When the brain gears grind slow

When people start to feel overwhelmed and lose their interest, energy, and sense of competence for more than a few weeks, they are said to suffer from “depression.”  Several Canadian sources show that about one in five people  are seriously depressed in this way at some point in their lives, and a certain number are “clinically depressed” on the long-term.  So what can be done?

We can avoid the issue, I suppose.  We can go drinking, though alcohol is a depressant beyond its short-term effects.  But if we don’t deny the problem, we could force ourselves to get exercise.  It can help just to keep moving, and if we exercise with other people, so much the better.  Although that may not keep depression from returning.

We could blame others for the way we feel, but since we can’t change them, that won’t do us much good.  We can expose ourselves daily to motivational slogans (“think positively, be all you can be, just tell discouragement where to go,” and so on), though ultimately lack of motivation is a symptom of depression that mere slogans will not cure.  We could also use a religious approach, which may provide some hope and a better outlook on life, as long as it doesn’t become a form of denial (e.g. “I’ll just praise the blues away”).  Perhaps we can join a musical group (sing the blues away), and though the socialization of that may certainly be a benefit, we also know there are large number of depressed musicians and entertainers out there.

Or, we can get some antidepressant medication and go for talk therapy.  Let’s take the therapy first.  There is a very wide-spread approach called CBT, that’s Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, which focuses on a person’s habitual beliefs about reality.  It’s known as a good therapy but it needs the client to be able to think matters through fairly logically  – and that is sometimes not the case.  Many people who come for help are indeed able to benefit from a CBT approach, as long as their issues are not too deeply-rooted, their trauma not related to more than one event, their personalities not being too damaged, or their mental-emotional development not too stunted.  For them CBT can be useful.  Governments around the world with budget problems in their medical and social programs have been favoring this short-term approach so that clients can be quickly discharged from services.  The political thinking is that those who need more can always apply again later for another cost-cutting dose of short service.

These thoughts were triggered by a recent discussion I had with a friend of mine about the views and writings of a clinical psychologist named Jonathan Shedler. Shedler has serious doubts about the much-publicized usefulness of CBT, and he has also questioned what he calls the “antidepressant superstition.” Though acknowledging that these pills really are effective for a minority of depressed people, he points out that the medication doesn’t just drop out of the sky but is given only when a person finally goes for help, opens up about the problem of depression, and has the doctor or therapist explain and “normalize” depression (to make the person feel they are not crazy or alone).  Studies show that this process of going for help already makes the person be less passive and hopeless, and start feeling better even before therapy is begun or any drugs are prescribed.

So we can certainly help ourselves, if we have depression, by acknowledging the problem and looking for support.  If the problem is moderate or temporary (e.g. seasonal), some of the above methods may help us get over a hump and move on with life.  But otherwise we need to open up to our partner, a good friend, or a professional person, and ask for understanding and help.  And if it’s not our own issue, we can support a friend, co-worker, client or relative, by making it easier for them to get help.  We can aid them with making an appointment, provide transportation, or other assistance.  Most importantly, we can help by having a genuine acceptance of the depressed person, encouraging them with the hope of a nonjudgmental relationship.

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What’s in a name?

If all goes well, we will be moving soon to a small town an hour-and-a-half away on the fast road, or several hours meandering through curvy little by-ways near the ocean, through thick forests, along many lakes and farm meadows, until we reach the village of Bible Hill.  I had thought the place might be the site of a Christian college or of an especially large old church, or even that the place was named after a settler family with the unlikely last name of Bible.  As it turned out, it was none of these.

Local people sometimes refer to a “Holy Well” that used to be there, just below the large but not very high hill on which the village is located.  I know there are many such holy wells in Europe, ancient places that were used even before Christian times for sacred rituals or healings, but I was surprised to learn of one so close to home.  It seems that in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the French-speaking pioneers known as Acadians found a spring at that location of which the water was very pure and sweet.  It was therefore the place to get “holy water” for Roman Catholic ceremonies, particularly baptism.  And it is not impossible that the location held a similar special interest for the Mi’kmaq tribes in the area before the arrival of the Acadians.

A tragic scene played out starting in 1755, when British troops in response to competition and hostility from France, expelled most of the Acadians.  Their homes and barns were put to the flames, and a few years thereafter Protestant and British settlers were welcomed in.  One of the English-speaking pioneers then found the remains of a French Bible near the “Holy Well.”  And so the first hint of association was made between the hill and the Bible.

Over the next generation, a certain Matthew Archibald, an Ulster-Scot (and therefore usually called “Irish”) lived in a house at the top of the hill.  This man was what people would call an outstanding citizen — a farmer, tanner, justice of the peace, county coroner, and member of the provincial legislature.  He was also reputed to be very pious, often seen with a Bible in his hand.  This strengthened the association of hill and book.  Many area people believe it was mainly because of Matthew that the village got its name, and every year they still hold a festival to honor him.

That’s not the end of the story, because during the 1800s, a Reverend William McCullough of the Presbyterian Church lived in the old Archibald house, and he continued the practice of his father of handing out a Bible without-charge to any one who cared to walk to the house on the hill to obtain one.  For almost fifty years, the free distribution, a considerable expense in those days, spread Bibles through the village and beyond.  By then the connection we’re speaking of had become etched in stone.

Today, the community is more multicultural, being known also as the home of Atlantic Canada’s first mosque and first Islamic community center.  It’s the contemporary world, but it would seem that the name of the village has been proudly owned and accepted by most everyone in Bible Hill, Nova Scotia.

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How the Scots invented us

During my recent extended illness I got through the frequent bouts of pain and fatigue by reading lots of books.  Always finding literature of any kind to be an effective distraction from the problems of the body while at the same time stimulating the mind with better notions than one has while weary and worn, I picked up some of the second-hand books my wife had bought for me, as well as a few others.  As the illness and its lack of appetite wore on, I devoured and digested page after page, volume after volume.

As a Canadian, and as readers of this blog may know, I have a weakness for all things Scottish.  Mind you, I’ve never worn a kilt in my life, have never tried to play the bagpipes, or eaten real haggis (only had the store-bought version at Presbyterian Church Robbie Burns dinners).  And I have found it a bit ironic that modern-day Canadian Presbyterians would be celebrating that romantic poet at all, considering his very loose, un-Calvinistic views and lifestyle.  But this is the twenty-first century after all, the secular, multicultural Canadian world of today, where the serious issues that characterized and divided the Scots during their formative years are for most people, even Presbyterians, incomprehensible and all but forgotten.

So, over the past month I reacquainted myself with the numerous facts of Scottish life and history, being impressed yet again with the extensive impact these particular people have had on the whole world, and especially on Canada.  I spent much of my youth and some of my adult life in southwestern Ontario, where the local histories, place names, and family connections are drenched in Scottishness.  Moreover, the whole idea of Canada can hardly be understood without the presence of various MacKenzies, MacDonalds, Frasers, MacTavishes, Galbraiths, Camerons, McPhails, Grahams, Campbells, McCallums, MacLeods, Murrays, and so many other similar names.

The place of great importance held by Scottish explorers and missionaries, politicians and statesmen, writers and musicians, manufacturers and traders cannot be easily denied.  And, as pointed out in some of the books, much modern science, medicine, engineering, and philosophy originated in the universities of Glasgow, Aberdeen, and Edinburgh during a period known as the Scottish Enlightenment.  So much has flowered from the ancient stock of old Caledonia’s highlands and lowlands.

To write all this, I realize, may not be of much personal interest to many of today’s Canadians, nor is it “politically correct.”  We live in a time when the focus is on the newer cultures that have more recently made Canada their home, and we want them to feel welcome and not be discriminated against.  Now that is worthy and all to the good if it does not lead us to deny the very facts of who we are as a people, and of how we became Canadians.  Being neither Scottish nor Presbyterian myself, I still cannot escape from their considerable influence on the world and on my own nation.  I live in Nova Scotia, “New Scotland,” and could not escape the influence if I wanted to.  But I don’t want to escape it.  I gladly acknowledge the influence with all its many benefits and positives, along with its cultural peculiarities and distinct shortcomings.

I would never want Canada to be “all Scottish” or to put aside the great role of the Native people, the French, and the Irish, to name but a few of the main other sources of our culture.  But in order to welcome others to our shores it is not necessary that we turn against and forget our own heritage.

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Useful inconsistency and the police

Another week, another reckless shooting by a police officer.  Another apparently innocent citizen dead.  I know that these instances do not represent the many police interactions with the public that turn out well, but a recent American report found that up to half of all people killed by the police are, in the study’s words, “mentally disabled.”  This was followed shortly by a Toronto study that showed that nearly half of the people who had been Tasered by the police were those who were “emotionally distraught.”  Police forces are often called into situations when mental health personnel would be more appropriate, or when both public services could be working together to resolve a challenging situation.

Even if the mental health system is inadequate, there is still something the police could do differently.  We are sometimes told that the average cop experiences fear on the job, and that is understandable, especially in some places. But what if, even with fear, the police were required to be peaceful?  That may sound odd, even inconsistent, but think about it.  What if the aim and guiding principle of a police force would actually be pacifist:  nonviolent intervention in order to maintain the peace?   Would insistence on that principle really be so much in conflict with what the perceived role of the police is now?

One of the chapters in a book of essays by C.S. Lewis, entitled The Weight of Glory, starts with the  heading “Why I am not a pacifist.”  Although boldly creative in his thinking, Lewis could also be quite conservative, and so it came as little surprise that he uses all his superior learning and powers of reasoning to tell us that pacifism is rationally inconsistent and not according to the best authorities in history, with the possible exception of Jesus.  But at the end of the chapter, he acknowledges that “moral decisions do not admit of mathematical certainty, (so) it may be, after all, that pacifism is right…”

This is what I appreciate about Lewis, a cracker of a sharp thinker but typically a humble one, who knew there were limits to his reasoned positions.  This could be called his “useful inconsistency.”  It is perhaps why he never considered as an enemy someone who had a different belief or idea from himself.  It did not stop him from being strong in his own views or persistent in advocating them with all the logic at his capable command, but throughout it all, he was able to see an opponent as a fellow human being who deserved respect.  It was not unusual for Lewis to share a friendly drink with him.  I could wish more people were like that.

Only a really peaceful principle can prevent the increasing unnecessary use of lethal force by “peace officers” in our communities.  For sure, a strong response is sometimes needed on our violent streets, but only if a police officer is basically committed to a pacifist understanding of the job, can it be safe to use a weapon when dangerous circumstances require it.  The thought of a “pacifist police” may sound inconsistent with a police “force,” but it’s a useful inconsistency, and it could be seen just as a matter of sensible balance.  While not implying any criticism of individual officers, the present difficulty is that more and more police detachments in the larger centers seem to be evolving a culture and excuse of fire-arm use.  The beat-walking boys-in-blue of yesteryear are becoming the helmeted men and women in black, almost a para-military force.

The sad truth in confrontations with the public is that a person with mental health problems may not be capable of a reasonable response to being surrounded by police officers who are shouting orders, especially not when illicit drugs or alcohol have been added to the mix.  And such a person may be suicidal, actually hoping that police will use their guns.  These people have their serious personal issues, but they are rarely the enemy of society.  They are part of the public that the police are sworn “To Serve and to Protect.”

In order to keep this popular motto of many North American police forces from becoming too abstract, it has to be applied in all specific cases.  C.S. Lewis said in that same essay of his, “You cannot do simply good to simply Man;  you must do this-or-that good to this-or-that man.”  It has to be specific or it is merely a slogan.  “Serve and protect” should be taken out of the realm of public relations management and brought back into the streets as the daily and hourly working principle of police forces in almost all situations they may face.  The next life this will save may be yours.

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See the next blog next Thursday.