Monday, 28 May 2007

The Making of Hell on Earth

What is Hell? As far as I know the cartoon image of demons skewering the damned in fiery vaults is a mediaeval invention with little connection to the deeper understanding of thinkers like Jesus, the Buddha and Old Testament Prophets. I have another picture of hell that better corresponds to their thinking by showing us where the path leads if we go in the opposite direction to their teaching. To help picture this, I will first take you to the sea.

In many places, the ocean’s surface is full of life, dolphins play, fish consume the bountiful resources provided by phytoplankton harvesting the light of the sun. Nothing there is aware of what lies below. A few hundred meters down, light is extinguished and the temperature has fallen to little more than feezing. Further down still we reach the largest ecosystem on earth, where sunlight is totally unknown. Here strange and ugly fish cruise endlessly and utterly alone in the vast, pitch black and bitterly cold emptiness of the deep ocean. Almost nothing happens in their perpetual night. If you are one of these fish, every few weeks or so, you will encounter another, whereupon one must eat the other - neither of you ever knowing who will be fed and who will be victim. That is your life, joyless, senseless and totally alone, without warmth or light, unending except by death.

I sincerely hope those creatures do not see their lives that way, but if we with our human minds, our psychological needs, if we put ourselves in their place, it is one of desperate loneliness and emptiness. This is because human beings are designed to depend on one-another, care for each other, to love and be loved. If we don’t get enough of this, then pathology will emerge just as surely as if we did not get enough vitamin C (we would then get scurvy).
Jesus told us that Hell was a world without God, but he also showed that God was love, the source and personification of all love. Without love, we have hell. Buddhist understand life as suffering and are taught that relief from suffering can only be found by the abandonment of selfish desires and devotion to others and communion with the wider world. It is highly significant that all the world’s major religions teach this paradox - that the way to happiness is through devotion to others, abandoning selfish desires. That was certainly the call of Christ - abandon yourself and find life. He and other great thinkers understood that we can create our own hell by devoting ourselves to our own private gain. What science has added is the realisation that this happens precisely because we are designed to be socially interdependent - selfish pursuit of happiness is outwith our modus operandi. Science has provided a down-to-earth explanation for what wise prophets and religious leaders have told us for centuries. We have another good reason to take them seriously.
That deep sea hell is the condition into which people with clinical depression are plunged - their minds are trapped in the abyssal emptiness, where they are cut off from human-kind. This is a sad and distressing illness and that would be all, except for the fact that major depression has reached serious pandemic proportions in the last twenty years.
It is a fact that we all have basic emotional needs that must be met for us to thrive and enjoy life. After the primary human needs for food, water and shelter come commonly shared emotional and physical needs. Without exception we find depressed people are not getting these needs met.
Many anthropologists say that traditional communities naturally meet these 'basic needs' for emotional support. In the traditional Amish society in the US major depression is almost unknown, as it is in the even more traditional Kaluli tribe of New Guinea. In these societies individual concerns are group concerns and vise-versa. You know that if you have a problem other people will help you and you are expected to help out when others need support. Interestingly it is not so much the support a person gets that helps them stay mentally healthy, it is the support they give to others. The way we are designed, we can only be deeply healthy if we are caring for other people.
Modern western society strongly emphasises individualism and competitiveness. We are not very likely to care for one another when we are in competition. We are tought to keep ourselves to ourselves, to mistrust strangers and the homogenising of communities has ensured that we are surrounded by strangers. The idea of considering the wider community to be more important than the self is almost impossible to understand for many people. It is thought to be wicked Socialism by others. Professionals who work with the refugees from a selfish society might say it is the only way back to health.

Major depression is the 4th most disabling condition in the world, and 2nd most in the ‘West’. The cost to society is very substantial, but let me tell you, the cost to any individual sufferer is unbearable. Let’s not maintain and promote a social system that plunges millions of its members into hell on earth. Let us instead, find ways of promoting mutual concern and collective action, to heal the sick and reintroduce some love into the world.

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