Unshared Beliefs, Or Why We Need More Peer Support
The following was inspired by a conversation I had with the inimitable Sarah “Sarafin” Griffin, web comic artist and Survivor extraordinaire. As we often do, we were discussing religious experiences in the context of psychoses and mental “illness”. And, as usual, the talk soon began to deal with the nature of reality… and whose perspective was “more” real: that of the subject, or of the 3rd party physician. Let’s play metaphysics!
Many of us see things. Many of us hear things, feel things, and even taste and smell things that can not be proven objectively to exist. Such things are known in the biz as hallucinations. Many of us similarly believe things for which the evidence also appears to be a fabrication of the individual. Such things are called delusions.
Some of the biggest challenges to the eradication of prejudice (stigma, of course, is not the right word) are epistemological—a fancy way of saying that they concern what we know, and how we know what we know. The task is to get people to understand—truly, deeply—the nature of our experiences; to make people understand that our chaos and arbitrariness are no more pronounced than anyone else’s.
To a devout Roman Catholic or any other Christian who accepts the principle of Transubstantiation, host and wine become body and blood through a process which leaves no evidence, and for which there is no evidence. This process exists fully in the realm of belief—indeed, Faith. It’s part of the inherent logic of a self-supporting belief system, and has no validity (can not exist) for those who do not share the teachings of the Church.
Interesting, then, that things as purely subjective as this—or any other religious, economic, academic or political tenet—can be taken as givens, as elements of normality, as integral parts of the paradigm of healthy thought and adjustment, simply because they are shared by large swaths of the population! Conversely, is it not just as interesting that we are in turn so dismissive of the belief systems of individuals—systems no less self-created and self-supporting—when these are somewhat slanted versions of prevalent trends? When they are not sanctioned by wide usage or hallowed by custom or tradition?
I’m irreligious. Not even remotely spiritual. But… Here’s the thing. Unlike self-styled Humanists who are dismissive of others’ beliefs simply on the grounds that beliefs are, well, beliefs, and thus inferior to empirically derived knowledge (whatever that is), I could never dismiss the practice of belief out of hand or as a matter of principle because I recognize that in a significant way we are really the sum of our beliefs. Some things we may be able to apprehend directly, some things intuitively, and some things intellectually, but in the end there is no way to say where one understanding starts and another ends, and it all coalesces into a private construct that we put our faith into as individuals. To dismiss a belief system is to dismiss a lifetime of experiences, and in the end is to dismiss the person.
The last paragraph applies of course to everything, not just religion. It sure as hell applies to mental and emotional health, and the fighting of prejudice. How can the bulk of the populace get the message if they don’t get us? How will they understand that they are us? And how can we—all of us—become more generally understanding?
It starts with empathy. With an almost Taoist openness and receptivity. If you have no preconceptions, no prejudices to clutter your mind and filter your perceptions, you can take each person and situation on their own merits. When a person you know begins to hear messages from aliens or angels or agents of the government, ferpetesakes don’t panic. This is the time to open dialogue, to ask questions, to communicate! And most of all, to love.
I feel I can communicate, even though I don’t have anything like delusions or hallucinations, and no real first-hand experience with this kind of thing. But I have worked hard on understanding the experiences of others. Now, it helps that 1) I’m naturally somewhat empathetic and intuitive; 2) I have a training in philosophy, rhetoric and linguistics, which allows me to understand the sheer subjectivity of that which consider objective (there are two constants: objective reality, and our inability to ever attain it!); and 3) I have come to know and love several people whose realities are in a state of psychotic, or emotional, flux.
Problem: your garden-variety citizen is going to have a hard time. It takes not just good intentions, but the proper mindset–and this can require training! You can’t expect the average Joe or Jane in the street to ponder ontology (the nature of reality) and phenomenology (the study of consciousness), but sadly, to some extent they will have to do some heavy lifting if they are to get beyond their prejudices.
Bigger problem: many (most?) psych professionals are just as emotionally and mentally unprepared to challenge themselves, to take themselves out of their comfort zones, to change their stance to one which will allow for new perspectives. How, when the prevailing philosophy is system-centred and empirically-driven, can they ever as a whole move toward a person-centred model which prizes subjectivity?
This, in the end, is why we need more peer workers in positions of clinical responsibility!