It is a privilege to be here in this role. I’m a Presbyterian minister; David Clark and I were in the same year at Knox College. I was a parish minister for 15 years, and for the last almost 30 years, I have been a counsellor and director of an inter church counselling service. Now Jenni and I are members of this community, where intelligent scepticism is allowed, even encouraged, and you don’t have to leave your brain at the door, and we are loving it.
Thirty years of counselling, and also reading and thinking about theology and philosophy in a way I never found time to do in parish ministry – I must have learnt something! And in some small ways I have. I’ve learnt that finding meaning in life is very important; and very hard to do, unless you settle for easy answers.
About this time last year, we were in New York for the first time. One of the things we wanted to do was visit some of the art galleries. We started with MOMA, the Museum of Modern Art. There, we were told, was Vincent van Gogh’s masterpiece Starry Night. Don McLean first introduced me to this work, and its creator, in his song Vincent. So I went with anticipation. When we got there, it was very had to get near the painting, because a crowd was there. But strangely, they were mostly facing away. And they had their phones in the air; taking selfies of themselves in front of the masterpiece.
Why would you stand in the presence of a tortured genius, a man who painted the sky at night through the bars of his asylum window, struggling with insanity, and think of yourself? Of your face? Is that the meaning life: Me?
There is a name for this obsession with oneself. It is called narcissism. Sandy Hotchkiss wrote an excellent book about it, called “Why is it always about You?’ Narcissism is very common, at many places, on many levels in our society. Narcissists make terrible partners, awful bosses, bad friends. They really only care about one thing: themselves. It is a modern pandemic, a disease that afflicts our world.
And the sad thing is that our world is not made a happy place by this self absorption. In the last 50 years, our western society has discovered unhappiness in a major way. The hallmark of these times can be labelled the age of depression. In the USA, one in five adults is taking antidepressants. In the UK, one in four middle aged women. In the USA, one in ten boys in high school are on psychotropic prescribed drugs. Then there are all the illegal drugs being taken. Test the waste water in any major western city, and it is awash with chemicals prescribed or unprescribed to counter unhappiness. This is how many people are trying to find meaning in life.
Ah but, I can someone bursting to say, nowadays we have the benefit of those wonder drugs, the antidepressants, the SSRI’s, the Serotonin Specific Reuptake Inhibitors. They burst upon us in the 1990’s, and were the called the designer drug, the drug that could adjust the chemical balance of the brain, the medicine that would make you better than well. Surely they are at least part of the solution to unhappiness?
In a book published this year , Johann Hari reveals the truth about antidepressants. SSRI’s do not alter the level of serotonin in the brain. Altering the levels of serotonin in the brain has no effect on depression. The SSRI’s are a powerful chemical that can mask the symptoms of depression, but not make the causes go away. We have been systematically misinformed about what causes depression. It is not the chemical balance of our brain – it is not in our heads, it is in the world. That is something I had worked out as a counsellor a long time ago. Hari provides the proof, through careful research and sound investigation. His book is causing a storm in the professional world this year.
So what are the real causes of depression? Hari lists several.
Loss of meaningful work. In a 2012 Gallup study of millions of workers in 142 countries, 13% said they like their work. 63% said they were not engaged by their work. 24% said they actively disliked their work.
Loneliness. For most people, community barely exists. Not just the alone are lonely – many people are lonely despite other people being around. We evolved as hunter-gatherers, in tribes and clans. To be separated or excluded meant you were in mortal danger. Many Westerners today check their phone every 6.5 minutes!
Loss of meaningful values. The dominant message in our materialistic world is, if you get the right clothes, makeup, car, home, you will be happy. And it doesn’t work.
Damage because of trauma or abuse. There are enormous numbers of people in our society who have been abused or traumatised – counsellors see them every day. And many of them will be depressed, and may not know why.
Lack of status and respect. Today, status gaps are bigger than ever. The top eight billionaires own more wealth than the bottom half of the human race. Once a boss earned 20 times more than the average employee. Now it is 300 times more.
Disconnection from the natural world. Most caged animals show signs of depression. Many humans live like caged animals, deprived of a natural habitat. We all need to be in touch with nature.
Disconnection from heritage and identity. Dispossessed peoples like Native Americans in USA, aboriginal people in Australia, Maori people in New Zealand here, have hugely higher levels of depression.
And I could add to the list. People who are living in unsatisfactory relationships are usually depressed. People who are losing their faculties, becoming frail, suffering chronic illness, can easily become depressed. People who feel life has not treated them fairly may become depressed. And people who can’t see any meaning in life, no sense nor purpose, will be candidates for depression.
In NZ, we have a high level of teenage suicide, compared to other countries. Teenagers find life hard, are attracted by idealistic ideas about ending it all with a flourish. The world we have bequeathed to them looks unattractive, with global warming and nuclear threat and rampant inequality hard to ignore. It’s a tragedy that any teenager should even consider ending their own life. But the population group most in danger of ending their lives, and the most successful at doing it of all our groups, are men over 60. Once they decide that life is not worth living, they act with scary finality. They are the highest suicide group in almost every country.
This is the real world we live in. Some of us here are fortunate enough to not be depressed. And because we belong to this Community, we are all fortunate enough to hear the positive and life affirming message each week: don’t be worried. Life is more than material things – food and drink. The body is worth more than clothes. The birds of the air have a beauty that exceeds our tawdry worried faces. Life is a gift; existence and sustenance comes without earning. Does worrying add to your life, or your longevity? The wild flowers have a beauty beyond human copying – they don’t work or create, yet they are more beautiful than any human model. Have faith in the goodness of the world! And don’t worry, how will I manage? What will I do? People of no faith worry. Instead, trust in something bigger than us, in love itself – the other things will be sufficient. Don’t worry about tomorrow – it will have its challenges. Just take care of today, and manage it.
Those were the words of Jesus. Those were words against depression, despair, cynicism, placidness. Those were words of truth and life. Those are words that shape a meaning to life that transcends narcissism. Those are words that are powerfully anti depressant.
I spent many years as a parish minister promoting God. I think now what is most important to promote is community – being together, with all our differences, in love, in dialogue, managing diversity, listening to one another, even when it sounds crazy .Looking after one another, in the deepest sense. I call that comprehensive complementarity. My computer spellcheck tells me there is no such word as complementarity. And I don’t care. The caring I speak of encompasses all people, and sees others not as opponents or adversaries, but as people who can complement me, who can add to the understanding and knowledge we share.
Is that what you want too?
 Lost Connections, Johann Hari, Bloomsbury 2018