A long time ago at the University of Ottawa, I was talking about the topic of illness with a fellow grad student. We both were enrolled in the Department of Religious Studies (now the Department of Classics and Religious Studies), had backgrounds in psychology, and were keen on researching possible connections between so-called mental illness, mysticism, and sainthood.
Speaking about today’s medical worldview, my fellow student succinctly put it:
“The saint is sick.”
He meant that cultural perceptions and mishandlings of some who are different (e.g. budding mystics and contemplative saints) can lead to serious difficulties, stigma, and a lot of unnecessary suffering. I continued with this topic in an essay but unfortunately, the professor I wrote for just didn’t seem to get it.
This was strange and disconcerting because I was admitted to the university on the basis of exploring and expanding connections between so-called mental illness and mysticism, as evident here:
The professor presumably had read my outline and actually spoke to me on the phone before I moved to Ottawa. Initially, I thought he seemed sort of cool and was dismally surprised when he later withdrew all support for my postdoc funding (after agreeing to write letters of recommendation, he suddenly refused, unceremoniously returning my unopened postdoc proposal).
I find the same kind of resistance today when speaking to everyday people on this topic. Many really believe in current psychiatric models, even though these models have always changed and will continue to change—just look up the psychiatric view of homosexuality and the current controversy over conversion therapies.
As we have witnessed with Covid, religion is on the decline and science – actually scientism – is fast replacing it as the dominant paradigm for obtaining ‘truth.’
Thankfully, a handful of intellectuals in our cultural past have seen through this development.
In her book Illness as Metaphor (1978), Susan Sontag argued, not unlike Michel Foucault, that contemporary perceptions and approaches to illness are intricately linked to societal norms. And Huston Smith in Beyond the Postmodern Mind (1982) also argues that current views about illness are rooted in and reflect a given culture’s unconscious belief structures.
As I argued in my essay, other cultures, especially those located in the distant past, would probably regard some of our ‘normal’ contemporary beliefs and practices as abnormal. For instance, instead of praying over a person apparently possessed by Satan, we now give them antipsychotic drugs. Yet some still believe that we cannot entirely cure an essentially spiritual problem with modern medications.
On the whole, I think it is fair to say that the medical has trumped the religious. Even Catholic priests often say in the homily that St. Paul’s ‘thorn in his flesh’ was probably ‘epilepsy.’
Therefore,[g] so that I would not become arrogant, a thorn in the flesh was given to me, a messenger of Satan to trouble[h] me—so that I would not become arrogant.[i] 8 I asked the Lord three times about this, that it would depart from me. 9 But[j] he said to me, “My grace is enough[k] for you, for my[l] power is made perfect[m] in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12).
This ideological dominance of medical science is not only found with so-called mental illness but as Sontag and Foucault maintain, it also relates to physical illness.
Bias within the realm of physical illness is quite evident.
- How is an illness construed?
- What are the apparent causes?
- What’s the best course of treatment?
- What might an illness signify about a sick person’s moral character?
If you think that last point is passé, think again. Recently while talking about the tragic death of David Bowie at age 69, someone said in a slightly sour tone, “Well, he had an unhealthy lifestyle.”
In other words, He was a reprobate and deserved it!
I didn’t reply that Bowie was arguably one of the greatest artists of the 20th century who not only entertained but actually helped many others, myself included.
But that is what I was thinking.
As a final word, I should stress that I am not arguing for or against the medical model but rather pointing out how, rightly or wrongly, it enjoys an incredible degree of social power over other perspectives. Each person is different and each situation is different. Even the same person could benefit from medicine for a while but not necessarily over the course of their entire lifetime.
Life is more like art than mere science. And I think we would do well to realize that.
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