Friday, April 06, 2007

Coincidence? You Be The Judge

So, after posting a fairly long entry about how modern society drives family life to the margins, I found an article by Barbara Ehrenreich (via Sweetney) titled "How We Learned To Stop Having Fun."

In this article, Ehrenreich traces the rise in depression from the 1600s and couples it with the loss of social celebrations and festivals--a rise in the concept of "self" as separate from the community, coupled with the loss of "community celebrations" which allowed the individual to lose their terrible aloneness and enter into a larger communion.

Even the religions, she notes, had some form of ritual or approachable God where an individual might become part of a larger group. I found this statement worthwhile:

Not so with the Calvinist version of Protestantism. Instead of offering relief, Calvinism provided a metaphysical framework for depression: if you felt isolated, persecuted and possibly damned, this was because you actually were.

Back in law school, I remember have a couple of conversations with friends of other faiths about which type of guilt was the most damaging: Jewish guilt, Catholic guilt, or Protestant guilt. Jewish guilt was focused around disappointing your family, and having to leave with people disappointed in you--summed up nicely, I recall, by the following joke:

Q: How many Jewish mothers does it take to change a lightbulb?
A: Don't worry about me, I'll just sit here in the dark and not be a bother.

Catholic guilt was more widespread, but also absolvable. Yes, nearly everything is a sin, and will send you to hell, but you can go confess and it goes away. Sure, confession isn't easy, but there was an official way to get rid of your guilt and to not have to go to hell.

Protestant guilt was tricky. It was the devious product of circuitous thinking--a lose-lose proposition. Protestants were supposed to work hard, but the risk was being successful, because that was often the sign of inappropriate favor by the devil. This is why New England was such a great place for them: they could work very very hard at their farms, but the rocky soil made it certain that they weren't too successful however hard they worked.

Calvinism itself was logically flawed: if you were predestined to heaven or hell, then it didn't matter what you did in this life, right? So, as my Jewish friends pointed out, if you were predestined to heaven, you could enjoy yourself without worrying about what was going to happen to you. If you were predestined to hell, you had nothing to lose by enjoying yourself. So, logically, early New England should have been Party Central.

But trust the dour Northern Europeans to spoil this game--no, your status as predestined to heaven was supposedly apparent though your conduct, and failure to behave in a suitably saintly fashion convinced your neighbors that you were hell-bound, and thus you were likely to be shunned, exiled, or burned for a witch.

No wonder depression is about the 5th leading cause of death and disability in the world. We sure know how to make ourselves unhappy, don't we?

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