Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Mental Health Awareness Week, day 2

There are three interconnected Selves.

Self 1 is the recognition that I am, in the present moment (and, if I am not alone, that I am not the other). It is expressed by words like ‘me’, ‘my’ and ‘mine’ (and ‘you’ and ‘your’) and remains intact, even if we forget our personal histories, as when a woman with dementia says to the man she married sixty years earlier, “You are not my husband!”

Self 2 pertains to our characteristics and attributes, and our perception of these. Self 2 is susceptible to disillusionment, and, in fact, this is a good thing. Disillusionment is the stripping away of illusions. A baby, and even a toddler, is the centre of their universe, and any healthy growth to adulthood involves the discovery that this is a false perception. Overgrown toddlers do not make good adults. But unchecked disillusionment can pitch us into a new illusion, that we have lost value in one way or another. I am not as wise or as needed as I thought; but that does not mean that I lack wisdom (quite the opposite: in this very recognition, I have grown in wisdom) or that I am useless. But Self 2 can swing rapidly. One day, I see my wrinkles in the mirror and embrace the privilege of aging; the next, I feel haggard. It may depend on as little as the difference between a sunny and an overcast sky; or on repeatedly rehearsed cultural scripts, that need re-writing.

Self 3 is social, and, unlike the other Selves, can only ever exist in relation to other people. It is not possible to be a loyal friend without friends, to be a faithful spouse without having or having had a spouse, a loving parent without having children, a much-loved teacher without students. And here it is clear that our identity is found both within ourselves and distributed between many other persons, both in the present and in our shared recall of past moments (which we will each remember differently).

Mental health concerns our personhood, and, therefore, our interconnected Selves.

Self 1 can feel isolated, and its agency can be turned against itself, as in the violence of attempted or completed suicide. But it exists in the present moment only. Hence, it cannot see a future, nor take into account a past that may have been genuinely positive in many ways. Hard though it is, we must learn to accept Self 1 for what it is.

Self 2 has a longer memory, although of course this can be lost. I am the same person and not the same person I was yesterday, let alone in my teenage years. Some days my health is robust, and some days it suffers, but I may regain health, or I may reconstruct my world to a new normal.

Self 3—which, potentially, has a memory that is wide and networked—is where we can really support one another, for we each have a role to play in the construction of robust Self 3s, and their profound bearing on Self 2. If I am kind to others, if I honour them with loving actions motivated by warm affection, then their Self is nurtured, including, potentially, a healthy disillusionment of their self-centredness or self-despair. And their kindness towards me may dispel my own illusions. Together, such kindness can re-write cultural scripts which have tended to admire competition and victory over others.

In as much as you are able, be kind, not only to your friends but also to your enemies, to those who wrong you. For in this we are like God, and participate in the remaking of the world anew. Together, let us be kind in response to the mental health burdens that are these days endemic, the anxieties and depression. The alternative is that we respond in shame or anger, and tear one another and ourselves apart.

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