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  • One of the great contributing factors to mental illness is the idea that we should at all

  • costs and at all times be well. We suffer far more than we should because of how long

  • it can take many of us until we allow ourselves to fall properly and usefully ill.

  • In a crisis, our chances of getting better rely to a significant extent on having the

  • right relationship to our illness; an attitude which is relatively unfrightened by our distress,

  • which isn't overly in love with the idea of seeming at all times 'normal', which

  • can allow us to be deranged for a while in order one day to reach a more authentic kind

  • of sanity.

  • It will help us immensely in this quest if the images of mental illness we can draw on

  • at this time do not narrowly imply that our ailment is merely a freakish and pitiable

  • possibility, if we can appeal to images that tease out the universal and dignified themes

  • of our state, so that we do not - on top of everything else - have to fear and hate ourselves

  • for being unwell. We stand to heal a great deal faster if there are fewer associations

  • like those created by Goya (of madness as the seventh circle of hell) and more of men

  • and women a little like you and me, sitting on the sofa, able to combine our inner wretchedness

  • with other, more temperate and attractive qualities - so that we remain every bit human,

  • despite our terrifying convulsions, absences of mind, catastrophic forebodings and sense

  • of despair.

  • The best philosophical background against which to wrestle with mental unwellness would

  • be one that conceived of the human animal as intrinsically rather than accidentally

  • flawed, a philosophy that would resolutely reject the notion that we could ever be perfect

  • and would instead welcome our griefs and our errors, our stumbles and our follies as no

  • less a part of us than our triumphs and our intelligence. It is Japan's Zen Buddhism

  • that has historically perhaps best put forward such notions, with its bold declaration that

  • life itself is suffering, and its veneration in the visual arts - and by extension in its

  • psychology - of what is imperfect and un-glossy: rainy autumn evenings, sadness, moss covered

  • roofs, stained wooden panels, tears and, most famously, misshapen and irregular pieces of

  • pottery. Against such a background, it becomes a great

  • deal easier for us to accept ourselves in our unwell state. We feel less guilty that

  • we are not at work and are not playing up to the roles demanded of us by responsible

  • others. We can be less defensive and frightened, more inclined to seek out proper care - and

  • more likely to recover properly in time.

  • With a philosophy of acceptance in mind, we can recognise that whatever the particularities

  • of our crisis (which will naturally need to be investigated in due course), our pains

  • fit into a broad picture of a crisis-prone human condition. No one is spared. No life

  • can escape significant troubles. Everything is imperfect. We don't have to know the

  • details of someone's life to be able to guess at the scale of the difficulties they

  • too will have encountered. We have all been born to inadequate parents, our desires will

  • always exceed reality, we will all make some appalling errors, we will hurt those we love

  • and anger those with power over us, we will be anxious and confused, woeful and lost.

  • We should accept both that we are profoundly unwell - and that our ailments are entirely

  • normal.

  • Japanese philosophy has another lesson for us at this point: we will probably one day

  • be fixed but there are likely to be substantial and ineradicable marks. And yet, these marks

  • can be worn with pride and self-respect. According to Zen Buddhism's tradition of kintsugi,

  • an accidentally smashed bowl isn't to be thrown away in embarrassment, its pieces can

  • be carefully collected and reassembled with glue inflected with gold. The traces of repair

  • are made obvious, celebrated and cherished, as if to suggest to us - as we bring a cup

  • to our lips - that we do not have to give up on ourselves or be ashamed of our own brokenness.

  • We can confront our illness without panic or fear, with a quiet intelligent sadness

  • perhaps best captured by the word melancholy. If we were searching for a patron saint of

  • such a melancholy relationship to mental difficulty, we could do worse than pick the Welsh artist

  • Gwen John, who combined a brilliant career as a painter with moments of harrowing mental

  • collapse - but remained all the while fundamentally on the side of life. From her self-portrait,

  • John implies that she would understand whatever we might be going through, her eyes hint that

  • she has been there too, that she could be our guide to the underworld of our minds - and

  • that, however much we might hate ourselves at this moment, we deserve gentleness, patience

  • and respect as we feel our way towards repair.

One of the great contributing factors to mental illness is the idea that we should at all

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Acceptance and Mental Health

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    Summer posted on 2021/09/15
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