Dear Pope Francis,
Bill Plotkin came back into my life just recently when I was sent his latest book for review. It’s called Wild Mind: A Field Guide to the Human Psyche. To be honest, it languished on my nightstand for awhile. I just never seemed to get around to reading it.
On my recent trip, however, I had plenty of time to read, and so I took it along. I’m glad I did. It was great to encounter Bill Plotkin again; he has so may amazing insights.
I should probably start by saying that Plotkin’s books can be challenging reads, and this is particularly true with Wild Mind. Plotkin has a background in psychology, and his books are filled with terms such as ego, self, mind, etc… It can be a little daunting, but I never let it dissuade me. I just plunge on ahead, confident I’ll get what I need from the book regardless. It landed in my lap for some reason, after all.
In Wild Mind, Plotkin calls for a re-visioning of the primarily Western approach to psychology. He writes that psychology, like many things in the Western world, has become mechanistic, almost soulless. If I’m reading him correctly, he feels psychology has been reduced to analyzing people as if they were machines — highlighting defects, applying fixes, and generally getting the whole rattletrap back on the road as soon as possible. He also writes about psychology’s tendency to pathologize and focus on what’s gone wrong in a person, rather than what’s going right. This, he says, keeps people from finding what is their “original wholeness.”
“And the key to reclaiming our original wholeness is not merely to suppress psychological symptoms, recover from addictions and trauma, manage stress, or refurbish dysfunctional relationships, but rather to fully flesh out our multifaceted, wild psyches, committing ourselves to the largest story we’re capable of living, serving something bigger than ourselves.”
I know that’s a mouthful (and possibly a run-on), but what I think Plotkin is getting at is psychology has spent so much time focusing on what’s gone haywire in people, that it forgets there’s a whole person attached to that particular condition, addiction or ailment. And, much of that person might be doing just fine.
Now, I don’t think Plotkin is saying that we shouldn’t be diagnosing and treating people with mental illness. It’s important, and not enough attention, in my mind, is being paid to helping those among us who are struggling with some form of mental illness. But, what I think Plotkin is getting at is there’s more to someone than their diagnosis of depression, addiction, bi-polar disorder, or whatever, and what’s going right should be just as much a focus as what’s gone a bit off.
Another of Plotkin’s insights that I particularly liked was that it’s impossible to separate psychological problems from the culture, society and environment in which a person lives And, that we’re all equally responsible for creating a supportive culture that does not foster the development of mental illness.
“…our psychological health relies profoundly on the health of the world in which we are embedded…”
“Behavioral patterns that some might perceive as psychological disorders are often understandable and natural reactions to a disordered world.”
I don’t think he’s saying that mental illness is not caused by biochemical imbalances and other factors. What he is saying, I think, is that it doesn’t help people who are pre-disposed to depression or anxiety that we happen to live in an era where fear and intimidation are used to make us do everything from take our shoes off in airport security lines to douse our homes — and ourselves — in antiseptics to fend off germs. By seeing mental illness holistically, he argues, we would place more emphasis on our duty to create a social fabric that does not trigger mental illness in those who are predisposed.
This is all a bit dense, as I mentioned, and I may not have it entirely right. But, what I really like about Plotkin is the fact that he doesn’t divorce mental illness from the culture we live in; he sees them in a symbiotic relationship. A sick and wounded culture leads to sick and wounded people. For people who are hoping for change, like me, and wanting to do a very small part, this is powerful stuff.
I have heard you echo some of these concepts in your comments, Pope Francis. It’s one of the reasons I keep following you. I think there’s a lot of Bill Plotkin in you — and vice versa.
What do you think, Pope Francis (and others who may be reading this…), about Plotkin’s ideas?
(The link to Plotkin’s book is an affiliate link to Amazon and if you buy it through that link I’ll get a bit of money — to buy more books!)