Friday, March 04, 2011

American Culture As a Petri Dish that Breeds Anxiety

"Neurosis" - •a mental or personality disturbance not attributable to any known neurological or organic dysfunction.

Is this word still used in psychiatry? It seems not, for see here, e.g.: "former name for a category of mental disorders characterized by anxiety and avoidance behavior, with symptoms distressing to the patient, intact reality testing, no violations of gross social norms, and no apparent organic etiology...No longer used in psychiatric diagnosis."

"Former name for a category of mental disorders in which the symptoms are distressing to the person, reality testing is intact, behavior does not violate gross social norms, and there is no apparent organic cause. Classified in DSM-IV under anxiety disorders, dissociative disorders, mood disorders, sexual disorders, and somatoform disorders." (Mosby's Medical Dictionary)

"No organic etiology or cause" means the root of the inner troubledness is not physical or biological. It is "mental," or "spiritual."

This is controversial today since metaphysical physicalism (an oxymoron?) reduces all purported mental and spiritual phenomena to material realities. Your anxiety is nothing more than the physical activity of your body.

All this is a preliminary to a Thomas Merton quote I read this morning: "The whole mechanism of modern life is geared for a flight from God and from the spirit into the wilderness of neurosis." (No Man Is an Island, 114)

Merton writes: "What a hopeless thing the spiritual life would be if it could only be lived under ideal conditions! Such conditions have never been within the reach of most men, and were never more inaccessible than in our modern world. Everything in modern city life is calculated to keep man from entering into himself and thinking about spiritual things. Even with the best of intentions a spiritual man finds himself exhausted and deadened and debased by the constant noise of machines and loudspeakers, the dead air and the glaring lights of offices and shops, the everlasting suggestions of advertising and propaganda."

That was written in.... 1955. I was six years old. Life was simple then. Our TV was black-and-white. We had three channels. My father placed an antenna on our roof. Occasionally he would climb on the roof and adjust the antenna so as to improve the reception. We would be in the living room, looking at the TV, and calling to dad on to roof "Now it's much better!" My days, especially in the summers, were filled with non-stop physical activity. Organic life proliferated; inorganic stimulation ("life") was coming like a tsunami.

Merton was prophetic, again. Imagine what he would write today! Our world does not train us for silence, but for its opposite. Meditation is a dying art (which I am trying to resurrect in my seminary and RMS students). The ancient biblical wisdom of "be still, and know that I am God" is more quoted than lived. And "the world" (the "system") is against us in an ever-increasing variety of ways such as has never been known to humanity.

Merton knew that world-systems are not value-neutral. They either contribute to or alleviate "neuroses." Our culture breeds anxiety disorders.

For a brilliant analysis of how "culture" (think of a petri dish) breeds or heals anxiety, see my former professor David Augsburger's book Pastoral Counseling Across Cultures.