocked for very long. The technological environment has become like the air we breathe, in the sense that we easily integrate into our awareness and expectations techniques that enormously extend our sensory capacities and our physical power.

We are scarcely conscious of our "tools." Yet they change us even as we use them. They have stretched the potential of human temporal life and vastly expanded the choices available to us. Yet we lack a sense of direction and find it more difficult than ever to focus our freedom.

We may feel empowered, but we also feel bewildered. We are overwhelmed, overextended by what seems to be the excessive complexity of life, crushed by what we think is expected of us.

And what is the point of it all?

The multiplication of frustrations and the sheer stress engendered by this explosion of possibilities for involvement with the material world give a potentially monstrous scope to human life. This surely must be a factor in the rise of debilitating physical and mental illness in our time.

It can also deepen the lack of real relationships and community in people's lives. The illusion of human self-sufficiency is no longer just the luxury of philosophical speculation, the goal of revolutionary activism, or the opaque aspiration of people in general. Technology has democratized individualism, and taken it to a new level.

Today, the average ordinary individual has so much access to material power (utterly unprecedented access, like nothing in human history) that people easily put into practice the ideology that they can create their own identity and define the meaning of their own humanity. Mass technology has given power the "feel" of being spontaneously available; it seems natural to use it for whatever it can do, if we want it.

When it gets dark, it seems natural to turn on the light. But it can also seem natural to use technological power to produce facile resolutions of deeper problems, to escape from the difficult concrete responsibilities of family and community relationships, to demand extreme attention to work production, to increasingly invade one another's interior space, to allow the images and sensory involvement of television and the internet to replace critical thinking and reflection, to fill our lives with noise to escape the challenge of being with ourselves in silence.

Technology enhances our power dramatically, and we interiorize that enhancement so that the effective exercise of vast power becomes habitual in our daily life. Thus, when we face the more profound problems of life, the problems of being a human person, we easily become frustrated.

These problems do not reduce themselves to the logic of the power that has become so apparently natural to us. We are easily tempted to reduce our humanity to the measure of our power, to censure our real human nature, to reduce persons to "things" over which we have power, and to impose this power by violence—especially against those who are too poor or too weak to resist.

If someone has brittle bones to begin with, and then you compel them to run fast and jump high, they will soon have broken bones. It should not be surprising, then, that people with mental fragility are further injured in a power-dominant society, that mental illness is inflamed and aggravated in this society. As we have noted, the use of power seems natural because it has become the environment in which we live. But it is also used without reflection, and frequently becomes disorienting. And those who are weak often experience it turned against them in violence.

In truth, the use of technology is "natural" (it is an application of human practical reason) but it has to be subordinate to the human person, and the human person has to live in real relationship to God and other persons. If it is to be a constructive force in human life, technology must be integrated within this more fundamental human personal, interpersonal, and transcendent context.

I am convinced above all that without the foundational experience of belonging-to-something-else, to that Mystery that gives value to all of life including "myself," all our technological power just scatters our humanity and uproots us more and more. It makes it harder for us to experience authentic human encounter and relationship.

But we don't even perceive that there's a problem here, which points to the extent to which we have become alienated from ourselves. We are numb to our fundamental human needs because we have become drunk with power to manipulate the world and our own bodies. We forget the concrete reality and intimate aspirations of our personhood.

I do not condemn technology. I love being human, and I love the human vocation to use our personal presence, our reason and our freedom, to build up the world and make it a better place to live in. Technological development is one of the fruits of this human vocation, which is why I want to emphasize the need for balance in the titanic new environment it generates, the need for a "technological ecology" not only for the planet in general, but for us as human persons.

Otherwise, our life in this world will increasingly become collectively sociopathic. This will wreak havoc on what's left of normal human efforts to live reasonable, generous lives. It will suffocate physical vitality and, obviously, be disastrous for mental health. People who have neuro-based sensitivities to mental disorders are going to have these propensities exacerbated (others will suffer repeated traumas, that build up like so many "psychological concussions" until they become serious conditions).

Therefore, the urgent problem of mental health requires us to consider not just "neurobiological illness," nor can it be reduced to just "social problems." It involves both these factors and a lot more.

With all the amazing power we possess, we need a corresponding deepening of our humanity, a deeper awareness of the human person, a deeper solidarity, and a deeper sense of responsibility and compassion.

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